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.
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:
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.