Statistics on fires caused by aluminum wiring aren't kept, but the possibility still frightens federal officials and consumer advocates. An estimated 40,000 electrical fires of all kinds occur in homes each year, causing about $2 billion in property damage and killing three people each day, the agency said.
Wolfson said his agency's fears about consumer inaction have grown recently because the COPALUM system's manufacturer had at one point indicated it might drop the product at the end of this year.
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Tyco Electronics Corp. of Harrisburg keeps lists by state of electricians that it trains to use its special COPALUM connectors. COPALUM is the only repair system for aluminum wiring approved by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. To find nearby authorized providers, call 800-522-6752.
A press release issued by the CPSC in May 2003 praised Tyco Electronics Corp. for agreeing to continue production of the device and to continue licensing and training of installers until at least 2005. Tyco bought the original manufacturer, AMP Inc., in 1999.
Over the past year, Wolfson said, the agency "has been trying to get the word out to consumers about COPALUM, to let them know that there is this excellent resource out there before it is too late."
Last week, however, Tyco representative Paul Lavenberg said, "The intention right now is not to discontinue in 2005. . . . We expect it will continue on indefinitely."
Wolfson said the agency is pleased with that, but still encourages homeowners to act quickly to prevent fires.
While electricians over the years have recommended different devices to address the problem, Wolfson said the COPALUM system remains the only repair CPSC endorses.
The system sounds like a combination of copper and aluminum -- and it is. Its proponents, however, contend it's a much stronger combination than other connectors.
The Tyco product attaches a copper wire to the aluminum wire leading to each junction box using a crimping power tool that applies about 10,000 pounds of force.
The "cold weld" that's formed as a result is "a permanent bond that eliminates electrical arcing or glowing connections and creates a safer electrical connection at outlets, switches, lights, circuit breakers and panelboard terminals," the CPSC said.
Other connectors and devices made by other manufacturers are cheaper, but the CPSC says they're not as reliable. That includes "pigtailing" repairs that use twist-on connectors and CO/ALR switches and outlets marketed specifically to handle aluminum wire.
"Some 'pigtailing' repairs made with twist-on connectors may be even more prone to failure than the original wire connection," the CPSC's consumer booklet says.
The CO/ALR products, which are specifically listed by Underwriters Laboratories Inc. for use with aluminum wire, do "perform better with aluminum wire when installed carefully and according to best electrical practices" than the original switches and outlets, says the booklet. But because the connectors aren't available for all parts of the wiring system, the agency advisory says the device is "an incomplete repair." It notes that CO/ALR devices have also failed in lab tests.
Because of the cost, some electricians and home inspectors contacted recently said they recommend the cheaper alternatives despite the consumer agency's insistence on COPALUM. Others back the COPALUM recommendation. "The CPSC says the only fix that they . . . [recommend] is the COPALUM system, and as home inspectors we go with the most authoritative source," said Mark Dewey, home inspector at HomePro Services Inc. in Falls Church,