Replacing an Electrical Receptacle

What You'll Need
Here are the tools you'll want to have when replacing an electrical receptacle:
  • Replacement receptacle
  • Screwdriver
  • Single-edge razor blade or utility knife
  • Grounding screws or clips
  • Wire stripper with cutting blade

Nearly everyone has come across an electrical receptacle that doesn't work as well as it should or one that doesn't work at all. How does it happen that a receptacle fails to do its job efficiently and safely? There are two possible explanations.

An electrical receptacle can be permanently damaged through improper use. Sticking a hairpin or a paper clip in it, for example, can shorten a receptacle's -- and your -- life.

You may never do anything as foolish as sticking a paper clip in an electrical receptacle, but you can do the same damage when you plug in an appliance with a short circuit. Regardless of how the damage occurred, the damaged electrical receptacle must be replaced.

Another possible explanation for an electrical receptacle that doesn't work efficiently and safely is that it is just so old and has been used so often that it's worn out.

There are two clear indications of a worn-out electrical receptacle: the cord's weight pulls the plug out of the receptacle or the plug blades do not make constant electrical contact within the receptacle slots. At that point, the old electrical receptacle should be replaced.

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This is not difficult, but you must follow the correct installation procedures precisely. Here's what you should do:

Step 1: Before working on electrical receptacle, deenergize circuit that controls it. Inspect old receptacle to see whether it can take a plug with a round prong (for grounding) in addition to two flat blades. Buy new receptacle with 20-amp rating of same type -- grounded or ungrounded -- as one you're replacing.

Step 2: Take off plate that covers receptacle by removing center screw with screwdriver. If cover doesn't come off easily, it's probably being held in place by several coats of paint. Carefully cut paint closely around edge of cover plate with razor blade or utility knife.

Step 3: Remove two screws holding receptacle in electrical box. Carefully pull receptacle out of box as far as attached line wires allow. Loosen terminal screws on receptacle and remove line wires. Caution: If wires or insulation is brittle or frayed, that part of circuit should be professionally rewired.

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A replacement receptacle must match the one you are removing. If you have the grounded type, you must buy a receptacle that has a ground terminal screw and slots for three-prong grounded plugs.
Step 4: Connect wires to new electrical receptacle with white wire under silver-color screw and black wire under dark-color screw. If you discover a green wire or a bare wire in box, fasten wire under screw that has dab of green color on it, then fasten it to box with grounding screw or clip. Make sure to loop line wires in clockwise direction under heads of terminal screws so screw heads will pull wire loops tighter. Also take care to connect wires so all wire without any insulation is secured safely under screw heads. Clip off any excess uninsulated wire.

Step 5: Carefully fold wires into space in electrical box behind receptacle, then push receptacle into box. Although there's no such thing as right side up for a two-blade receptacle, there is a correct position for receptacles designed to handle three-prong grounding plugs. Grounding plugs often attach to their cords at a right angle, so you should position receptacle so cord will hang down without a loop.

Step 6: Tighten the two screws that hold receptacle in receptacle box, then replace cover plate. Restore fuse or trip circuit breaker.

Slots in some electrical receptacles are not identical; one is wider than the other. The wider one connects to the white or neutral wire, while the narrower slot connects to the black or hot wire. Some plugs, in fact, are designed with one wide and one narrow blade, and these plugs will fit into the receptacle in only one way. The idea behind such a polarized plug is to continue the hot and neutral wire identity from the circuit to the appliance.