Here’s How to Change a Receptacle
Electrical work can sometimes seem overwhelming, however doing simple upgrades like changing receptacles can not only improve the aesthetic of your home, it can also make it safer, add functionality and increase the value of your home. This Job should take between 5 and 20 minutes per receptacle depending on you level of experience. Always take your time especially if this is your first time. Always follow and observe local building codes before starting any work on your house. This could save you a lot of headache.
Things you’ll need
- Electrical Outlet
- Matching Outlet Cover
- Electrical Tester
- Wire Nuts
- Electrical Tape
- #2 Phillips Screwdriver
- #2 Robertson Screwdriver
- 1/4″ Flat Screw Driver
- Wire Stripper/Cutter
- Needle Nose Pliers
- Insulated Gloves (These will help protect you from electrical shock)
Step 1 – Disconnect The Power
Before starting always make sure you turn off the power to the receptacles you are planning to change. This must be done in the electrical panel. Once you have turned the power off to the receptacle, you must always use an electrical tester before attempting to change it. Sometimes either the panel is labeled incorrectly, or there could be a faulty breaker, and you don’t want to take that risk. Once you are certain that the power has been shut off, remove the cover plate with the Flat Head Screwdriver. This would also be a good time to put those gloves on. Not only will they protect you from electrical shock, there are some sharp edges. Next, remove the 2 screws holding the receptacle into the box with the #2 Phillips screwdriver. Now that it’s free, gently pull on the receptacle to remove it from the box in the wall. Once it is out far enough, its important to take note of what wires are attached before removing the old receptacle. I recommend taking a photo of both sides of the receptacle before continuing. This can help you down the road. Next remove the wire from the receptacle with either the Flat Screwdriver or the Robertson Screwdriver. Take note of the type of wire. If it is Copper you can skip to the next step, if it is Aluminum, unless you have experience, I recommend hiring a professional to assist you. We will not cover changing Receptacles with Aluminum wiring in this Here’s How Segment. Let’s move on to the next step.
Step 2 – Choosing The Right Receptacle
There are many options out there for replacement devices (Receptacles and switches) ranging from low tech to high tech. Depending on the location of the receptacle, you can choose one with USB ports (beside a bed, near a desk, in the kitchen) or one with a nightlight (in a hallway, bathroom or bedroom) or if its near a water source or outdoors, one with a GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter). You can choose any of these options however, if it is a GFCI receptacle you are replacing you must replace with a GFCI. GFCI will protect you from Electrocution should something that is plugged in come in contact with water. Once you have chosen the right receptacle for the job we can move on to the next step.
Step 3 – Reinstalling The Receptacle: Part 1
Before we put the receptacle back in the box, there are a few things we must check before continuing. In the back of the box, there are sometimes some wire nuts (AKA Marrettes) connecting more wires. It is a good idea to ensure they are tight before continuing. If it is loose it is good practice to replace with a new Wire Nut. Wire nuts should never be recycled. It’s a good idea (but not required) to tape the wire nut in place. If you are new to electrical it may be good piece of mind. Next we are going to look at the old receptacle and those pictures we took earlier. if there were only 2 wires goto the next step. If there were more than 2 wires we need check a few more things. if there are 3 wires and its in a kitchen (or possibly the one is controlled by a switch), this is a split receptacle. Another indicator that the receptacle is split is that in the panel, the breaker that turned it off was a double pole breaker (2 switches joined together). If this is a split receptacle, you must break the tab joining the two plugs on the side with the brass screw (as seen in the photo) before continuing. This is not code anymore, but when it was it was designed so you could use 2 appliances at the same time at the same receptacle. This tab is easily removed with a pair of needle nose pliers. Only remove the side with the brass screws unless the one you removed had both tabs removed (this is not common)Lets move ahead!
Step 4 – Reinstalling The Receptacle: Part 2
Now that we know what we have, its as simple as cutting the wire back to where the jacket was cut before and stripping the jacket off to expose fresh copper wire using a proper wire cutter ensuring you do not score the wire. Pro Tip: most receptacles have a wire length gauge located either on the side, or on the back. That indicates the perfect length of the wire. Now that the wire is ready, we need to attach it to the receptacle. Personally I prefer to use the push in connector, and that’s the method I am going to explain here as this is a beginners tutorial, it offers the highest level of success and least frustration.
Before pushing the wires in to the back, tighten the screws on the side of the receptacle to give more space around the receptacle in the box. Next reattach the ground wire. If you cut this wire back you can make a loop by gripping the wires with a pair of needle nose pliers and rolling them. The wire will bend around the tip of the needle nose pliers. Next you can push the wires into the correct location on the back. Pro Tip: An easy way to remember where the wires go is “Light to Light, Dark to Dark”, meaning white wire goes with the silver screws and black with the brass screws. Push the wire in firmly. Gently pull on the wire to ensure it is locked in well. Now we’re almost done! Lets move on.
Step 5 – Reinstalling The Receptacle: Part 3
As you push the receptacle back into the wall, try not to force it. If it needs to much force, pre-bend the wire slightly so it goes in more easily. Once it’s in use your Phillips screwdriver to start the top screw. Do not tighten it all the way until you have the bottom one snug. Now tighten the top screw ensuring that the receptacle is straight. Do not over tighten the receptacle or it will make installing the cover plate difficult.
Step 6 – Installing The Cover Plate
This may seem like it doesn’t need it’s own section, but a sign of a job well done is a good screw position. Nothing screams “hack job” like screws that point in every direction. And a good home inspector may also call you out on that. It could just be my crazy showing, but ALWAYS make the screws point the same direction. I didn’t write this article so you’d cut corners. Let’s make it perfect. You can have the slots horizontal or vertical, that’s totally up to you, so long as its consistent. And before you try and turn that screw to make it perfect, make sure you don’t over tighten it. The good plates will crack if over tightened. Stay away from the cheap plastic plates as they look awful and people will know you did it yourself.
As with all repairs around the house, you must take great caution and care to ensure you stay safe and your work was completed correctly. If at anytime you feel uncomfortable or out of your comfort zone stop and call a professional. Always remember that you get what you pay for. Saving a few bucks is not always a good deal. Always observe local building codes as they change often, and vary by region. This article was written to focus on Electrical systems in Ontario Canada.
I hope you enjoyed this Here’s How Segment! I enjoyed writing it, and hope to write a few more as the questions come up. If you have any questions on this or other projects, feel free to call or Chat live with myself or one of our great associates. We will always give you a straight answer, and will tell you if we don’t know.
This article was written By Jeff Haynes. Jeff has over 25 years experience in Hardware Retail. He has worked in the trades and has countless hours of hands on experience in Plumbing, Electrical, Data Cabling, Automotive Maintenance and Repair, Small Engine and electric tool repair, hydronic systems installation and repair, HVAC, Woodworking and much more in the DIY space. Jeff is available along with our entire team to answer any of your questions. Feel free to reach out for any advice you may have.