Home Repair: How to replace electrical outlet, safely

Changing a broken outlet is simple, right? Just go to the home improvement center, rummage through the different bins and pick one. But is it the right one? Outlets come in 15 amp, 20 amp, grounding and non-grounding style, hospital grade and industrial grade, cheap and expensive. There may be a bin filled with white outlets priced at $1 each but aren’t the grounding type. Just because they are on sale doesn’t mean they are legal.

Check whatever you are going to plug into the outlet, does it have two blades or three? 95% of the time, the cord will have three blades, the third being for grounding. Lamp cords and small appliances are the exception. Don’t ask me why but they are. It has something to do with government regulations and we all know how that works. But larger appliance cords have three blades and that third blade is for grounding. Refrigerator, microwave, electric lawn mower, washing machine; all have that third blade. In older homes, the homeowner may find that trying to plug a three blade cord cap into a two blade outlet is impossible. Cutting off the grounding blade is the most favored solution although not a good idea.

How to replace electrical outlet, safely

In new homes, the wiring is three wire, non-metallic Romex), (Romex is a trade name that has been applied to almost all building wire for more than fifty years). It has a black wire, a white wire and a green wire, the green always being the grounding wire. In older homes, the Romex only had two wires, with no provision made for grounding. Back then, almost anything was legal as long as the house didn’t catch fire immediately. Upgrading to a newer three blade outlet presents a problem; how to ground it. Manufacturers solved that problem by attaching a small piece of metal from the neutral, or white connection, to the grounding terminal. While it is not the most ideal wiring method, it is better than nothing at all.

Before attempting to change the outlet, turn off the circuit breaker. Plug a lamp, or something similar, into the outlet and then turn off the circuit breakers one at a time. When the lamp goes off, so is the power. Take the cover off and save that little screw; it has a tendency of becoming lost in a big hurry. Two screws, one at the top and one at the bottom of the outlet hold it in the box. Take these out and pull the outlet toward you. The wires may be wrapped around the terminals or may be pushed into the back. The push-in type makes the job easier but doesn’t make as good a connection as wrapping the wires around the terminal. Unwrap the wires or cut them off at the back of the outlet. You are now ready to install the new outlet.

The hot terminal is a bronze color and the neutral is a white color; the wires need to be on the right terminal. I know I’m making this as simple as possible and do not intend to insult the intelligence of any one but when working with electricity, simple is better, and safer. Wrap the wires around the terminal and tighten down the screw but not enough to break the plastic. Just tight enough that the screw won’t loosen. Fold the wires back into the box and push the outlet in. Tighten the screws at the top and bottom until the outlet is flush with the wall and put the cover plate back on. You have now replaced that broken outlet and you feel better for it.

But let’s say you want to replace that broken outlet in the bathroom, the one your significant other has nagged about for months. Because it is close to water, it must be a GFIR (ground fault interrupter-receptacle) and this is a little more involved that a regular outlet. The GFIR is designed to open the circuit, or trip, when it senses a grounding fault of five milliamps, much too little for the average human to feel. For simplicity sake, we’re going to say that it is the only outlet in the bathroom and the circuit doesn’t continue on. I’ll go into more detail about the GFIR in another column.

The GFIR will have two sets of terminals on the back; one for the line and one for the load. The line terminals are what you want. Simply place the black wire on the hot side and the white wire on the neutral side with the green wire going on the grounding, green, terminal. The load terminals you don’t need to worry about at this time, just ignore them. The GFIR is larger than a normal outlet because of the added electronic circuitry inside and will be a tight fit into the box, but trust me, it will fit. Your hair dryer is now GFIR protected.

I admit that I have made this operation seem simpler than it actually is but I do this with the safety of the homeowner in mind. Electricity isn’t to be taken for granted and should always be respected. If in doubt turn off the circuit breaker and live to tell your friends about it. If serious doubt comes to mind, call a licensed electrician.

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