Whould I be worried? (Aluminum wired home problems)

This is a bit long, sorry.

Tonight, out of the blue, we lost power to the back of the house. The outlets and overhead lights in two of the three upstairs bedrooms.

First thing, I checked the breakers. Nothing had tripped. I couldn’t really figure out why just two rooms were out when the box listed all three rooms on two 15 amp circuits. So, I cycled the all breakers because that’s the “guy” thing to do.

Still nothing. I was stumped.

After some time of poking around the house, looking at each outlet and switch in the bedrooms, and trying to find some hidden circuit breaker someone installed for some silly reason, I gave up. It was too late to call the landlord and my head was starting to get sore from all the scratching. I figured I’d pick this one up tomorrow.

I had to get into my computer for a project I’m working on so I fetched a heavy duty extention cord to run from one room to another for a few minutes while I get the files transfered. This is when I found the problem.

The outlet in the 1st bedroom seems to be the junction back to the others. When I plugged the extention cord in, I got some nice zapping sounds followed by a light show. My wife said the lights in the master bedroom flipped on and off when I did this. (I think her exact words were “what are you DOING?!?!” followed by “Seven? Are you ok? Seven? Answer me!” heh heh)

I went down and flipped off the circuit for the outlets. I went back to the 1st bedroom, removed the faceplate and pulled the outlet out. Sure enough, one wire was hardly being held in place. I pulled that wire out and pushed it into an extra clip-terminal-thingy on the back of the outlet. (I’m sorry, I don’t know the official term for the little wire clip thing on the back of outlets). It held like new so we flipped power back on and everyting seems fine now.

I noticed these were aluminum wires -12 gauge I think. This seems about right as the house is dated in the mid-60’s. The wires, as well as the outlet, didn’t look like it had heat or other damage. In fact, everything looked fine except it had come loose from it’s clip-terminal-thingy. Outside of that it looks brand new.

For safety, I left the faceplate off the outlet in the 1st bedroom so I can keep an eye on it. That bedroom is an extra and isn’t used so I’m not concerned with the dog walking over and licking it-or something silly like that. Tomorrow I’m calling the landlord to let him know the problem.

I seemed to recall there is a risk in having aluminum wires in houses. I googled it and found some scary stuff on the issue. I also saw some things which seemed to help the problem like putting copper pigtails on the aluminum wires before they reach the connection- things like that.

How big of a job is this? How long does something like that take? Is it common to retrofit all the connections with copper pigtails in homes like this?

Is there anything else I should know about this topic? Most important, should I be worried and just start packing tonight?

And no, I do not plan on even THINKING of taking this one on myself as I don’t own the house and I’m not an electrician.

Of course “whould” read “should” on preview.

Fat fingers! DOH!

IANAE but until a real electrician shows I can give you some answers.

Aluminum is a fine conductor regardless of the hype, the wire is pretty much sound. There are some heat and flexibility issues but that is certainly not your problem.

Whats going on as near as I can figure is your outlets are wired as busses rather than the more proper “wipped hot” configuration. You probably have ganged neutrals but the hots are wired daisy chain from outlet to outlet in the same box. When you plug up you complete the curcuit. Not a wiring failure but a failure of the fixture.

I see this mostly in “pre fab” units, it is not inherently dangerous but sub standard. You could correct it by replacing the defective fixtures. Just ape the wiring exactly. Not perfect but it will work


Reading your post leads me to believe this is a rental unit. It has been my experience that rental owners will undertake electrical projects themselves, rather than pay some one qualified. you could be dealing with a seriously mis wired system. If you dont understand the magic don’t play with it. (What Indian in the Cupboard taught me)

I’m not an electrician, but I do know: Aluminum wiring has a tendancy to fatigue at the connections which causes a loose connection which will cause more resistance which will cause heat, and in my case burn the fuse box up. There are terminals and plugs that have aluminum wiring compatibility which keep a constant tension on the wire. I personally wouldn’t feel very safe just sticking the wire in the spring terminal. Even with copper wire I don’t use them.

The problem with aluminum wiring, IIRC, is the interaction of the aluminum with copper in the presense of electricity and oxygen. The reason they can use copper pigtails to fix this is that they connect copper wires to the copper fixtures, and use a special compound (paste) applied to the aluminum-copper junction where the pigtail is attached.

My parents house was built in the 1960’s, and sometime in the mid 80’s, a connection failed. They had an electrician come out and he pigtailed every outlet and fixture. No problems since.

I would call in a pro, or in this case, demand that your landlord does. Check with your local building inspector to see what must be done to bring it up to code as well. There may be different procedures that are acceptable in different regions.

Yuo’ve got at least two problems working here. (I’m assuming you’re in the US)

First is that some “sparky” used the “back-stab” connections on the outlets with aluminum wire. I’m not aware of any such terminals that are allowed for such use, so there’s one code violation for you… In my book, any use of back-stab connections is a problem.

Next code violation is the “daisy-chaining” of outlets. Current code calls for pigtailing the hots and neutrals so the outlet has only one hot and one neutral.

To correcct this, your electrician needs to use the special “wire nuts” MC$E described for combining aluminum and copper. The aluminum wires in and out of the box get pigtailed together with a short bit of copper that’s connected to the SCREWS of the outlet.

Time to do this - about 10-20 minutes per outlet, depending on how easy it is to get to them - don’t forget ones behind the bed, etc.

I nearly had a fire in my house due to an aluminum wire coming loose from the screw terminal of an outlet. Aluminum is a good conductor, but it also has a higher expansion coefficient than copper. Aluminum wires will work loose over time, especially those connected to non-AL rated outles or switches (which is the situation I had). I have had to replace on other outlet that was not AL rated, fortunately before it developed problems.


Just thought I’d elaborate on my dislike of back-stabs.

I’ve seen them cause enough trouble with copper wire. I’m afraid to see them with aluminum. The contact point is tiny - just a spring edge against the wire, and tends to overheat and even burn up under heavy loads such as coffee makers, hair dryers, etc.