When you are setting up a networking infrastructure for your office or home, you will have to make a lot of decisions, one of which involves choosing the right type of cables to connect your routers and modems. Whether you choose Cat5 or Cat6 cables, copper wire cables are the way to go, no matter what your technician advises. However, you might be compelled to cut some costs and consider buying alternatives, such as copper-clad aluminium cables, or CCA cables.
While they look virtually the same, copper-clad aluminium cables have an aluminium core and are dipped in a thin coating of copper. If you scrape off their gold layer, you will find the silver layer underneath. These cables were made by manufacturers to provide a low-cost alternative to pure copper wires, and most telecom installers use these wires as part of their fibre optic setup to reduce the installation costs.
The identical appearance of these cables, coupled with smart marketing, has made them a supposedly suitable alternative for fibre optic installation. However, there is another side to the story that most people are unaware of. If you think your fibre cabling is not performing at its max, it is time to look under the covers and learn more about the issues posed by copper-clad aluminium cables.
Common Issues with CCA Cables
Copper-clad aluminium cables have an inner aluminium conductor, which is weaker than copper, which is why they have a weaker conductivity as compared to pure copper cables. Here are the most common issues you can face if your Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) infrastructure involves CCA cabling.
According to TIA and UL standards, networking cables should have solid or stranded copper conductors, and since copper-coated aluminium cables lack these, they are not certified by these standards. CCA twisted pair cables are not certified for safety according to the electrical codes, which means that it would be illegal to use them inside any building if they require CM, CMX, CMP, CMR, or CMG-rated cables.
Lack of Flexibility
While pure copper cables are highly durable and flexible, CCA cables have very low tensile strength, which makes it very easy to damage or break them, especially if they are bent. They are often snapped or damaged during delivery or installation by technicians. They also have a limited bend radius, which can also hinder installation.
Ease of Corrosion
As a metal, aluminium is very reactive and oxidizes very easily when it comes in contact with air. Worst of all, if any part of your fibre cabling gets damaged due to oxidization, it can be quite a nightmare for you to identify the failure and rectify it. Oxidization can directly lead to a loss of connectivity or failed transmissions.
Impractical for Power over Ethernet Applications
In Power over Ethernet or PoE applications, larger conductors are used to compensate for the higher resistance, which is required in case of a voltage drop. CCA cables are unable to compensate for the required resistance, as they have a higher DC resistance than pure copper cables. The voltage drop causes the devices to receive lesser than the required voltage to operate properly. This can also cause overheating and damage to the device.
Using copper-coated aluminium cables can also be a fire risk. This causes the cables to overheat at twice the rate, which can eventually lead to a fire if the current isn’t switched off in time. This is why CCA cables are very unsafe to use.
Compromised Signal Strength by Length
Unlike pure copper cables, CCA cables start to lose their signal strength as you increase the length of the cable. As the signal strength deteriorates, this leads in a packet loss and ultimately, you will start to experience a lag or interruptions in transmission. On the other hand, pure copper cables can be run for longer lengths without any packet loss.
The reduction in signal strength refers to attenuation, which occurs over longer distances of cabling. The higher bulk resistance of aluminium causes packet loss, and the packets have to be retransmitted, which causes a delay in signal transmission.
As a consequence of the higher resistance of CCA cables, they start to overheat very quickly, and this can have quite an adverse effect for your entire network. If the heat level exceeds a certain level, it can lead to a halt in transmission or packet loss, and this would mean that you will have to eventually replace the CCA cables with new ones. Therefore, it would be better to use pure copper cables in the first place, as they don’t heat up as much.
How to Distinguish Copper-Coated Aluminium Cables from Pure Copper Cables?
There are several ways you can identify CCA cables and prevent buying them for your fibre optic installation. If you have employed one of the telecom installers, be sure to check the cables they are using. One main way is to look at the labelling. While it may not tell you exactly what you need to know, you can look for the certifications and safety ratings that are only given to copper cables. Another way is to weigh the box, as aluminium is lighter than copper.
However, the weighing method has a workaround, and manufacturers tend to make heavier CCA cables that can match the weight of copper cables. The best way to find out is to scrape off the conductor inside a piece of cable and expose the layer underneath. If it is an aluminium cable, it will have a silver colour underneath.
Another method to check the difference between CCA cables and pure copper cables is to test them by using DC resistance as a benchmark. No matter what its length is, CCA cables fail the DC Resistance Unbalance test, which can provide you with clear identification.
Whether you are looking to set up FTTH or laying down a fibre optic, it is always important to ensure that you have the best quality equipment, as this can greatly impact the performance of your network. While CCA cables are much lower in cost, they also compromise in performance and signal quality, which is a big gamble.