Photograph of ALUMINUM WIRE  - Recognizing aluminum wiring may be possible where nonmetallic wiring is visible such as in attics or basements.Copper-Clad Aluminum Wire Safety & History
Comments on the history, testing, & safety of Copper-Clad Aluminum electrical wiring
     

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Copper-Clad Aluminum Elecrical Wiring identification, safety, production methods.

This article describes the history of copper-clad aluminum electrical wiring and its safe use in homes in the United States.

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Copper-Clad Aluminum Elecrical Wiring

Thomas J. D'Agostino, P.E., C.I., & Daniel Friedman

What is copper-clad aluminum wire?

Copper-clad aluminum electrical wiring markings (C) InspectApedia Roger Hankey

Copper-clad aluminum wire is made of a solid aluminum core covered with a copper skin in order to improve its performance in the field. This produc was installed in homes in the United States between 1972 and 1975. The photograph of copper-clad aluminum wiring shown above was provided by and used with permission of Roger Hankey, a Minnesota home inspector. Details abuout copper-clad aluminum wiring are provided by Tom D'Agostino:

Copper clad aluminum electrical wire is comprised of a solid aluminum core covered with a thin clad of copper. Approximately 10 percent of the cross-sectional area of the conductor is copper clad, thickness is not specified.

This product (only wire size Nos. 12-10 AWG), was designed by Texas Instruments for use with standard copper-only wiring devicves, ie. switches, receptacles (binding head screw, back-wired, and pressure plate thpe termionals) and was treated as "aluminum" conductor for use in AL-CU pressure wire connectors in response to field failures of solid aluminum conductor branch circuit wiring. - D'Agostino (2014)

I would not assume that copper-clad AL wire might not appear in an older home in which electrical wiring was added or changed during that same interval, and it's also possible, though less likely, that copper clad aluminum wire might appear in new home built after 1975 if an electrician had and wished to use up old copper-clad aluminum wire stock.

[Illustrations needed, CONTACT us]

Is copper-clad aluminum wire safe to leave in place?

Yes. Copper-clad aluminum electrical wire is described in REDUCE THE AL WIRE RISK: DETAILS, as well as in Aronstein (2011). There Aronstein states

Copper-clad aluminum wire (Nos. 12-10 AWG) has a thin copper outer skin and a core of aluminum. Therefore when installed and where visible in the main electrical service panel, it looks like "fat" copper wire (i.e., 10-12 AWG v. 12-14 AWG) and on the cut end, the copper skin looks to be "smeared" over the aluminum core. Markings on the cable jacket would include "Al" or "Aluminum". There is no known history of connection overheating problems associated with copper-clad aluminum wire. No corrective actions are required for copper-clad aluminum wire. - Aronstein (2011), D'Agostino (2014)

How to identify copper-clad aluminum wire

Recognizing that electrical wire is copper clad aluminum is useful for technical reasons.

[Illustrations needed, CONTACT us]

Externally, if we eschew noticing printed labels and marking that may be present on copper clad aluminum wire, and if we simply look at the wire itself, stripped of insulation, the wire looks like a copper. However if we can take a closer look at a relatively square-cut end of the wire we should see an aluminum core surrounded by a copper skin. Without disassembly and possibly even careful cutting of the end of the wire this detail may not be easily visible, since typical wire nippers compress the end of the wire when making a cut.

Scraping copper clad aluminum wire may not be adquate to identify its silver-colored aluminum core unless the scrape is vigorous enough to cut completely through the copper cladding.

Below is a cross-section cut of a solid aluminum electrical wire (with white insulation) and a solid copper aluminum conductor (with black insulation).

History of Copper Clad Aluminum Electrical Wiring

Manufacture of aluminum clad copper wire - InspectApedia.com from Carlson 1963

Mr. Tom D'Agostino was employed at Underwriters Laboratories from 1969 to 1996 and spent a decade and a half studying and testing the safety of aluminum electrical wiring.

[Click to enlarge any image]

Early work by Carlson (shown at left) described a process "inside-out" of the later copper-clad aluminum wire. That is, Carlson's patent described applying an an aluminum sheath as the exterior of a copper core. Significant was that the metallic sheath was "metallurgically bonded to the inner core".

Illustrated at above left is the production method for cladding one metal with another to produce a wire of one metal with a cladding of another metal. - Carlson et als. (1963).

Dion (1966) and Dion and Thompson (1967) first described the successful manufacture of copper clad aluminum wire. Rolled aluminum wire is pulled through a lubricated draw to eliminate flat spots and to prepare the wire surface for a solid-bonding phase in which two copper cladding strips are added tothe wire exterior.

Manufacture of copper clad aluminum wire - Dion (1963) InspectApedia.com

The patent included provisions to assure that the aluminum surface was free of contaminants as were the copper strips. [Abstracted from the patent.]

Illustrated at left is Dion's method of cladding aluminum wire with a layer of copper. It is significant to note that the copper thickness in this method is much greater than the typical thickness imparted by plating one metal on another. It is likely that it's that thickness that prevents a device connector srcew from cutting through the copper, possibly leading to connector failures in field use.

Continuing by quotation:

When the aluminum wire and the strips enter the rolls from the plenum chamber, heat flows from the copper strips mostly to the aluminum core and some to the rolls. This rapidly brings the aluminum-copper composite to equilibrium temperature as the composite is being bonded by reduction in the solid phase.

Roll geometry copper thickness and aluminum diameter is such as to produce clad composites in the usually demanded three precentages of copper by volume, i.e. 10%, 15%, and 20%. ... The field of the invention is the manufacture of clad wire and the like as exemplified in U.S. Patents 3,220,106 and 3,220,106. - Dion (1969) This patent cites earlier work and patents by Dion (1966) and Thompson (1966, 1967).

Later work described by Ziemek (1974) reversed this process, placing the copper as the outer sheath and solid aluminum as the interior or main body of the wire.

Quoting from a later description of this process, a copper band is formed around an aluminum core wire and the single seam in the sheath material is welded without bonding of the sheath and core, care being taken that all surfaces are clean and maintained free of oxides. - Ziemek (1974)

Mr. D'Agostino relates that in 1971 as project engineer at UL, he conducted tests evaluating the performance of copper-clad aluminum conductor wiring using a number of types of copper-only receptacles (i.e. binding head screw terminals, back-wired terminals, pressure plate screw terminals) and a number of types of AL-CU pressure wire connectors. That research, conducted under the auspices of U.L., demonstrated that performance of copper-clad wire was

  1. similar to that of solid copper-only wiring devices (with binding head screw terminals
  2. satisfactory for use in AL-CU pressure wire connectors and
  3. along with copper wire performed poorly, less than adequate in "back-wired push-in" wiring devices.

The findings of this research was published in a 1971 UL bulletin that was distributed / reviewed by industry and government (i.e. David Rabinov of theU.S. National Bureau of Standards).

The copper clad aluminum wire product produced by Texas Instruments is attributed by D'Agostino to John Fan (see patent citations below). Following successful testing by D'Agostino at U.L., copper-clad alulminum wiring was reognize by UL/Industry and soon thereafter UL Listed NM Sheathed Cable with Nos. 10-12 AWG solid copper-clad aluminum conductor was distributed and installed in homes in the United States (and possibly Canada) between 1972 and 1975.

Original patents on the production of copper-clad aluminum wire were awarded to a variety of parties (cited below) with early patent applications in 1956 (Carlson) and key patents (Carlson, Roserans, Westinghouse Electric) dating from 1963.

Research into the production and use of copper-clad aluminu wire continues to the present, with work by Kwon (2004) and Rhee (2004) and others on fabrication methods and by Sasaki (2010) on the metallurgy of copper-clad aluminum.

- Special thanks to Tom D'Agostino for recapping the history of aluminum electrical wiring and copper clad aluminum electrical wiring. Personal communication 5/3/2014. Mr. D'Agostino presently lives on Long Island, NY. and continues to write and research electrical hazards. He has also worked as a professional home inspector and is a member of ASHI, the Amerian Society of Home Inspectors.

Don't confuse copper-clad wire with tinned-copper plated wire nor with COALR or CU-AL Devices

This discussion has moved to TINNED COPPER ELECTRICAL WIRE

Watch out: tin-plated copper wire is a completely different product that, because its conductors sport a thin plated silver colored surface, might be mistaken for unsafe alumium wire. It is not aluminum and it is safe unless, as with any electrical wiring, it has been damaged in some manner.

Watch out: don't confuse references to copper-clad aluminum wire or tin-plated electrical wire with devices such as electrical receptacles and switches marked COALR or CU-AL. The latter two are device labels not wire types and are not a recommended repair for aluminum electrical wire. COALR and CU-AL and their field performance and safety warnings are described in more detail at ALUMINUM WIRING REPAIR COALR & CU-AL

Contact the authors

References for copper clad aluminum wire & related research

Aluminum Electrical Wiring Articles

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