Both colors are caused by oxidation as the copper reacts to elements in the environment. The green oxidation is commonly seen when pool chlorine is stored in the same room with electrical equipment and minimal ventilation, producing copper sulfide or hydrated copper sulfate. The example above is a close-up of a service lug at an electric panel in a pool equipment room with stored pool chemicals.
Normal oxidation darkens copper gradually over years, and this is observable in copper water pipes as they age. But overheated copper wires will form a dark-gray-to-black oxidation patina on the exposed wire surfaces, similar to what happens to an overheated copper pan on a stove. The overheating can be caused by excessive current in the wires or a lightning strike, and it will usually be accompanied by melted or discolored insulation near wire connections.
High moisture level in the air, combined with water intrusion in the panel box can also cause an uneven green patina on exposed copper wiring over time. Older service panels for mobile homes, the kind that are mounted on a post next to the home and have accumulated rust-through holes and open knockouts, are where we see it most often.
Recent incidents here in the The Villages, Florida, where recharging a bank of golf cart batteries in a small garage releases hydrogen and hydrogen sulfide into the air that sets off a carbon monoxide alarm (they are also sensitive to high levels of hydrogen) and sends the fire department racing to the home, is another example of an environmental contaminant that will blacken nearby copper wires.
The defective “Chinese” drywall that was imported during the height of the building boom around 2006 is one more source of blackened copper. It gives off a distinct sulfurous smell, which is a secondary indicator that defective drywall is causing the problem.
Then there is also the blackened copper at wire connections to breakers that is caused by someone obsessively adding a thin coating of black anti-oxidant paste to all the breaker connections, even though only required for aluminum wire. Look closely for this one.
And sometimes, unfortunately, it will just be a mystery. The hydrogen sulfide in a sewer gas leak in the area of the wires is an example of a possible cause that would not be discernible if it was a one-time event long ago. Luckily, copper oxide is still a good conductor, unlike aluminum oxide, which is not.
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Here’s links to a collection of our other blog posts about ELECTRICAL WIRING:
• Which house appliances need a dedicated electrical circuit?
• Can a short circuit cause a high electric bill?
• Can you use a light switch for a water heater disconnect?
• When did the requirement for two 20-amp kitchen counter appliance circuits begin?
• What is the maximum spacing requirement for securing NM-cable (nonmetallic-sheathed cable)?
• Is it alright to just put wire nuts on the end of unused or abandoned NM-cable or wiring?
• Is the latest edition of the National Electrical Code (NEC) the standard used for the electrical system of new homes?
• What are typical aluminum service entrance wire/cable sizes for the electrical service to a house?
• Why is it unsafe to bond neutral and ground wiring at subpanels?
• When was it first required that neutrals and grounds be separated (not bonded) on any panel past the main service panel?
• Should I get a lightning rod system to protect my house?
• Why is a strain relief clamp necessary for the cord connection to some electric appliances?
• Does a wire nut connection need to be wrapped with electrical tape?
• What is the minimum clearance of overhead electric service drop wires above a house roof?
• What is the difference between a UL rating for dry, damp, and wet locations?
• What is three phase electric service?
• What is a reliable way to tell if the electrical service is 3 phase or single phase?
• Can NM-cable (Romex®) be used to make a cord and plug to connect an appliance?
• What are the requirements for NM-cables entering an electric panel box?
• What is the color code for NM cable (Romex®) sheathing?
• Can I remove a 240-volt range receptacle and hard-wire the range?
• Why do some wires in an electric panel have tape wrapped around them near their connections?
• Why is undersize electric wiring in a house dangerous?
• Why is bundled wiring in an electric panel a defect?
• What causes flickering or blinking lights in a house?
• What is the voltage rating of a house electrical system?
• Why are old electrical components not always "grandfathered" as acceptable by home inspectors?
• What is tinned copper wiring?
• What is a conduit body or condulet?
• How can I find out the size of the electric service to a house?
• What could cause an extremely high electric bill?
• Can old electrical wiring go bad inside a wall?
• What are the code requirements for NM-cable (nonmetallic-sheathed cable or Romex®) in an attic?
• What is the difference between "grounded" and "grounding" electrical conductors?
• What does it mean when a wire is "overstripped" at a circuit breaker?
• What is an open electrical splice?
• What are the most common electrical defects found in a home inspection?
• What is the life expectancy of electrical wiring in a house?
• Do any pre-1960 houses have aluminum wiring?
• What is the gooey stuff on some of the wire connections in the electric panel?
• How much does it cost to rewire a house?
• What is an "open junction box"?
• What are the clearance requirements for an overhead electric service drop that is directly over or near a swimming pool?
• How dangerous is old electrical wiring?
• What is a ground wire?
• What are the most common homeowner electrical wiring mistakes?
• I heard that aluminum wiring is bad. How do you check for aluminum wiring?
• What is "knob and tube" wiring?
• What is the minimum overhead electric service drop height/clearance to a house?
Visit our ELECTRICAL page for other related blog posts on this subject, or go to the INDEX for a complete listing of all our articles.