How to Replace a 120-Volt Electrical Wall Outlet

Old 120-volt wall outlet
Electrical wall outlet (receptacle) in need of replacing.

If an electrical outlet (also known as a receptacle) is cracked or broken, the slots no longer grip the plug tightly, or the outlet doesn’t work properly, it needs to be replaced. Replacing a standard, 120-volt wall outlet is an easy DIY project that only requires a few tools and some basic knowledge of wiring.

Read on for step-by-step instructions on how to replace an electrical outlet in your home.

15-amp and 20-amp wall receptacles
15-amp (left) and 20-amp (right) wall receptacles.

Choosing an Electrical Outlet

When replacing a wall outlet, it’s important to use the correct type of receptacle. To determine the receptacle you need, start by locating the circuit breaker that controls the outlet you plan to replace.

Circuit breakers that control the lights and outlets in your home will be marked as either 15-amp or 20-amp. A 15-amp circuit is wired with smaller 14-gauge wire, while a 20-amp circuit has heavier 12-gauge wire for handling larger electrical loads.

Armed with this knowledge, choose a receptacle following these rules:

  • 15-Amp Receptacle: These are the most common outlets in homes, with the familiar two slots and one rounded grounding plug. A 15-amp receptacle can be attached either to a 15-amp or a 20-amp breaker and 12-gauge or 14-gauge wire.
  • 20-Amp Receptacle: These heavy-duty receptacles are more common for commercial use, such as with power tools and hospital equipment. They look similar to a 15-amp receptacle, except that one of the slots is “T” shaped. A 20-amp receptacle MUST be attached to a 20-amp breaker with 12-gauge wiring.
  • Grounded or Ungrounded Receptacle: If your house has grounded wiring (with a bare or green ground wire in the electrical box), use a three-prong grounded outlet. If your home doesn’t have grounded wiring, like many older homes, you should use a two-prong, ungrounded outlet. Attaching a grounded receptacle to ungrounded wiring is unsafe and misleading, as it implies that the circuit is grounded. To provide protection from shocks on ungrounded wiring, you can install a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) type receptacle.

When in doubt, take the old receptacle with you to the store for help buying the same kind of replacement receptacle.

Screwdrivers, wire strippers, voltage tester, and electrical tape
Screwdrivers, wire strippers, voltage tester, and electrical tape.

Tools and Supplies Needed

To replace an electrical outlet, you will need the following tools and supplies:

  • Screwdrivers: Both slotted and Phillips head.
  • Voltage Tester: An inexpensive, non-contact voltage tester.
  • Wire Strippers: A pair of wire strippers.
  • Electrical Tape: Standard black electrical tape for wrapping wires.
  • Receptacle: The proper type wall outlet for your wiring and electrical needs as determined above.
  • Cover Plate: A new outlet cover plate to match the receptacle, if the old plate needs replacing.

Turning off a 20-amp circuit breaker
Turning off a 20-amp circuit breaker.

Step 1: Turn Power Off at Circuit Breaker

Turn off the circuit breaker that powers the electrical outlet you plan to replace. To determine which breaker is the right one, plug a lamp, hair dryer, fan, or radio into the outlet and turn it on. That way you will be able to either see or hear the device go off when you flip the right breaker.

If you’re not sure how to turn the power off to the outlet, flip the main breaker to shut down power to the entire house. As a precaution, test both plugs of the receptacle with a voltage tester to make sure the outlet is not conducting any current before proceeding.

Unscrewing an outlet cover plate
Unscrewing the outlet cover plate.

Step 2: Remove Outlet Cover Plate

Use a screwdriver to remove the center screw holding the cover plate in place. If the cover plate is stuck to the wall with paint, run a utility knife between the cover plate and wall to cut through the layer of paint. If you’re planning on reusing the existing cover plate, put it aside.

Unscrewing an electrical outlet from the box
Unscrewing the receptacle from the electrical box.

Step 3: Unscrew Old Receptacle from Box

Remove the screws on the top and bottom of the receptacle that attach it to the electrical box. Gently pull the receptacle out to expose the wires. As a precaution, test the wires with the voltage tester, to make sure there is no current coming to the receptacle from any of the wires.

Receptacle pulled out from the electrical box.
Examine the wiring on the receptacle before disconnecting it.

Step 4: Inspect Receptacle Wiring

Take a look at the receptacle to understand how it’s wired. Some outlets simply have one hot (black) wire and one neutral (white) wire. The black wire should be attached to a brass or gold screw, and the white wire should be attached to a silver screw. There may also be a bare or green ground wire attached to a green grounding screw on the receptacle.

Other circuits are wired in daisy-chain fashion from one to the next, with one set of black and white wires leading into the receptacle, and another set leading out to the next outlet. Still others might be wired on separate circuits, with entirely separate wires feeding each of the two outlets – that’s why voltage testing is so important.

If you have multiple wires coming into your receptacle, use bits of masking tape to mark which wires are attached to which screws, because once you disconnect them it will be hard to remember what goes where! On complicated hookups, draw a diagram, or take a picture of the wiring before disconnecting it.

Disconnecting the wires from the receptacle.
Disconnecting the wires from the receptacle.

Step 5: Disconnect Wires from Old Receptacle

Loosen the screws holding the wires, and gently remove the wires from the screws. If the wires were installed in the back of the receptacle using push-in terminals, insert a small, slotted screwdriver in the slot next to each terminal to release the wire.

Be careful with the wires; if they’re undamaged, you can use the exposed ends again. If the ends of the wires are frayed or broken, snip them back and strip off the sheathing with wire strippers to expose about 1/2″ of bare wire.

Now’s a good time to take a look inside your electrical box, and vacuum it out if it’s dirty. If there are any connections inside the box, check the wire nuts to make sure they’re tight.

Attaching wires to a new receptacle
Attaching wires to the new receptacle.

Step 6: Connect Wires to New Receptacle

Connect the black, white, and ground wires (if you have one) to the same terminals on the new receptacle as the old one. To use the mounting screws, you’ll need to use the needle-nosed end of your wire strippers to bend the end of each wire into a hook to wrap around the screw.

Bend the wire in a clockwise direction (to the right) so it will be pulled tighter onto the terminal when you tighten the screw. Keep the hook small, so you won’t have bare wire showing around the screw. Hook the wire around the screw and tighten it up with a screwdriver.

Back wiring a receptacle terminal
Back wiring the terminal on a receptacle.

Alternatively, you can “back wire” the receptacle, by placing a straight wire underneath the brass plate next to the screw, or use the push-in connections on the back of the receptacle. While back wiring and push-in connections are easier to install than screw mounting, they’re considered less secure. Be sure to trim the bare wire down when back wiring, so no bare wire is showing after it’s inserted under the plate.

Attaching a new receptacle to electrical box
Attaching new receptacle to electrical box.

Step 7: Attach Receptacle to Box

Gently push the wires and receptacle into the box – don’t force it. If the receptacle won’t fit, carefully rearrange the wires until you can tuck them all safely in the box.

Which way to face the ground plug on a receptacle?

Whether to install a grounded outlet with the ground plug facing up (as shown in the photo above) or down is a matter of debate among electricians. Some feel that installing the ground plug up is safer (since the hot prongs on a plug will not be exposed if it pulls partly out of the receptacle) while others think down provides the most protection (since the plug will still be grounded if it pulls loose). Both ways are considered acceptable under building codes.

Once the new receptacle is in place, attach it to the electrical box using the two screws so the metal “ears” next to the screws on the top and bottom are flush with the wall.

Attaching the cover plate to a receptacle
Attaching cover plate to receptacle.

Step 8: Install Cover Plate

Attach the cover plate to the receptacle using the center screw. Be careful when tightening up the cover plate screw. If the receptacle was set too deep in the wall, tightening up the screw can cause the cover plate to crack.

Completed electrical wall outlet
Completed electrical wall outlet after replacing.

Step 9: Turn On Circuit Breaker

Turn the circuit breaker that controls the receptacle back on, and test the outlet. If it doesn’t work, you probably have a loose connection or a short in a wire. Repeat the steps above until you the outlet is working.

Further Information


  1. I have two ceiling fans (bedroom & living room) which are controlled by wall touch switches. One or both will go during severe storms. I have questioned various Home Depot workers who had no idea what could be causing these occurrences. I don’t want to call an electrician to come over for something I could possibly do myself. I have installed dimmer switches, installed thermostats, toilet repairs, under the sink repairs, faucet repairs… I think I can tackle this one. I just need to know whether if I disconnect it at the wall switch, will it function manually directly from the fan?

    I thank you.

  2. How do I figure out which circuit breaker turns off which outlets and then how do I double-check to be sure its off?

  3. I am replacing some old lighting in my kitchin, the lights I will be putting back are lumens link able. What I would like to do is remove the switch that is there fore the old light and rewire it for a outlet can you help?
    Thanking you in advance,
    Lonnie Ayers

  4. my electrical outlet in the kitchen does not fit my oven i need to replace it to fit my oven cord which is a three prong what do i need to do

  5. I have a gfi outlet in my kitchen that stopped working and would not reset. It did not trip a circuit breaker. I replaced the outlet and still no power. None of the others in the same room are broken. Could the problem be further back in the wall?

    • Hi, Casey,
      It could be a breaker problem, it could be another outlet in the series, it could be a bad GFCI. This one is better left for a pro that can troubleshoot and pinpoint exactly where the problem is.
      Good luck!

  6. Hi,my name is Bill and I was working on a project in the garage and Was using a stapler to put up cardboard and shot a 1/2 staple into an electric line and it went dark.I pulled the staple out and went to reset the breaker. It didn’t have the normal click on or off feel or sound so I am going to be replacing it.It is a double pull 20amp breaker.My question is do I need to pull the breaker out with some insulated pliers and can I leave the main power on w/o getting electrocuted?

    • Hi, William,
      Some simple electrical projects (such as installing a GFCI or AFCI outlet) are fine for do-it-yourselfers who are comfortable with cutting off the home’s power and tackling these jobs.
      However, this situation is much more complicated, and trying to correct it could be dangerous.
      It’s better safe than sorry, so we recommend hiring an electrician for this job.
      Good luck!


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