How to Install an Old Work (Retrofit) Electrical Box

Electrical socket
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Overview
  • Working Time: 3 hrs
  • Total Time: 3 hrs
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $5 to $25 (depending on cable needed)

Electrical boxes used to mount outlets, switches, and light fixtures in walls and ceilings come in a seemingly endless variety of sizes and styles, including metallic (steel) versions requiring grounding of the box and nonmetallic versions (PVC, phenolic resin or fiberglass) which do not require grounding of the box. Metallic boxes can be used with either nonmetallic (Type NM-B) or metallic sheathed electrical cable. Nonmetallic plastic boxes are designed for use only with nonmetallic sheathed electrical cable.

Whatever the material, electrical boxes can be loosely divided into two types: 

  • New work boxes, designed to be installed just after the wall is framed but BEFORE the surfaces are finished with drywall.
  • Old work (also called retrofit) boxes, designed to be installed AFTER the walls are finished. These old work boxes are used during remodeling projects. They have opposing corner tabs or "ears" integral to the box that press against the back side of the wall as the fastening screws are tightened

Installing an old work box into an existing wall to add an outlet or wall switch is an easy project that requires just a few common tools that you may already own if you're familiar with basic electrical repairs. The most difficult part of the project is running cable through the walls; this process can take several hours, even though the box itself can be installed in just a few minutes.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Flat-blade and Phillips-head screwdriverss
  • Pencil
  • Keyhole saw
  • Cable ripper
  • Wire-stripper

Materials

  • Old work nonmetallic electrical box
  • Wire connectors

Instructions

  1. Buy an Old-Work Electrical Box

    An old work box is designed to be installed after-the-fact—on walls that are already finished. They are often used in situations where you are adding outlets or extending an existing circuit in a room that is already finished. Because these situations don't allow you the opportunity to attach the box directly to studs, these boxes need a different means of anchoring. 

    To anchor them in place, these boxes have a clever fastening system that uses retention tabs and mounting ears located in opposite corners of the box. Once the box is inserted into the wall cutout and the screws are tightened, the rear retention tabs open up and draw up tight against the back of the drywall or plaster, while mounting ears on the front of the box press against the front face of the wall. The front ears and back retention tabs "pinch" the box tightly in place against the wall surface. 

    mounting ears on eletrical box
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  2. Prepare the Retention Tab Screw

    The screw that goes into the retention tab on the box may sometimes be very tight when the box comes from the manufacturer. This may require you to put considerable pressure against the wall when you turn the screw, which may damage the wall. 

    To avoid this problem, simply tighten the mounting screw BEFORE installation, drawing the retention tab up about 1/4 to 3/8 inch. This effectively precuts the threads in the plastic retention tab, making the screw easier to turn later when you are actually securing the box in the wall. After the screw is drawn up slightly, back the screw out to allow the retention tab to go back into its original folded position.

    retention screw on electrical box
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  3. Prep the Box's Cable Clamp (PVC Boxes Only)

    Old work electrical boxes made from PVC use an integrated quick-clamping system to hold the nonmetallic NM-B cable to the box. These clamping tabs can be a little difficult to open up.

    To make insertion of the electrical cable into the box easier, take a flat-blade screwdriver and pry up the clamping tab about 1/4 inch. This will loosen the clamp and make it easier to insert the cable.

    opening of electrical box access tab
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  4. Prepare Electrical Box Opening in the Wall

    The first step in installing an old work electrical box is to create the wall cutout. Position the electrical box backward against the wall, in the exact position you plan to install it. Take a pencil and trace the outline of the box on the wall. (Note: Some styles of boxes may require you to enlarge the hole slightly at the point where the retention tabs are located. If so, this will become apparent when you try to slide the box into the wall).

    Using a drywall keyhole saw, carefully cut the hole along the traced outline and remove the drywall blank. A sharp blow on the heel of the saw will usually cause the blade to puncture the drywall so you can begin cutting. For plaster, you can drill an access hole in the cutout area to provide space to insert the saw blade.

    trace wall box profile on wall
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  5. Run Cable and Strip the Sheathing

    Before the old work box is installed, one or more NM-B electrical cables will need to be run to the wall cutout. If the new outlet is a simple circuit extension, there will likely be just one cable running from the last outlet location to the new box location. More complicated wiring scenarios may call for two cables. Make sure the new lengths of cable are sized appropriately for the amperage of the circuit. 

    Run cables to the new box location. There should be 8 to 12 inches of excess cable at the new wall opening. At this point, the new cable should be unattached to any electrical devices. If the cable is already connected on the source side of the circuit, make sure the circuit breaker supplying power to it has been shut off at the main service panel. 

    Once the hole is cut in the wall for the box, feed the cable (or cables) out through the wall opening.

    Before feeding the cable into the old work box, use a cable stripper to remove about 6 inches of the outer vinyl sheathing from the NM-B cable, exposing the conductors and the ground wire. If you don't have a cable stripper, This can also be done by taking a sharp utility knife or razor blade and slicing the sheathing PARALLEL to the wires, being careful not to slice the insulators. Carefully cut the sheathing off.

    wire conductors exposed from sheating
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  6. Insert the Cable into the Box

    Thread the stripped nonmetallic sheathed cable into the old work box, making sure the sheathing is secured under the clamping tab (for a PVC box) or the clamping bar (for a phenolic resin/ fiberglass box). Make sure to leave about 6 to 7 inches of exposed wires. Properly installed, there should be 1/2 to 1 inch of cable sheathing extending into the box, secured under the clamp.

    electrical cable insterted into box
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  7. Insert Old Work Box Into Wall

    Next, simply place the old work electrical box into the hole in the wall. Hold the box so the mounting ears on the front of the box are tight against the front of the drywall while you tighten the two retention screws. Turning the screws will flip the retention tabs so they can then be drawn against the back of the drywall, securing the box to the wall.

    inserting electrical box into wall
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  8. Strip Wire Insulation from the Conductors

    Using a wire stripper, strip 3/4 to 1 inch of insulation off the ends of each of the wire conductors. A wire stripper is the best tool for this since it has different slots sized to match different wire gauges. If you use a utility knife to strip wires, make sure not to nick the metal conductors.

    stripping insulation from conductors
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  9. Final Steps

    Your box is now ready to receive an outlet receptacle or switch. For safety, screw wire nuts onto the ends of the wires until you are ready to make the final connections

    installed old work electrical box
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