Replacing aluminum wiring with copper without ripping drywall

jadi929November 22, 2013

Hi All. We have aluminum wiring in our home and we have been here for about 7 years now. Basically most of our problems are from the kitchen as that is where we have the biggest electrical loads (i.e appliances)

So for a while the breakers have been tripping for the kitchen circuits and I want to replace the wiring for the kitchen and part of the living room. We have pigtailed it before but that hasn't done much.

I want to do this without ripping the drywall. We run copper wire from the load center through the basement. Once we are underneath the old outlet, we drill into the middle of the wall from the bottom (through the baseboard) and fish the new wire into the outlet.

I will do this for 3 circuits total (totaling 8 or so outlets) and 3 of them I can access directly from the basement without much drilling.

Is this the easiest way to do this? I will keep the old wiring in the wall of course and here is a link that talks about this (toward the bottom)

http://woodgears.ca/wiring/

Please do note that I havent done any wiring before but I do understand the basics and am an electrical engineering student. We would have hired an electrician to do this but we are not able to due to financial reasons.

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Ron Natalie

If you have breakers tripping, I suspect you have other problems than just aluminum wiring. Aluminum wiring problems manifest themselves with excess heat without tripping the breaker (which is the problem).

Unless you really know what you are doing, pigtailing isn't helping (and more likely INCREASES) the problem. Making copper to aluminum connections requires specialized skills and materials.

I have a degree in Electrical Engineering and I can tell you that it means very little with wiring safety. Your basic knowledge of circuits doesn't begin to address the issues of fire and personal safety inherent in doing wiring properly.

If you can get into the bottom of the box you should be able to fish up from below. At the worse you can make an easily patched hole just below the box.

Much as I like the wood gears guy I'd not pay too much attention to that page if you have drywall. Almost everything he shows there is issues with plaster-over-lath construction.

    Bookmark   November 23, 2013 at 5:32AM
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jadi929

Hi, thanks for the reply. What has happened is that we had an electrician pigtail most of these outlets. Last time I opened the up the outlets, there were burn marks on the wire as well as some of the connectors, basically wherever there was a connection between alu and cu.

Also you are correct in that an EE degree doesn't help much in this regard. I'm taking a "electric power" class and its the only class which has even covered to basics of residential wiring.

The thing is I am more scared about a fire starting in the house because of us using these outlets than me replacing the wiring and possibly making a mistake somewhere.

I guess our best bet is to take the hit and get a licensed person to do this.

    Bookmark   November 23, 2013 at 10:59AM
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btharmy

"Last time I opened the up the outlets, there were burn marks on the wire as well as some of the connectors, basically wherever there was a connection between alu and cu"

That is because you didn't use the proper materials and technique to repair the issues, likely making the problem worse. If you do it correctly, you can avoid rewiring the entire house. Aluminum wiring problems are manifest at the connection points. The wire between point A and B are not the issue. Address the terminations properly and you will be done.

    Bookmark   November 23, 2013 at 11:09AM
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Ron Natalie

There are only currently two approved ways of pigtailing copper to aluminum that I am aware of. The CopAlum crimps (which requires a special tool and crimp that they won't give you unless you take their training class) which makes a pressure weld between the two and the Alumiconn wiring blocks (this is a title insulated terminal strip that the copper and aluminum go under different screws, you need a torque screw driver to tighten them to the right specs).

You can now get the Alumiconns at Home Despot.

The only other thing that is listed is the Purple Wirenuts. However there have been failures of these and the CPSC does not recognize them as a permanent solution.

But if you want to pull new branch circuits and can get to the bottom of the stud cavity from below, it's no big thing.

However, I reiterate. BREAKERS TRIPPING would indicate to me that something else is going on. It would take them burning to the point of melting away all the insulation out to trip a breaker.

    Bookmark   November 23, 2013 at 12:45PM
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bcarlson78248

Also remember that there is nothing inherently wrong or unsafe about aluminum wiring, and it is still used for high amperage wiring because its cheaper than copper. The main power feed for your panel is probably aluminum wire. The problem you need to solve is heat build-up in the junctions between aluminum and copper. However, if the junctions are made using the wrong methods it will not solve the problem.

Instead of replacing the wiring (unless its easy), I would get someone to fix all the CU-AL junctions first.

Bruce

    Bookmark   November 23, 2013 at 6:29PM
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jadi929

Thanks all for the advice. You are true in that there is nothing inherently wrong with AU, i mean the electrical utilities use it all the time.

I am going to go with the Alumicon connectors. The only possible issue with this is that in the past the electricans we have hired to fix this issue have had to cut the wire everytime (due to insulation being burnt) so the AU wire might come up a bit short if you know what I mean.

Hopefully it won't be too much of an issue, but I will let you guys know if there are any problems.

Thanks again

    Bookmark   November 23, 2013 at 9:25PM
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hexus

there is absolutely a problem with aluminum wiring in smaller gauges for branch circuits like this, which is why it's no longer made and illegal to use. It's too soft and too difficult to get a good connection, which causes arcing and heating at termination points. In larger gauges it's fine because of the shear mass of it. Why do you think they only make aluminum wire is larger gauges? Take a single strand out of 4/0 wire and smash it down versus the entire thing.
Is your life, or your families life worth the money you're going to save to try to cob together a fix? You'll never actually fix the issue unless it's replaced as you'll never be sure to get a secure and safe connection at the terminations.
Pig tailing isn't a fail safe either. You can twist off the aluminum wire inside of those little special purple wire nuts. I've done it many times before I finally said I'll never take a job ever again that has aluminum wiring unless it's a total rewire

This post was edited by hexus on Sun, Nov 24, 13 at 0:03

    Bookmark   November 23, 2013 at 11:58PM
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Ron Natalie

The purple wire nuts are a bad idea. The CPSC doesn't believe in them either and I'm always amazed that UL continues to list them.

Alumicon is acceptable stopgap if you haven't had the wires damaged by the existing hacking. If the wires are too short, that is illegal too. Pigtailing doesn't obviate the need for the requisite free length.

Since you said DRYWALL, again I'll reiterate, if you have a small number of receptacles you are concerned about and the basement is accessible, it's TRIIVAL to replace all this.

    Bookmark   November 24, 2013 at 3:38AM
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btharmy

Alumiconn connectors require a torque screwdriver to be installed correctly. Make sure to buy one when you get the connectors.

    Bookmark   November 25, 2013 at 6:48PM
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jadi929

Hi all. Just an update. I went with the alumiconn connectors and have done 2 outlets so far with them. They are good so far.

However, a problem I have come across is that the junction boxes in my house are pretty small. They are the metal ones.

So I have not been able to push one of the outlet flush against the box as there just isnt enough room in the junction box.

Would anyone suggest any solutions? Could I possibly get a bigger outer plate or longer screws or something?

    Bookmark   December 17, 2013 at 10:30AM
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btharmy

Have you considered switching to CO/ALR devices? As long as there are 1 or 2 cables in the box they can be made up to the device without any wire connectors except the grounds.

    Bookmark   December 17, 2013 at 6:10PM
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hexus

with as much time and money that you've spent bumbling around with this, a competent electrician could have fished in new wiring and been done.

    Bookmark   December 17, 2013 at 6:59PM
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jadi929

Yes I have considered the CO/ALR devices, but I've been told the connectors are a better option.

I haven't spent that much time doing this, I would say about 3 or 4 hrs total so far. Every electrician I have asked said that the drywall needs to be torn down and I'm too poor to have that done :)

    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 4:02PM
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btharmy

If you have to change out the shallow boxes to fit the connectors, CO/ALR devices may be the way to go.

    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 4:17PM
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