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How to Fix and Replace an Electrical Outlet

Okay, stay at home dad, something happened and when your son plugged in his radio (or you did it for him), the outlet sparked and scared everybody. Now there are little black marks on the face of the outlet. Or maybe the outlet just doesn’t work for one reason or another. If you live in an older house, sometimes the outlets stop working. They can also stop working in new houses due to shoddy installation.

Since you are the coolest dad ever, you can fix that outlet pretty easily (hopefully reading this will help). First, make sure the breaker in the fuse box is still on, sometimes it is as simple as that (though if it shooting sparks out, it is probably more). Even though electricity can be scary ,this job can be done with few tools: a flat head screwdriver, a Phillips head screwdriver, something to cut the wire, and something to strip wires (wire strippers, needle nose pliers, side snipes, even a knife will work – often the tool to cut the wire can be used to strip them). There are a few more tools that can make it easier for daddy fix it, but these few tools are all you really need.

Tools on the left, are the only three tools you need (the needlenose pliers will cut and strip wire) the tools on the right will make the job easier.

Tools on the left, are the only three tools you need (the needlenose pliers will cut and strip wire) the tools on the right will make the job easier.

To replace an electrical socket, make sure that the power is off to that outlet. Turn the power off by turning off the breaker to that outlet or room. But be sure that there is no electricity going to that outlet. You can check this several ways. You can plug something, like a lamp, into the socket to see if it turns on (another trick is to plug in a radio before you turn the power off, so you can hear when you flip the right breaker). There is also a nifty little outlet checker you can get at any hardware store to let you know if it is working (the little yellow thing in the picture above), or if it is wired correctly (helpful for once you’ve completed the job). But if the outlet is broken, this may not work, check the outlet before turning the power off. The last option, and probably the most accurate is with a volt meter. You can get a fairly inexpensive one (less than $15) at a hardware store, or even a auto parts store (the thing with the wires on it in the picture above, but that voltmeter is more like $70).

Set the meter to read 200 volts AC current, and stick the probes in the socket. Don’t worry, it won’t hurt you, as long as you aren’t touching the metal on the probes. If the power is on, it should read 110-120 volts, maybe a tad higher, if the power is off, it should read 0, though if you have a digital voltmeter, you may see a reading as high as 5 volts, this is fine. To be absolutely sure the power is off, take the cover off the outlet and check the copper strips along the side of the outlet (or the wires if you can see them). Anyways, if you are working with 110 volt outlet, and the power is on, you will find out soon enough. It will hurt like hell, but it most likely won’t kill you. Take it from somebody who has been shocked a few times because I didn’t follow these steps. But try and turn the power off, and do it when somebody else is in the house so they can call 911.

After the power is off (and you’ve confirmed it), take the cover off the outlet. This should be one flat-head screw in the middle of the outlet or, if you have the fancy square outlets, then one above and below the outlet. Try not to fully remove the screws, just unscrew them enough to remove the cover, the screw should stay in place. This is the place to use the voltmeter to see if there is power coming to the side copper plates or visible wires.

Now, unscrew the two screws at the top and bottom of the outlet. These are long, and typically Phillips head screws. I usually use my power drill to undo these because the tedium of using a normal screwdriver drives me batty. Again, don’t unscrew these screws all the way, just enough to get the outlet off the wall. The screws have little holders on them that keep them in place so you don’t lose them. Once the screws are out, pull the outlet out of the wall. Now, depending on how old the outlet (or your house) is, you should have five wires. Two black wires (hot wire), two white wires (neutral), and a bare copper wire (if you have a different number, jump to the next paragraph). What you have is one set of wires bringing power to the outlet, another set continuing to the next outlet, and a ground wire. The black and white wires are in one of two places: on the side and held in by screws, or jammed straight into the back. The bare copper wire should be attached by a green screw. If they are screwed in, undo the screws. The wire could held in by a clamp, or hooked on. If they are jammed in the back you have two options. Cut the wire (which is also an option if they are screwed in), or release them by taking a small screwdriver (like those for eyeglasses) and jabbing it into the release spot, and pull the wires out. Note, you may want to loosen the screws on the side, as this sometimes makes it easier.

The back of new electrical outlet.  The holes are for the wires to push into, the squares next the holes are the release buttons.

The back of new electrical outlet. The holes are for the wires to push into, the squares next the holes are the release buttons.

If you have more than the three above mentioned wires, there are a couple scenarios to content with. First, and most common, you only have one black, one white, and the bare copper wire. This means that this outlet was the last one in the series, and no power is going out to the next outlet. Similarly, you may have three black and three white, meaning power is going to two different places after this outlet. Next, you may not have a bare copper wire. This probably means you are in an older house that isn’t grounded. You can buy ground wires at the hardware store, and connect the outlet to the metal outlet box to create a ground. Next, you may have one black and two white wires, or vice versa, or even a red wire. You will typically see this on outlets that are upside down and are often controlled by a light switch. Take note of how and where the wires are installed (take a picture). Also, with switch-controlled outlets, you may need to cut the copper connector on the side of the outlet (see the picture). This allows you to have one plug off the switch, and one plug on all the time.

If you want one plug off a light switch, and one on all the time, cut the little bar between screws.

If you want one plug off a light switch, and one on all the time, cut the little bar between screws.

Quick fix: if you can visibly see a screw sticking out the side of the outlet that is touching the surrounding box, that could be your problem. Tighten that screw (and the other screws) all the way in, and give it a try. That screw could be shorting out the outlet. Also, make sure all the wires are connected to the outlet. A loose wire will not give you power. Also, sometimes installers will put small wires on an outlet and connect them via wire nuts to other wires. Make sure one of the small wires didn’t come out of the wire nut (also you may want to check the outlet “up river” where the power is coming from, as the wires could have slipped out of the wire nut.

The rats nest of wires, with a red wire, instead of black one.

The rats nest of wires, with a red wire instead of black one.

One you have the old outlet off, connect the wires to the new outlet. Most new outlets will have indicators as to where the wires go, but the hot wire (black) connects to the side with the copper (or black) screws and the neutral wire (white) connects to the side with the silver screws They also have a wire stripping guide to tell you how much of the plastic coating to remove (see the picture of the back of the outlet above).

Try to reinstall the wires to the new outlet like they were on the old outlet. This means a bit less work, but if you want to put them in the back, or the wires were corroded, cut them, strip them and install them. If you do hook the wires, install the hook so that the end is clockwise away from the base, this will make it easier to screw down. Once the wires are attached, tighten all the screws along the sides, and shove the outlet back into the box, and tighten the screws. Don’t tighten it down all the way, leave it a bit loose, so you can adjust the outlet to make it straight, or if you have multiple outlets with one cover, you can adjust the outlet so the cover fits.

All wired back together.

All wired back together.

I would recommend testing the outlet at this point, so turn the power back on. Use your tester, voltmeter, or lamp to see if it works. If it does, great! Put the cover back on and go back to playing with kids. If it doesn’t work, check to make sure the power is actually on (was there a power outage when you had the power off?), then double check the wires (preferably with the breaker turned off). The next step would be to check the outlets upriver to see if there is a loose wire behind one of them. If there is still no power to the outlet, then leave a comment and I will try to figure out what the next step is, which might be to call the electrician.

This do-hicky will tell you if the outlet is wired correctly, or if there is power to the outlet.

This do-hicky will tell you if the outlet is wired correctly, or if there is power to the outlet.

 

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