So, forget the small gauge wires. Let’s talk about the large stuff. Feeders to panels and to large, non-vibrating equipment are acceptable candidates for aluminum conductors. Copper is still the better conductor. It’s like driving to work in a Cadillac versus in a Chevrolet. They are both going to get you there, but you are more comfortable in the Caddy and you will turn more heads. You need to go to a larger conductor because aluminum has a lesser conductivity. But I must admit that aluminum is a lot lighter than copper. Electricians love working with it. There is no question that you have to exercise care in terminating both copper and aluminum. But the care in aluminum is at a whole different level. Copper is much more forgiving. Aluminum not only has to be terminated with specifically approved devices, it also has no tolerance for sloppiness. It is not as pliable as copper, so pulling with excessive force can damage it. If bent too many times, it will break. And very importantly, if exposed to air, it will oxidize very quickly. And so any bare ends need to be coated with an anti-oxidant. There are two ways to terminate any wire, crimp or mechanical connection. Crimping is done with a hydraulic tool, that essentially embeds the conductor into the termination. Mechanical is simply putting a screw on the wire and cranking it down. They are both approved and with the appropriate devices, they both work well. I’m partial to the crimp type termination, and again it’s just the Caddy/Chevy comparison. I just know that I can cross off a crimped termination as done. Like final. And lastly, aluminum conductors don’t do well submersed in water, as in underground installation. Completely stay away from that scenario.
In the end, the question of copper vs. aluminum comes up regularly. At KEA, we design all our projects based on copper conductors. We size all the conduits based on the sizes of the copper conductors. If the job is to be built in aluminum, the conductors must be up-sized and most of the time that means larger conduit. The question often comes from the electrician, who is trying to save money, mostly to value engineer the project. There is nothing wrong with this so long as either the engineer or the electrician, if qualified, adjusts the wire and conduit sizes to go from copper to aluminum, and uses proper devices and terminations. In my book, they should be coated in anti-oxidant and using crimp type connections as well. And NEVER underground or for that matter in conduits that can have standing water.Having said all of the above, Aluminum conductors can be used in the hands of a competent electrician who understands all of the issues and follows all of the recommended procedures. KEA is always available for consultation on this and any other engineering matters.