Replace an Electrical Outlet: You Can Do This Easy Fix in 15 Minutes

Installing Electrical Outlet
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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 is one electrical fix that even the most nervous homeowner can undertake, with complete safety. Just follow these instructions:

1. Shut off Power and Double-Check It Is Off

Shut off power to the circuit you will be working on at the service panel.

Do not assume the markings on the service panel box are correct.  

Return to your outlet. Check that no current is running to the outlet by using a voltage tester.

2. Remove Face Plate

Unscrew center screw of the faceplate (cover) with a manual flat-head screwdriver.  Do not use an electric drill.

3. 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 typically are the live wires. Test these wires.

4. Pull Out Outlet

With your cordless drill, unscrew the top and bottom screws from the outlet, and gently pull out outlet by these top and bottom "ears."

5. Take Note of Wire Configuration

Even though not all wires carry current, it is 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 a gold or brass colored screw.
  • White: This neutral wire is attached to the outlet with a silver colored screw.
  • Green or Bare: This is a ground wire and is usually affixed to the outlet by a green screw.

Note where each wire is attached by affixing tabs on the wires with masking tape. Even though you think you will remember, as soon as the wires are detached, in all likelihood, you will forget.

6. 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: This is a thinner, lower capacity wire used for most receptacles and lighting. Rated for 15 amps.
  • 12 Gauge Wire: This is 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.

7. Install Wires in New Outlet

You have a choice of two methods of attaching the wires, the second one being most electricians' preferred method because it grips the wires stronger.  However, most homeowners will find the first method, back wiring, to be easier and just as effective.

  • Back Wiring: You can "back wire" an outlet by pushing the wires into spring-loaded grip holes in the back of the outlet. Make sure that about 3/8" wire covering is removed from the end of the wire before inserting in the hole. If bare wire still shows after the wire is inserted, remove and slightly trim down wire before trying again. The aim is to avoid having 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.

8. 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.

Bottom Line

You can replace an electrical outlet by yourself, no electrician needed.
In most communities, no permit is required.
As long as the power is shut off, this is a safe fix.
The trick: Note the pattern of the wires and copy for the new outlet.
Follow instructions.