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Replace an Old Electrical Outlet

It's the Easiest Electrical Cosmetic Fix You Can Do

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electrical outlet side-wired

Side Wiring an Electrical Outlet

© Lee Wallender; licensed to About.com
Nothing looks worse--and performs worse--than old electrical outlets. They are unsightly. Plugs slip out of them. They are dangerous.

The solution is simple: replace old outlets with new outlets and faceplates. It's one electrical fix that even the most nervous homeowner can undertake, with complete safety. Just follow these instructions:

1. Shut Off Power

Shut off power to circuit you will be working on at the service panel. Do not assume that the markings on the service panel box are correct.

2. Check That Power Is Off

Return to your outlet. Check that no current is running to the outlet (also called a receptacle) by using a voltage tester.

3. Remove Face Plate

Unscrew center screw of face plate with a flat-head screwdriver.

4. Check Again that Power is Off

With faceplate off, insert voltage tester into receptacle box alongside the outlet. Use a flashlight to find the side with the black wires. The black wires are the live wires. Test these wires.

5. Pull Out Outlet

Unscrew top and bottom screws from outlet, and gently pull out outlet by these top and bottom "ears." Again, be careful not to touch any wire. Now that you can see the outlet in the light, check once more with the voltage tester to make sure that the black wires are not live. You can never check too many times.

6. Understand Color Coding

Even though not all wires carry current, it's best to assume that all wires have the potential to be "live."
  • Black: This is a live wire carrying electrical current. This is usually affixed to the outlet by means of gold or brass colored screw.
  • White: This neutral wire is attached to the outlet with a silver colored screw.
  • Green or Bare: This is usually affixed to the outlet by a green screw.

7. Take Note of Wire Configuration

If this is a simple three wire set-up (one black wire, one white wire, one ground wire), it is not necessary to note how it is hooked up to the outlet. But if you have multiple white and black wires (you should not have multiple ground wires), please note where each wire goes by affixing tabs on the wires with masking tape. Even though you think you will remember, as soon as the wires are detached, you will forget. Trust me, you will. So do this.

8. Do You Have the Right Outlet?

Depending on the wires coming into the box (whether 14 or 12 gauge), you need to buy the correct outlet.
  • 14 gauge wire = a thinner, lower capacity wire used for most receptacles and lighting. Rated for 15 amps.
  • 12 gauge wire = a heavier, higher capacity wire used for GFCI outlets and higher amperage uses. Rated for 20 amps.
The wire size should be imprinted on the side of the cable sheath. If not, you can check wire size by means of an inexpensive wire gauge that you can buy at most hardware stores.

9. Install Wires in New Outlet

You have a choice of two methods of attaching the wires, the second one being the preferred method because it grips the wires stronger:
  • Back Wiring: You can "back wire" an outlet by pushing the wires into spring-loaded grip holes in back of the outlet. Make sure that about 3/8" wire covering is removed from the end of the wire before inserting in hole. If bare wire still shows after wire is inserted, remove and slightly trim down wire before trying again. You don't want any bare wire showing.
  • Side Wiring: The preferable method is to screw the wires into the sides of the outlet. This is better because the screws give you a stronger grip. Like the "back wire" method, trim back the wire covering so that only the bare minimum is showing to make contact with the screw. Screw in as tightly as you can.

10. Re-Install New Outlet

Take this opportunity to clean up the receptacle box with your shop vacuum before re-installing the new outlet. Also, tape up any frayed or nicked wires with electric tape (though if the wires are badly deteriorated, you may have to trim back and replace with new wire).

With a clean box, gently fold back the wires into the box and push the outlet in and screw it in. You should not have to force the outlet in. If you do find yourself forcing the outlet, pull it out again and reorganize the wires and try it again. Forcing the outlet may damage the wires or pull them away from their connections on the outlet.

Related Video
How to Replace a Wall Outlet
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