How to Fix 4 Common Electrical Outlet Problems By Yourself

White electrical outlet on a green wall
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Sure, call in an electrician for advanced jobs like running a new circuit or adding a sub-panel.  But fixing electrical outlet problems?  Stop right there.

Many problems with electrical outlets can easily be solved by the homeowner.  In most municipalities, homeowners are allowed to fix or make one-for-one replacements of outlets, without pulling a permit.

Safety

As long as the relevant circuit breaker is shut off (and which you can double-check with a voltage tested), you can work on your outlet in safety.

1.  Outlet Is Warm or Produces Sparks

How Bad Is This:  Not good.  May require replacement of outlet.

Do This:  Unplug all cords. Get inside the receptacle and make sure that wire ends are all firmly connected. If there is any doubt about the condition of the receptacle, simply replace it. It is easy enough to replace an outlet by yourself and cheap, too.

2.  Circuit Breaker Trips or Fuse Burns Out

How Bad Is This:  It can go either way.  This might be a simple case of lightening the load on a circuit.  Or your house's entire electrical system might need upgrading.

Do This:  The most common reason for circuit breaker tripping is an overloaded system. Turn off appliances that consume a lot of electricity, flip the breaker, and try again.  If the breaker does not turn off, then plug in and turn on one appliance or light and try again.  Sometimes, the circuit breaker itself may require replacing.

 If you have a fuse, rather than a circuit breaker, this itself may indicate an older service panel that is not adequate for today's standards.

3.  A Single Light or Appliance Does Not Turn On

How Bad Is This:  Not bad.  

Do This:  This is related to #2.  If the circuit breaker trips or fuse burns out, then lights and appliances will not work--meaning a series of lights or series of appliances.

But if it is an isolated problem, damaged cords, loose wires, soiled wire ends, and poor receptacles are sometimes to blame.  

If the outlet is a GFCI outlet (the kind with the on/off buttons on the face), reset the button.  If it is not GFCI, there is a chance that a GFCI outlet has been installed "upstream" (or, on the same circuit, but between the problem outlet and the service panel) which trips everything else "downstream."

4.  Cord Falls Out of Outlet

How Bad Is This:  Not bad at all.  This is simply a physical malfunction of the outlet; nothing related to electricity.

Do This:  You probably already know how to bend out prongs to make the wire stay in the outlet.  Hardware stores often sell replacement wires for lamps that are easy to replace. Be careful about appliance cords, though - these are not always so easy to deal with, given the high power draws. Finally, the outlet may simply need to be replaced if it is old enough.