Aluminum wiring – what should I know?

Sometimes you’ll see a reference in a listing to a property being “pigtailed.” Or you’ll be doing a home inspection and the home inspector will point out aluminum wiring. What does that mean?

A lot of homes built in the 1960s and 1970s have aluminum wiring. Copper was expensive at the time, and aluminum is a good conductor. The problem is that it can oxidize. It is incompatible with devices intended for copper wiring. It’s very malleable and can come loose at the terminal screws. It can overheat. And so it’s considered a fire hazard. Some warning signs to look out for include sparks from light switches when you turn them on or off; warping of cover plates, weird smells around cover plates, flickering lights.

It would be very expensive to have to pull all the wiring in a house out and replace it, and so the solution that is most commonly used is pigtailing. This involves inserting a copper wire — the”pigtail”– between the aluminum wire and the device connection screw. It’s not that expensive (I had clients who paid around $ 1000 to have all the switches and plugs in their homes pigtailed a few years ago) but some insurance companies are still nervous about the fact that there is aluminum wiring in the home at all and won’t insure.

If you believe that there is aluminum wiring in a house you are interested in making an offer on, don’t just include a home inspection condition in your offer, but include a condition to deal with insurance as well. The offer should be contingent on your being able to find an insurance company that will insure you on terms that are acceptable to you in your sole and absolute discretion. Otherwise, if the home inspection reveals that there is aluminum wiring in the house, you may discover you can’t find insurance that you are comfortable with, at a premium that you can afford.

If the home owner or listing agent tells you or your agent the property has been pigtailed, have your realtor ask the seller to provide ESA certification that it’s been done: your insurance company will require proof that the repair has been done properly.

ESA means Electrical Safety Authority: only one of their approved electricians should be contracted for this kind of work. You’re not changing a light fixture, you’re trying to prevent a fire.This is not a DYI exercise, it should be left to the professionals.

I had this question from a client this week:

In general, if a house has aluminum wiring, and insurance company doesn’t cover, what’s the standard protocol? Do we include a condition that seller covers the cost of replace/pigtail in our offer?

This was my answer:

Some insurers won’t cover homes with aluminum wiring even if it is pigtailed. It is prohibitively expensive to pull out all the wiring in a home to replace it, so it means finding an insurer who will insure pigtailed wiring.

If there is no pigtailing done, we either try to get the seller to get it done before closing, and/or the insurance company will usually give the buyer 30-45 days after closing to provide proof it’s been done.

Since pigtailing isn’t that expensive to do, it depends on the purchase price (and whether you are in a multiple offer situation) as to whether you try to get the seller to do it at seller’s expense. Better usually to negotiate a lower price and do it yourself so that you know it’s done properly and have the ESA certificate that your insurance company will want to prove it’s been done properly.

Here’s a link to an ESA Bulletin that explains everything you need to know about aluminum wiring.  This is one of those things that really has to be dealt with, and can often only be determined on a home inspection, so don’t ever waive a home inspection on an older home — it could put your whole purchase at risk.



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