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posted: 8/2/2013 12:01 AM

Concerns with aluminum wire safety

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Q. Our home is about 15 years old. When we bought it, our home inspector said nothing about the aluminum wire that runs from the main breaker panel to the electric forced air heater. This wire was recently discovered when we hired an electrician to do some repairs. His bid to install a new line was $1,400. Our real estate agent was surprised that the home inspector missed this and said he has a reputation for being thorough. Nevertheless, he did miss it, and we've heard that aluminum wire is a serious fire hazard. Shouldn't the inspector pay for this repair?

A. Not all aluminum wiring is hazardous. In many homes built from the late 1960s through the early 1970s there were fire-safety problems involving aluminum wires. These issues, however, involved 110-volt circuits, primarily for outlets and lights. In those cases, connections became loose and subsequently overheated, sometimes resulting in house fires. Consequently, the use of 110-volt aluminum wiring was abandoned, and older homes with this type of wiring typically warrant upgrades at the connections.

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However, the use of aluminum wiring is common and acceptable for 220-volt circuits, such as those serving heating equipment, air conditioners, and electric stoves and ovens. As long as the connecting hardware is rated for aluminum wire, and as long as the wire ends are protected with a corrosion-resistant compound, concern over the presence of aluminum wire is typically unwarranted. In fact, the majority of electric utility companies use aluminum cables for their main service lines. In all likelihood, the power lines to your home are made of aluminum.

To confirm the safety of the aluminum wire in your home, arrange to have your home inspector and the electrician meet at the property to confer and to compare findings. You should also consult your local building department and request that they reinspect the aluminum lines.

Q. In a previous article, you said a water heater in a garage must be placed on a raised platform, according to the plumbing code. The stated purpose of this requirement is to prevent gasoline fumes on the garage floor from being ignited. If we apply the same logic to a clothes dryer in a garage, why is it not also necessary to have a raised platform at the laundry?

A. You raise a valid point. The same reasoning that requires the elevation of a water heater in a garage would seem to apply to the pilot light and burner in a clothes dryer. Yet this consideration has never been addressed in the code. This may be due to a simple oversight or the fact that raising a clothes dryer poses some inconvenience for the user. Picture, if you will, a matched washer and dryer set with the dryer installed 18 inches higher than its mate. And imagine the difficulty of reaching for the elevated control knobs or of removing and cleaning the raised filter.

It may be that garage fires involving clothes dryers have not occurred with sufficient frequency to induce a change in the building code. On the other hand, it should be remembered that the code is defined as a minimum standard and does not cover all conditions and eventualities.

• To write to Barry Stone, visit him on the web at www.housedetective.com, or write AMG, 1776 Jami Lee Court, Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, CA 94301.

Action Coast Publishing

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