Fix-It Friday: How To Replace An Electrical Outlet

electrical outlet
Fix-It FridayHome Improvement 4 Comments

“Hey Norma – I have an outlet that scares the bejeezus out of me! It’s behind the couch, and we have a floor lamp plugged into it. Every time we sit on the couch it slides back and hits the wall. That causes two issues… it bends the lamp plug chord, and pushes the outlet itself deeper into the wall behind the plate cover. Would love to know if this poses a fire hazard? If so, how would I go about securing the outlet or replacing it? Thanks! – Anna L”

NV: Hi Anna L! Thanks for your loaded question. I say loaded because there are a few issues to address here.

Flat PlugFirst, a loose outlet can absolutely increase risk for an electrical short. Second, banging into a plug in an outlet hard enough and often enough can set you up for a shocking surprise. Lastly, replacing an outlet is a totally doable DIY project – even if the outlet sits too deep behind the cover plate, which is what appears to be the issue from the photo you sent!

Let me first address the plug behind the couch. For any plug that sticks out too much, use a flat plug extension cord to diminish its profile!

For additional plug whacking protection (from the couch), place two furniture bumpers on either side of the outlet—there are screw-able and adhesives types. Adding these little guys will protect the outlet but still allow the couch to sit close to the wall.

rubber bumpersNow for the outlet replacement… as with any electrical project, you MUST make sure, then double check, the power is killed to the wires (see instructions below). Additionally, if you live in an older home, there’s a chance that the wires will have a fabric insulation and be very brittle – risking crumbling in pieces as you try to manipulate the wires – NOT GOOD!

So here’s my advice: when you open your outlet, gently pull out the receptacle and look at the wires… if there’s this cloth type OR if there are so many wires joined together in the box it looks like a bowl of spaghetti, close it back up and call in a licensed electrician.

PS – As for your fear of electricity, which is not uncommon or unreasonable, if you REALLY want to conquer it, learn about it. Check out my “electricity 101” FIF column here. Knowledge is power!


How To Replace An Electrical Outlet

Here’s What You’ll Need:

  • flat head and Phillips screw driver
  • long nose pliers
  • non-contact electrical tester
  • replacement outlet (be sure to choose the same amps and whether it’s grounded/or ungrounded)
  • electrical tape

Here’s How You Do It:

  1. Shut the power to that outlet from the Service Panel, then re-verify that the power is shut to that outlet using a non-contact electrical tester (or circuit tester).
  2. Unscrew the plate cover – keep it aside, don’t lose the screw (unless you’re replacing the plate cover, then discard the old one). Now the outlet is exposed.
  3. Unscrew the two screws in the metal “ears” and gently pull the outlet out of the box.
  4. electrical-outlet-termsYour outlet will have two or four wires attached to it – two, if it’s wired by itself, or at the end of a circuit, four if it’s in the middle of a circuit of outlets. At any rate, there will be at least one black wire (hot) and one white wire (neutral). There may also be a ground wire.
  5. Loosen the terminal screws on the side of the outlet and unhook the wires. Or, if the wires come from the back of the outlet (back-wired), use a small flat head screw driver to press inside the slot provided to “release” the wires… pull the wires out. Unscrew the ground (if applicable).
  6. To attach the new outlet, follow the same steps as above in reverse. Remember to connect the black and white wires to exactly the same terminal/holes as before – namely, hot wires go to the brass screws, and neutral to silver, or for holes, connect to holes on the corresponding brass and silver screw sides. Make sure the loop of the wire on a terminal hooks on in a clockwise direction so it doesn’t loosen as you tighten the screw over it.
  7. Wrap electrical tape around the outlet to cover the screws on both sides.
  8. Fold the wires back into the box being careful not to disrupt any connections while cramming in the wires.
  9. Screw in the metal “ears” making sure that the outlet is straight (plumb and level).
  10. With your new outlet installed and plate cover on, restore power and test with circuit tester. If it’s not working, repeat above steps 1-3 and recheck your connections.

electrical box extenderNow, Anna, getting to your particular outlet issue, which is actually a common problem. Sometimes the receptacle will sit too deep inside the electrical box, leaving a small gap between the outlet and the outlet plate cover holes. To correct this problem, buy an electric box extender that fits flush over your existing electrical box (you can take a photo of your box on your phone and bring it with you to the hardware store to choose the right one).

Extenders come in different thicknesses – looks to me like you may need the thinnest size that extends a ¼ inch. This extender will give you the added thickness you need, so when you put the cover plate on, the outlet will stick out at the proper placement in the holes. Add this extender to the box after removing the old outlet and proceed from there.

So Anna, say bye-bye to that bad old outlet, and hello to a new properly placed and protected plug!

Norma sig


Got A DIY Question? Ask-The-Expert!

If you have a DIY home repair, maintenance or improvement question for Norma, now is your chance to ask-the-expert and have her answer. Your burning question may just be the “star” of an upcoming Fix-It Friday column.

Add your question to the comments section below or email it to Women You Should Know.

Fix-It Friday is an exclusive Women You Should Know® editorial series authored by seasoned veteran of home improvement, Norma Vally, the former host of Discovery Home Channel’s series “Toolbelt Diva” and a show on Sirius Satellite Radio by the same name. The weekly column is designed to inspire women – weekend warriors, aspiring handywomen, and even seasoned DIYers – to take on home repairs and maintenance projects with confidence and gusto.

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  • LSL

    Norma, this is such good advice. I have an old house and had to replace most of the outlets when I moved in. I had an electrician come and check things out at that time, and also clean up some of the loose wires in the attic by securing them. However, my attic still scares me because the wires up there look so old and some of the covering on them seems frayed. I want to get new insulation added to my attic, but am a bit paranoid about the state of the wires up there. My house was built in the 60s. How long can electrical wiring last before it needs to be replaced? Do a lot of older attics have totally haphazard wiring? Thanks!

    • Norma

      Hi LSL! Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you’re asking about the wires in your attic. For various reasons that I’ll briefly explain, you should have your attic wiring looked at by an electrician, ESPECIALLY if you want to add insulation, but I would have it inspected no matter what!
      Depending on the age of the house and how wires were added by past home-owners, attic wiring can be a real mess–which is a problem in and of itself. Furthermore, if wires look frayed, it could be from age BUT could also be from a rodent chewing through the plastic insulation (this occurs more than you’d imagine).
      What gives me great pause is this…A 60s built home is relatively modern HOWEVER there was a period in the 60s and 70s when aluminum wires were used in place of copper, and these wires have been implicated in fires.
      For all of the above reasons, call in a reputable electrician and have him explain to you exactly what’s going on up there, and ultimately why you should or shouldn’t have to replace your wiring.
      Let me know if you have any other questions! Good luck!

  • Anna L

    This is really kinda cool to have my question answered here! I actually used to watch your Toolbelt Diva show and LOVED it! Thanks for the detailed instructions. It seems “easy” enough or, before I jinx myself, maybe I should just say “straight forward” enough. The one thing I was worried about is how to cut the power to that outlet. Now I get it and realize I have to “map my service panel” (I don’t think I have ever opened my service panel door, so thanks for the link to your other electricity story). Those flat plug extension chords are so simple, and so smart! Getting them, for sure. Still a little nervous about doing the outlet replacement, but I am focused on the bragging rights I will have once I get it done. HA! Ego is a good motivator. 🙂 Thanks again! – Anna

    • Norma

      You’re welcome, Anna! I have total confidence in you! If any other questions come up, feel free to reach out. Happy fixing!

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