Hard-wired to Focus on Aluminum Safety

March 03, 2015| Von Liz Berge | Property | English

Region: U.S.

I’ve been thinking a lot about aluminum lately, thanks to a client asking a GPF underwriter if we would reinsure habitational risks that had “new” aluminum wiring.

As we will reinsure any kind of property as long as we can underwrite it, the quick answer was "Yes." But, for the longer answer I wanted to know more about what was behind the client’s question.

That’s because as a property underwriter, I have specific opinions on aluminum when it is used in wiring - and not all of these thoughts are particularly favorable.

First some background. It seems that an epidemic of copper theft is “sweeping the U.S.” (a CNBC reporter’s words) and that copper theft is now a $1 billion a year business in the U.S. As a result, contractors are looking for alternatives and aluminum wiring is an attractive option.  

It isn’t a new trend. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, an estimated two million homes in the U.S. were built or renovated using electrical circuits with aluminum wiring, mainly in the 60s and 70s, due to the combined effects of a copper shortage and a housing boom at that time.

But, is it safe?

There have been many home fires involving aluminum wiring. Aluminum is a softer metal than copper and issues can arise due to the expansion and contraction of the aluminum as the electric current changes the temperature of the wiring. Over time this can result in arcing and fire at outlets, light switches, junction boxes - basically any branch circuit connections.

There might have been warning signs such as flickering lights, melting of insulation jackets, circuit breakers that trip, odors of burning plastic. But it isn’t always obvious to the homeowner that there is a potential problem.

However, from the research I’ve done it appears that a great deal of work has gone into creating a better, safer aluminum alloy for use in house wiring. Improvements have been made to its strength, durability and ability to withstand heat.

So when new alloys are used in wiring, and assuming they are properly installed and maintained, a home with aluminum wiring should be an acceptable risk to underwrite. But it is important to find out if newer wiring alloys were used and that they were installed and serviced regularly. It will pay to probe.

If you’re in any doubt - and it is a technical area - then call your local Gen Re underwriter for a second opinion.


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