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When a power receptacle is blocked by large or unwieldy furniture, but there is a small amount of clearance available, what are some good techniques for plugging in? I'm looking for ways to solve this problem when the receptacle is inaccessible by hand - the furniture or other blocking object is large enough to prevent using one's hands to plug something in. I'm also looking for solutions that presume that there is no choice about the placement of the furniture or the receptacle.

I have a specific case in mind, but I am also looking for general approach tips.

For example, I can guide a power strip with a low-profile plug to the receptacle, but if that receptacle is in the middle of a triple-wide bookcase, the final step of insertion requires leverage that is hard to come by.

I'm familiar with the technique of using snakes, string, etc. to guide a cable through an area and out the other side, but stopping in the middle of an inaccessible area and applying leverage to insert a plug is particularly tricky.

I thought about using two long bungees on either side to provide enough tension to orient and stabilize the plug, and then using some kind of long-handled calipers in reverse to guide the plug in, but this seems sub-optimal to me.

I am interested in hearing both about highly specialized tools for this purpose, and about solutions that only require relatively common tools or household objects (to enable improvisation in the field).

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2  
Sounds like the receptacle is in a place it should not be. –  Tester101 Feb 19 '12 at 0:59
11  
Step 1, take everything out of the bookcase... –  BMitch Feb 19 '12 at 1:25
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Touché! I get it, guys ... but sometimes it's good to have options, and that's what my question is about. And in my specific case, I need to set up a small stereo in the center of the bookcase, so I do actually need a receptacle there. :-) Also, I really am interested in capturing a general set of answers for people in similar circumstances, not just for my specific issue. –  Royce Williams Feb 19 '12 at 3:47
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The most recent revision for this question would make me want to rephrase the question along the lines of "how can I plug something into an inaccessible outlet in an error-prone and dangerous manner?" –  Kris K. Feb 19 '12 at 21:36
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How about cutting a hole in the back of the unit, and integrating the receptacle into the bookcase? Just don't store books directly in front of the receptacle. –  Tester101 Feb 20 '12 at 13:06

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

After some experimentation, I have a solution that I think will be useful to others. I go into some detail here, so that people can take the principles and adapt them to their own circumstances. A lot of it seems obvious in retrospect, of course!

Tools I used:

  • Two long plastic yardsticks (wood or fiberglass would be fine, too).
  • One small plastic binder clip (like the ones used for potato chip bags).
  • One high-powered flashlight.
  • (Optional for other circumstances: a piece of plywood)

First, here are some questions that capture the underlying principles that I puzzled out.

  1. How can I have fine-grained control over rotation of the plug parallel to the wall, so that I can properly orient the ground pin and prongs clockwise/counter-clockwise relative to the receptacle?

  2. How can I control rotation of the plug perpendicular to the wall, so that the prongs and pin are properly facing the receptacle?

  3. While maneuvering the plug, how can I detect when the plug is properly aligned with the receptacle, so that the insertion is accurate and safe?

  4. Once the plug is properly aligned relative to the receptacle, how do I apply the proper amount and direction of force to insert the plug?

For #1, I used a plastic binder clip (like the ones used for potato chips) to attach the cord (near the plug-end of the cord) to a long plastic yardstick. By changing the angle of the yardstick relative to the ground, I had fine control over the rotational position of the plug.

For #2, I angled the plastic binder clip so that it secured the plug as close to the end of the cord as possible, so that it was firmly holding the flat side of the flat plug to the flat side of the yardstick. By keeping the yardstick parallel to the wall, the plug stayed naturally aligned.

For #3, I used a high-powered flashlight to illuminate the area, so that I could clearly see when the alignment was close to perfect. By aligning my vision to be at the same height as the receptacle, I could see when the two prongs were parallel to each other relative to the ground. When that happened, I could also feel the prongs and ground pin settle gently into the outer edges of the holes, so I had both visual and tactile confirmation that my alignment was good.

For #4, I inserted a second long plastic yardstick between the first yardstick and the bookcase with its flat face parallel to the flat surface of the first yardstick, but at a 30-degree angle or so relative to the ground, so that the two yardsticks intersected at the point directly behind the plug. I then rotated the second yardstick around its long axis, which, once the second yardstick contacted the back of the bookshelf, gained some leverage and, as rotation continued, it naturally applied progressive pressure directly against the plug assembly. This gently pushed the plug right into the receptacle.

Once I had the principles worked out, and tried a couple of approaches, it worked like a charm. I believe that my method is reproducible and safe.

This method was dependent on having the hard back of the bookcase available for leverage. In other circumstances (for example, if the receptacle was behind a soft-backed piece of furniture like a giant sofa), a section of plywood (flat enough to insert into the area, but wide enough to span any open space) could be positioned to provide the needed leverage.

And yes, I know that I could have spent the same amount of time emptying all three sections of the bookcase, unscrewing the earthquake brackets, emptying the filing cabinet portion of the middle bookcase, detaching the brackets connecting the three bookshelves together, moving the entire thing, and then reassembling everything.

But now I know how to solve this class of problem in ten minutes ... and hopefully, someone else will find this information useful.

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You've solved one problem, while creating another. How do you unplug the cord? –  Tester101 Feb 23 '12 at 18:13
    
Tester101, a fair question, especially if the power strip goes bad, etc. A methodical approach could yield a safe and effective solution. I will consider this for a future question. For this question, though, for people in similar circumstances, I think that my solution here stands on its own and was worth considering. –  Royce Williams Feb 25 '12 at 19:38
    
My solution when faced with a similar problem was easier (though more destructive). I had a full bookcase in front of the outlet and didn't want to take out 6 shelves of books so I could move it. It was a cheap bookcase with a thin fiberboard back, so I just used a utility knife to cut a hole in the back of the bookcase where the outlet was, then fished the cable behind the bookcase and plugged it in. The books covered the hole. Not exactly an elegant solution. –  Johnny Feb 7 at 18:04

Get an extension cord with a flat plug, which will fit nicely behind the bookshelf.

Move the outlet, or add another, where you can reach it.

When guiding the plug in, it can be hard to get things lined up when you can't see. If the plug has a ground pin, sometimes I find the ground hole with my finger and guide it in that way. Touching the ground pin is not dangerous on a properly-wired receptacle.

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Yep, flat plug is the way to go. To clarify, though, I'm looking for ways to plug in when the plug is too far behind something to use your hands. My convoluted bungee example was intended to illuminate that; I'll clarify that in the original question. –  Royce Williams Feb 19 '12 at 18:40
    
If you want to plug something in that doesn't have a flat plug and don't want to use an extension cord, you can also get a right-angle adapter that you can plug in to the outlet, then plug the cord into the side of the adapter. They come in different styles. –  Johnny Feb 7 at 16:39

I once had a similar situation behind a large and full steel cabinent (In some cases [depending on the flooring material & its condition] a "jay bar" with a wheel [a pad may be needed under it] can be used to lift a large object then you put a rug or similar padding under the object while you move it as far as you need to or as far as possible). Not only was the outlet impossible to reach but the outlet was old and had been painted over. What you have to do to solve your problem would, at least in part, depend on how far the outlet is from your access point & how much clearance you have for a given situation:

1. Shut off the circuitbreaker or remove the fuse for this outlet (if at all possible you should test the outlet to make sure there is no live voltage present -you can get a tester that can sense live voltage w/o being direcly connected to the outlet/wiring, tape it or secure it to a broomstick, pole or piece of wood long enough to reach the outlet). if you only have a 2 lead bulb tester you can still do the test but of course it will be a lot harder as you'll have to tape the tester leads to a pole or board so that they can be slid into the outlet. You may want to use something like thin Express Mail boxes to set your stick on to slide it over to the outlet (You only take a chance that the outlet is off as a last resort b/c for some reason you can't wait until you get a tester).

2. Next, I would measure the distance to the outlet & for the clearance area. If possible I would choose a pole or piece of wood (maybe 1" to 1 1/2" wide by about 1/2" to 5/8" thick, again, dependent on the area you have to work with) that I could cut so that its just long enough to reach just past the outlet & just long enough so you can maneuver it at your access point. I wouldn't use a yardstick (unless that is all that will fit) as it may be too thin & give too much to get the plug to stay where you want it for insertion & it may not be long enough.

3. For the plug I would lay it on the end of the pole or wood that I will use for the plug insertion. Then I would draw an outline of the plug or part of the plug in such a way that the plug will be secure & prongs lined up with the outlet. Then I wouid cut a shallow notch just big enough & slightly tight (just tight enough to hold the plug but not tight enough to hold to the plug when you try to remove the stick), about 1/8" to 1/4" in depth. You might be able to use a tiny amount of adhesive, just enough to hold the plug unti its inserted in the outlet.

4. Now you need to figure out what will work best for leverage to finalize the plug's insertion. If the distance from your hand to the outlet is only about 2' to 3' you might be able to insert the plug with just the stick or pole. If not or the outlet is at a greater distance most likeky you need to use another stick &/or other things for leverage. The leverage stick needs to extend about 1' to 1 1/2' past the outlet (so you can slide it back & forth if the plug isn't going in straight -to put more pressure on 1 or the other side of the plug area of your plug stick) & be almost as wide (maybe about 1/2" -just a slight bit thicker than the plug body, minus the length of the plug prongs) as the space between the stick the plug is attached to and the bookcase.

5. The next part will take some thought & if you are good at eyeing & making good judgment on distance you might be able to make this work with a little adjustment here or there depending on the space you have to work with). Now you make a fulcrum, perhaps somewhat crude but it should work. You take a piece of wood long enough to work with, say 6" to 12' long & 1 or more inches wide, if possible about 1/4" wider than the thickness of your leverage stick (so you can put a shallow notch in it that fits on the edge of your leverage stick centered snug in the top of your fulcrum) & cut the fulcrum in a sort of triangle about 2" long on the long end (to place against the bookcase side) & angled so the peak is about 1/2" to 5/8" high (you may have to adjust this so you can get more leverage pressure) but flattened for about a 1/2" long (so you can tape it [or use a piece of wire or wire ties] securely to your leverage stick -duct tape is probably best for the tape).

6. This fulcrum is then attached to your leverage stick just to your side of the 1' to 1 1/2' part of the leverage stick that I said to add to extend past the outlet. At this point you could find something thin about as high as the outlet to the floor like an Express Mail box (or 2 depending on the distance to the outlet) to set both your plug holder stick and your leverage stick on it to make it easier to slide them over and steady their position to do the job. You also might need to taper the end of the leverage stick you are at so that you will have enough clearance to be able to push the plug in. Depending on the situation you might be able to use a thinner leverage stick and slightly larger fulcom board (possibly a doorjamb wedge or similar object. For furniture with softer covering you might get away with using a large piece (about 3' square if possible) of thick cardboard (maybe use 2 or 3 layers here) along with rapping your fulcrum and the end of your leverage stick in rags or foam rubber or other soft material so they won't punctue the furniture.

Just for an alternative, I have cut the back of a bookcase with a hole about the size of the outlet [rectangle] at the outlet & made a cover with a thin piece of wood, with little strips of wood glued on the inside of the cover along the opening so it can snap into place. At the bottom of my plate I cut a hole big enough for a power cord so that the cover can rest on the wire while still masking the rest of the hole I made.

For plug removal:

1. Make sure you turn off the circuit at the circuitbreaker or fuse box. It should be easier to test it this time by plugging something into your strip & turning it on to see if it comes on or remains off. If the strip is broken use one of the methods I mention in number 1 in the above section.

2. To remove the plug you need a stick about the same as you used to install the plug amd a small flat breaker bar or even a metal butter (blunt) knife with a flat handle so you can attach it very securely to your stick. Again, depending on how far away the outlet is it might be good to use an Express Mail box or 2 to slide your stick over. Then you gently put the breaker bar or knife under the plug against the cord and turn the stick to loosen the plug. Then you move the metal edge gently up the plug as you gently twist the stick to further pry the plug out of the outlet -repeat until the plug is removed. Again, if furniture is involved use cardboard & soft material to protect the furniture.

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When faced with this issue, I used a hole-cutter to cut a hole in the back panel of a bookcase. I then had hand-access to plug in an extension cord routed behind the furniture. When I need to access the socket I can just remove the books (etc) in front of the hole.

I was able to temporarily move the bookcase far enough from the wall to make using the hole-cutter safe. Otherwise I imagine I could have used this as an excuse to buy a small Dremel or similar tool where you can set the cutting depth to just over the thickness of the material to be removed :-)

If the hole was undesirably visible, I would have made up a removable insert to plug the hole.


When your furniture and receptacles look like the picture below, it's not really feasible to poke long rods behind the furniture to manipulate plugs.

enter image description here

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