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Aluminum wiring repair junction box space problems: this article describes options for fitting copper pigtail wires and wire connectors into electrical junction boxes where solid conductor aluminum electrical wiring is installed. Here we explain the acceptable methods to repair aluminum wiring, including which aluminum wire connectors to use for safest results.
Photo at page top shows a reader's close-wired AlumiConn™ splice connector used to repair aluminum wiring, copper pigtailed to the electrical receptacle, the AlumiConn™ then accepts the original solid-conductor aluminum wires for a good-performing repair and electrical safety improvement provided that all of the connections are made following the manufacturer's and US CPSC recommendations.
Green links show where you are. © Copyright 2014 InspectApedia.com, All Rights Reserved.
Technical note on limited space in electrical boxes when pigtailing copper to aluminum electrical wiring: Both the AlumiConn™ and the COPALUM™ connectors (as well as the not-recommended Ideal65 purple Twister™) occupy about the same volume of space during aluminum wiring repair by pigtailing copper to aluminum wires.
In some cases there may be so little free space inside the electrical box that it is difficult to push the pigtailed wires and device back into the wall safely and without damaging or loosening connectors.
Our photo (left) shows an improper "aluminum and copper" wire repair using double-tapping under a single circuit breaker screw. The CU-AL rating stamped into the circuit breaker may itself not have been based on independent testing but more, it is unlikely that the manufacturer intended the circuit breaker to handle both AL and CU wires at once.
There was plenty of room in this electrical panel to use one of the recommended copper-to-aluminum connectors to repair this aluminum wire. But in electrical boxes for wire splices, switches, and receptacles in a building, space may be more limited. Options to handle the limited space for copper to aluminum pigtail wires and connectors include:
Ways to Make Space for Aluminum-to-Copper Pigtailing in Electrical Boxes
I have read your web pages concerning the "permanent repair" methods for dealing with aluminum wiring. Thank you for the detailed information, including some of the reasoning behind the details. I have purchased AlumiConn connectors and I have begun converting my wiring with these connectors.
Watch out: repairing aluminum wiring using twist-on connectors such as shown in the photo at left is not recommended and may be unsafe.
My question is as follows:
A typical box containing a switch contains the following wires: hot/neutral/ground IN, hot/neutral/ground OUT, switched-hot/neutral/ground to light fixture. Conversion to AlumiConn connectors would be as follows:
Note that this configuration does not include a ground connection to the metal electrical box.
If such a connection is required, then yet one more AlumiConn connector (#5) would be required. With some work I was able to get all 4 AlumiConn connectors to fit in the box, but the box will not accommodate a 5th connector.
Also, I don't see the value of a ground connection to the metal electrical box for a switch. Is grounding the electrical box required in this case? - C.J. 8/31/2013
Space is indeed the Achilles heel of this repair. I would not want to leave a metal box ungrounded. Have you looked at using an add on "sidecar" box extension? It clips on to the site of the existing box and hides inside the wall.
Some electrical boxes installed as original work are stamped out of a single piece of steel and cannot be expanded. Others called "gangable" metallic boxes such as by (Thomas & Betts - Steel City Brand) installed as original work included side plates that could be removed to install a sidecar extension.
Gangable electrical boxes can be expanded by adding another box along the open (away from the stud or joist) side of the existing box (requiring a larger wall opening), or by adding a "side car" extension that hides behind the wall surface.
Sketch at left: illustrates the removable side-plates on a gang-type electrical box. Boxes of this type can be expanded along their open side - the side that has not been already fastened to a stud or joist.
To add an electrical box extension you must have access to the top or bottom screw on the open side of the box to remove the side plate - that's where you'd add on a second gangable box as an extension or a side-car hidden box extension.
Watch out: it will be almost impossible to extend an original-work metallic box size using an extension without cutting open and thus damaging the wall at one side of the box. However in my OPINION drywall repairs are trivial compared with the cost of complete re-wiring with all copper in a building with aluminum wired branch circuits.
The web postings about the use of AlumiConn connectors mentions electrical box extenders - that extend the box horizontally in the wall (as you suggested), as well as deeper boxes.
A deeper box might work, but it is difficult to replace the old box with a deeper one without incurring significant wall damage. I have not been able to find any electrical box sidecar or horizontal extender that can be retro-fitted (attached) to an existing box. The boxes in this house were installed when the house was built. In the typical case, they contain a single switch or outlet. The boxes are 2" wide x 3" high, and do not have removal sides (or back). While it might be possible to drill / cut the side of a box in the wall, I have not been able to find any "extender" that could be attached after the box was cut open.
The only "sidecar" box that I have found is for use in new construction. It is a complete box with a side pocket. It does not attach to an existing box. It is made by Thomas & Betts, part no. SNO-18.
[Note: no, the product you name is for new work, not old work or renovation extensions of electrical box size in an existing finished wall. rather, the T&B SNO-18 is a pre-cast plastic electrical box providing a "behind-the-wall" space extension, preserving a small wall outlet opening; this is not a box side or behind-wall extender. Take a look at gang-box and gang-box extensions illustrated below. - Ed. ]
You wrote: Have you looked at using an add on "sidecar" box extension? It clips on to the site (side?) of the existing box and hides inside the wall.
Can you provide a reference for such a part? - C.J.
Reply: Where to buy a side-car extension to add space to an electrical receptacle or switch box
I [DF] drove over to Danbury toP&M Electric supply (29 Federal Road, Danbury CT 06810, Tel: 203-744-7445), a large electrical supplier, to pick up a "side car" box extension and a metal gang box to illustrate how a box can be expanded in this approach. The RAC535 X-cube adapter .5cui retails for $1.79 and a RAC519 2 12/D NMC switch box retails for $2.45.
At left you can see the original side plate removed from the electrical gang box and the sidecar extension installed in its place, gaining wiring space in this switch box.
Notice that the sidecar box extender is deliberately made less deep than the electrical box so that the added space provided by the sidecar extension can hide behind the drywall in the finished wall.
But ultimately the side-car expansion approach will be messy and difficult unless
If you are going to this much trouble to add wiring space, why not just change to a larger or deeper plastic box, gaining space and reducing the number of ground connections needed?
Recommendations for Gaining Wiring Space: old work retrofit boxes & plastic electrical boxes
I would not try cutting metal boxes in the wall to try to make more space - it would probably violate code, damage wires by nicking them thus making a horrible mess to repair, and damage the wall too.
As I described above, gangable- types of metal electrical boxes have sides that are connected to a U-bent top,back,bottom section by two screws and a clip; on these boxes it's easy to remove one side and replace it with a side-car extension. That's how I made more space in boxes where we had this problem.
But that extension is far easier when the wall is not already covered by drywall - in that case it's a trivial step because the side of the box that is not fastened to the stud is open for attack and easily replaced.
Sketch at left illustrates using steel wall-clips to support an old-work replacement electrical box that can be inserted through an existing opening in a finished-wall.
When the wall has been covered by drywall it is still possible to make a box extension but to do so the existing box has to be pulled out of the wall first - which can damage the wall and wires if you're not careful.
A better approach where more wiring space is needed is to remove the existing electrical box and install a deeper box in the same opening. At left we show an image of the thin metal clips that can be used (with care) to support a metal electrical box in an old-work or retrofit installation - adapted from Steel City products.
But if going to the trouble of replacing the electrical box entirely, going to plastic has the advantages I describe below.
Shown at above left is an "old work" or retrofit electrical box that is secured to the wall by screw-operated plastic ears that turn up and then pinch the box front flanges against the wall exterior. Electrical boxes of this design, depending on size, cost about $1.00 U.S.
Watch out: I cannot emphasize enough how important it is not to nick or damage the insulation on the existing wires as doing so can lead to too-short wires to permit the pigtailing work needed or can create still more in-box space problems.
Illustration at left shows an old-work retrofit electrical switch or receptacle box made of plastic. Using a box of this type can gain needed wiring space while fitting into an existing wall opening in a finished wall.
And pulling an existing electrical box out of a wall is more difficult in the (most common) cases where the box was nailed to the side of a stud (or ceiling joist). It's more feasible when the box is fastened by screws.
All of these suggestions, when made by people who have never actually tried to do this job, under-state the extent to which drywall around an electrical box opening is likely to be damaged during all of this fooling around. It is more realistic to plan to have to make drywall and painting repairs after this job - at least in some tight locations.
The electrical box size increase procedure benefits by a few simple dry walling tips:
The bottom line is that repairing aluminum wiring by pigtailing using an approved connector is less costly than re-wiring but either approach - re-wiring or pigtailing that leads to need for larger electrical boxes just to physically cram in all of the parts needed is likely to lead to wall repair work too. It's a messier and more labor-costly job than some might like to admit.
But then, re-wiring also involves cuts, holes, and snaking and wall damage during wiring routing and replacement.
Send me some photos of your project if you can - it would certainly help the discussion and help other readers in the future
Field Experience with Using the King Innovations AlumiConn Connectors for Aluminum Wiring Pigtail Repairs
In order to understand the practicalities associated with installing AlumiConn connectors I have added the connectors to a small number of boxes. From this experience I have gained some experience in the installation process, and also drawn some conclusions for the remaining work ahead.
The walls and ceilings are covered with 1/2" drywall and the electrical boxes protrude through the drywall. The drywall has a textured finish which was applied when the house was built. Any wall or ceiling damage is very hard to fix due to the need to patch, then re-texture and then paint the damaged area. It is very difficult to match the existing wall texture.
Furthermore, a small supply of matching paint for each color in the house may not be available - thus requiring the purchase of new paint matched with a photo spectrometer. It can also be expected to require painting the entire wall to avoid the appearance of an obvious patch.
Duplex Outlet Wiring Connections
The hot in, hot out, 1 duplex receptacle.
Requires 3 triple port AlumiConn connectors.
Grounding of the electrical box can be done in either of 2 ways:
(1) The outlet receptacle contains a grounding screw that attaches to a metal band. The band holds the receptacle together and also provides the tabs by which the receptacle is attached to the box. Screwing the receptacle to the box will result in grounding the box.
(2) Two copper pigtails can be attached to the ground screw of the receptacle One pigtail is connected to an AlumiConn connector to which the ground line for the IN and OUT lines is connected. The other pigtail is attached to the box. In either case, the 3 triple port connectors can be pushed into the electrical box without too much trouble.
Watch out: be sure to follow the manufacturer's recommended torque settings to assure a successful aluminum wire repair. Details are at The AlumiConn Torque settings
Single light switch (single pole, single through):Wiring Connections
hot in, hot out, switched-hot + neutral
This leaves me with the following (lousy) choices. I have not yet decided which I will use.
#1 - Connect the ground lines of hot in, hot out and switched-hot wires in an AlumiConn connector and leave the metal box ungrounded (not desirable).
#2 - Replace the metal box with a plastic box. This will eliminate the need to ground the box. I have not yet tried to remove the old box, but I think I can do this without damaging the wall. I will need to first slightly loosen the box from the stud so that a hack saw blade will fit between the box and the stud.
The loosening will require a properly designed crowbar (such as a leaf from an automobile leaf spring). This may cause some damage to the drywall on the other side of the box opening. Hand hacksaw the nail at the top and bottom of the box that hold the box to the stud.
Attach a piece of string to the end of each of the wires entering the box. Loosen the screw that secures the wire to the box and push the wire into the wall, keeping the other end of the string outside of the wall. Remove the box from the wall by first pushing the box into the wall, then rotate it 90 degrees about a horizontal axis (push the top in, pull the bottom out), then pulling the box through the drywall opening. Install a new plastic box using retro-fit attachment bars (sometimes called "Madison bars").
#3 - Attach a copper pigtail to the electrical box and twist all of the ground lines (3 aluminum + 1 copper) together with a "long" twist. Apply NoAlox to the end and bind with a wire nut. I think this is probably a reasonable practical solution, but it does not meet CPSC recommendations. [And is not a recommended repair approach for aluminum wiring - Ed.]
3-way light switch (single pole, double through) wiring connections
hot in, hot out, 3-conductor switched-hot + neutral
Replacing the box with plastic (as described above) will reduce the connector count from 6 to 5.
If the replacement box is a deep box, then the 5 connectors should fit.
Other common configurations
Thanks, - C.J. 9/6/2013
Time to Repair Aluminum Wiring by Pigtailing with the AlumiConn™ connector
My experience so far is that conversion of an outlet box that contains no surprises (just hot in + hot out) takes about 20 minutes to convert. This is the time from unscrewing the cover plate to getting the cover plate back on after the conversion. A box containing an on/off switch takes longer.
I have also found that planning the exact placement in repacking the wires and AlumiConn™ connectors back into the box is essential. The lack of forethought can result in re-packing multiple times - very undesirable due to "excess" re-bending of wires (I am always fearful of a break, especially of the aluminum wire) and lost time. - C.J.
Typical Pigtail Wire Lengths for Repairing Aluminum Wiring by Pigtailing with the AlumiConn™ connector
I have also experimented with the length of the copper pigtail. I tried 3", 4" and 5". While there are exceptions, I think the 3" length is a little too short - it provides insufficient length to easily tighten the set screws on the AlumiConn™ connectors, and make attachment to an outlet or switch, and bend the wire around when repacking. 4" is a good length. 5" works fine, but adds more wire than necessary. - C.J.
Reply: where to buy electrical box extensions - but going to larger or deeper plastic "old work" boxes is probably better for adding the AlumiConn wire splice connectors
As a preliminary response, I think I agree that going to plastic boxes is a good option; In some locations, going to a larger box and thus enlarging the opening in an existing wall can be done with enough care that the wall re-finishing problem can be avoided. If there is just slight damage or over-sized cutting around a box, there are oversized box covers that can work extend past that evidence. And I agree that a 4-port connector would be a significant help.
I followed up with King Innovations too, asking about the availability of their connectors in a wider range of sizes.
But ultimately the side-car expansion approach will be messy and difficult unless - the metal switch or receptacle box is a gang-able type with a removable side panel. - the existing metal box and its wires can be pulled out of the wall; this is possible if the box was screwed to a stud or joist through the box internal side openings but impossible (without cutting the wall) if it was screwed or nailed using box external side fasteners inside the wall. - DF 8 Sept 2013
Electrical box extensions & supplies for aluminum wire repairs needing more space
If time permits I expect to be doing some additional box conversions this week. I will take pictures and send them to you as you requested. I am committed to this conversion effort (I have the whole house to do!), but it is not my first priority, so the work progresses as I have time to work on it. I expect it will string out over the next few months. FYI, I will be out of town from Sept 16 to Oct. 10.
I will take some closer notes on the time involved, but my experience so far is that conversion of an outlet box that contains no surprises (just hot in + hot out) takes about 20 minutes to convert. This is the time from unscrewing the cover plate to getting the cover plate back on after the conversion.
A box containing an on/off switch takes longer. I have also found that planning the exact placement in repacking the wires and AlumiConn connectors back into the box is essential. The lack of forethought can result in re-packing multiple times - very undesirable due to "excess" re-bending of wires (I am always fearful of a break, especially of the aluminum wire) and lost time.
I have also experimented with the length of the copper pigtail. I tried 3", 4" and 5". While there are exceptions, I think the 3" length is a little too short - it provides insufficient length to easily tighten the set screws on the AlumiConn connectors, and make attachment to an outlet or switch, and bend the wire around when repacking. 4" is a good length. 5" works fine, but adds more wire than necessary. - C.J. 9/9/2013
About using the AlumiConn, also keep in mind that while the company has confidence in the success of their special torquing method that involves counting turns rather than using the $100 SK torque screwdriver, the tested and listed approach requires setting the actual torque using the SK screwdriver.
The AlumiConn Torque settings specified by King - DF 9/9/2013
Reader follow-up: new idea for gaining wiring space when using the AlumiConn for aluminum wire repairs
I inventoried all of the boxes that must be converted in the house, and the content of each box (e.g. 2-way switch, 3-way switch, light, single box, ganged box, etc.). I then calculated the number and type of connectors that is required for each box. For my house.
Photo at left: reader's suggestion for close-wiring the AlumiConn splice connectors to the back of the electrical receptacle to gain wiring space during repair of aluminum electrical wiring. Showing the neutral and ground wire connections.
There are 76 boxes
I need 107 2-port connectors (about 40% of the total connectors)
I need 146 3-port connectors (about 60% of the total connectors)
While I can technically use 3-port connectors for all of the 2-port requirements, the high count of 2-port connectors in this analysis, and the limited space in a box, drives me to seek availability of 2-port connectors before I proceed to convert any boxes that requires a 2-port connector.
I have requested that Home Depot offer the 2-port connector by (1) contacting the electrical department of my local Home Depot, and (2) emailing the customer service interface of Home Depot. I have not yet, but I intend to, attempt to purchase the 2-port connectors by a Home Depot special order.
Single outlet boxes are probably the simplest to convert. They require only 3-port connectors, and they require only 3 in a box. I have chosen to concentrate on converting these boxes while I pursue access to the 2-port connectors.
Photo at left: reader's suggestion for close-wiring the AlumiConn splice connectors to the back of the electrical receptacle to gain wiring space during repair of aluminum electrical wiring. Showing the black or "hot" wire connections.
Watch out: sharp bends in electrical wiring are not recommended and may make for unreliable connections. Changing this receptacle to a clamp-type back-wired receptacle might help but a root problem is that the requirement to give access to the remaining connection points to insert the original wires into the AlumiConn make this installation difficult. A revised AlumiConn connector design might accommodate close-wiring to the devices while still giving access fo insert the aluminum wires- Ed.
I have significantly changed the method for installing the AlumiConn connectors in an outlet box.from what I wrote to you earlier My earlier approach was to install the connectors with a 4” or so copper pigtail to the outlet. Then jam all of the wires and connectors into the box.
Then, connect the in and out lines to these connectors. The outlet configuration in this house has the ground pin of the outlets located at the bottom. With this configuration, the ground connection to the outlet is at the bottom of the outlet. I think this makes the best use of the limited space in the box. I install is performed as follows:
Photo at left: reader's suggestion for close-wiring the AlumiConn splice connectors to the back of the electrical receptacle to gain wiring space during repair of aluminum electrical wiring. Showing the aluminum wires connected to the close-wired AlumiConn that is in turn copper-pigtailed to the original receptacles.
Open the box and observe the wiring configuration. In the typical case, the “in” and “out” wires enter the box from the top. The bottom ports of the box are not used.
I remove the screw and bracket that is used for securing wires that enter the box through the bottom ports, since these are not needed and they consume valuable space. With this configuration, at the bottom of the box there is now more space from the front to the back than there is at the top (where the wires enter).
Place a 3-port AlumiConn connector for the ground line immediately behind, and at the bottom of the outlet device, with the ports positioned in the “down” orientation.
Next, a short pigtail is connected between the ground terminal on the outlet and the nearest port of the 3-port connector. Next place an AlumiConn connector immediately behind the upper part of the outlet with the ports positioned in the “up” orientation.
Photo at left: reader's suggestion for close-wiring the AlumiConn splice connector.
Next, a short pigtail between the hot screw of the outlet and the nearest port of the 3-port connector is attached. Next position an AlumiConn connector in a “stacked” fashion immediately behind the previously attached ground connector, with the ports positioned in the “up” orientation.
During installation of the outlet into the box (described later), this arrangement will place the stacked connector at the bottom of the box where there is more space. In the stacked position the pigtail is slightly longer than in the pigtail used for the other wires where the connector is immediately behind the outlet.
Pigtail wires are cut to a length of about 2 3/8” from a piece of 3-conductor romex (e.g. 14-2 with ground). The neutral line for the stacked connector requires the full 2 3/8" length. The hot and ground pigtail wires are made by trimming the 2 3/8 piece to a slightly shorter length. I call this assembly the “composite outlet assembly”.
Once the pigtails and associated connectors are attached, connect the ground lines to the ground connector of the composite assembly. Next attach the hot lines to the composite. This order provides good access to the set screws in order to tighten these screws in the AlumiConn connectors that are immediately behind the outlet. Finally, attach the wires to the stacked neutral connector.
Photo at left: reader's suggestion for close-wiring the AlumiConn splice connector.
With all of the wires connected, the composite assembly is pushed into the box, with the stacked connector being pushed into the bottom void of the box.
The attached photos show the outlet laying on the floor, in its “composite” form, and then as it is attached to the input and output lines, ready for pushing into the box.
I hope this helps and that the photos are what you were interested in. If not let me know and I'll try again - I have lots more to do. As I mentioned earlier, I will be away for a few weeks. I am leaving on Sept 17 and probably won't be doing any more work on this project before I leave. I will resume work when I return. C.J. 9/13/2013
Reply: examples of usable vs. bad back-wired electrical receptacles for the AlumiConn pigtailing approach to aluminum wiring repair
Your idea of connecting the AlumiConn™ closely to the back of the receptacle or switch is an interesting one and may work well; I noted in your photo that you are wiring the pigtail by connecting it around the side screw terminal on the receptacle. I have a suggestion that might improve the wiring by avoiding sharp bends in the connecting pigtail - a known source of trouble in wiring.
Photo at left: reader's suggestion for close-wiring the AlumiConn splice connector.
A slightly more expensive receptacle and switch like the one I show permits wiring with a straight-in connecting wire; the wire is inserted behind a clamp that is tightened by turning the screw on the receptacle or switch side. Take a look at the electrical " outlet" receptacle shown below.
The back wired clamp-type connector design electrical receptacle shown above is described beginning at HOW TO ADD an ELECTRICAL OUTLET. You can also purchase electrical switches that use the same type of connector.
Because the form factor width of the AlumiConn™ does not precisely match the width of a receptacle there will still be some wire bending, but less than when wrapping the connection around the screw on the device side.
You can see a different example (using a GFCI device) of back-wiring in this article
Using clamp type (not push-in type) connectors on electrical receptacles and switches will gain some space and reduce some of the sharp wiring bends when using the AlumiConn for aluminum wiring repairs.
The purchase of new receptacles and switches adds some cost to the aluminum wire repair job - in my OPINION a justified expenditure, more so where at least some of the original electrical receptacles and switches, now more than 30 years old, are likely to be worn and less reliable.
Watch out: I strongly advise against using the older or lower-cost back-wired devices that sport a simple push-in spring-type connector for back-wiring. That connection is unreliable and more likely not to tolerate the pushing and shoving involved in wiring pigtails and AlumiConns™.
And unlike the screw-clamp-type connectors that work well in back-wiring, the push-in spring type backwired connectors make a poor physical connection between the device and the wire surface - just the very edge of a spring.
Thanks for the comments. In regards to the "wrap around" connection, I think the key is the statement in the referenced article that says: "The receptacle we used for these photos happens to be a 20-A rated device that permits the wire to be inserted straight into a clamp that is tightened against the wire by the screw."
I agree that the clamping onto a straight section of wire would be better. Unfortunately, the receptacles in this house are not built with such a provision. I also agree with the warning about the rear "push in" style. I have never liked these - as you said, the electrical connection is on a spring loaded knife edge and provides a very poor pathway for electrical flow.
Photo at left: reader's close-wired AlumiConn™ splice connector used to repair aluminum wiring, copper pigtailed to the electrical receptacle, the AlumiConn™ then accepts the original solid-conductor aluminum wires for a good-performing repair and electrical safety improvement provided that all of the connections are made following the manufacturer's and US CPSC recommendations.
I have never used the push connections when I have purchased devices that have them. I once had a light fixture that blinked occasionally. I ultimately tracked the problem down to the push in connection on the outlet to which the light was connected. The outlet was installed with a push connection when the house was built. Over the years that I owned the place I reworked the wiring to eliminate all push-in connections.
When I first saw this connection method many years ago I couldn't believe that such a crummy method would be allowed. This probably exposes my naivete in such matters.
Manufacturers can produce anything. It would only be by some government decree that such devices would not be permitted to be sold. The retail industry has too strong of a lobby to make this happen. The government could dictate that they cannot be used - but this transfers the issue to code enforcement, which is a completely different affair. I can see that there is little chance of expunging such poor methods from use.
After all, at my local Home Depot I can purchase outlets that are made by Leviton and marked for use with aluminum and copper wiring. I couldn't believe it. Upon further investigation I discovered that Leviton makes one device and puts different labeling on it, according to what some high volume buying agent wants. I would call this false, to the point of fraudulent advertising. But the world is full of this, so what's new. Buyers must always beware.
I took the photos using my cell phone (iPhone 4s). It does not have a resolution setting for taking pictures. I transferred the photos to my laptop by email from the phone, then download to the laptop, then upload for email attachment. to you. Sending the photos by email from the phone allows sending the photos at a reduced resolution (in order to reduce the size of the file to be sent). I chose the lower resolution.
With your comments I retransmitted the photos to the PC at full resolution - they are attached. - C.J. 9/14/13
I've posted your AlumiConn repair example photos throughout our discussion and together we invite comments from King Innovations, the US CPSC., Dr. Aronstein, or other readers - D.F. 9/17/13
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