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I have a number of outlets that are old and worn out (plugs fall out of them mainly.) Obviously I need to turn off the breaker to replace them safely but any guidance on how to rewire them, how to properly ground the new one, and how to safely test them once the power is back on is appreciated.

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For testing them I use a neat tool called a Circuit Breaker Tester like the one here. I have found this to be very handy. google.com/products/… –  Tester101 Jul 21 '10 at 19:30
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7 Answers

up vote 15 down vote accepted

If you plan on doing much electrical work around the house, get a multi-meter. It's just a little box with black and red probes on the end. Safe enough to stick in an outlet to see if it's live or not.

Outlets are mostly idiot proof. Turn off the breaker, pull it out of the box, see where the old wires are attached and move them one by one to the new outlet. Probably the old outlet already has a ground wire, in which case you're done. If it doesn't, it's probably time to call a pro.

Once you have it hooked up and the power is back on, you can use the multimeter to test. There is a hot side and a neutral side to the outlet. Ground behaves the same as neutral as far as the multimeter is concerned. You should be able to stick one prob in the hot side and the other into ground or neutral and get around 110 on the multimeter (+/- 2-3 volts).

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Just be sure to hook the correct wires to the proper terminals. Black to brass, white to silver, and ground is the odd man out. –  Tester101 Jul 21 '10 at 19:35
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Ground is often a green-tinged screw, but yes, it's always the one not part of the pair. –  Steve Armstrong Jul 21 '10 at 19:37
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In the US 110 volt 15 amp receptacle, the hot connection is the shorter slot. –  Brad Gilbert Jul 24 '10 at 3:37
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Get a book that shows you what goes where. Little details matter. E.g. if the outlet is using push-connections, that can be mystifying until you realize there's a slot that you push a screwdriver into to release the wire. –  Alex Feinman Mar 4 '11 at 17:29
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One other very important thing that nobody has mentioned: before purchasing your replacement outlets, make sure that your house does not have aluminum wiring.

Most of the switches & outlets you'll find are designed for copper, and using them with aluminum can lead to dangerous conditions, including fires. There are outlets specifically designed for aluminum.

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Interesting, I didn't know this. I know I have aluminium wires, but I've not paid any attention to the outlets & switches I've been replacing around the house. So far I've not seen any problems in over 2 years of use, however I'm curious as to what I'm risking with. –  Vilx- Dec 6 '11 at 12:13
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Aluminum expands more than copper, so over time the wire will come loose, leading to arcing and the possibility of fire. Take a look at faqs.org/faqs/electrical-wiring/part2/section-16.html –  chris Dec 6 '11 at 12:42
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Something like this (not this) should show you quickly if your current plugs are wired correctly, and should also test the ground. If you've got a good ground, then replacing the socket should be just a matter of:

  • Turning off the breaker
  • Unscrew and disconnect the socket
  • Re-strip the ends of the wires if needed
  • Attach the new socket to the same three wires
  • Screw the new socket in
  • Turn on the breaker
  • Test the socket with your fancy tester

If you don't have good ground, then you might not have a ground wire running into the box, which makes this alot harder, and you might want to call a real electrician at that point.

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+1 for not sticking you fingers in the socket. –  Tester101 Jul 21 '10 at 19:43
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awesome thinkgeek link. Thanks for the laugh –  mmccoo Jul 21 '10 at 22:21
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Another thing not mentioned so far: tamper-resistant receptacles are required by code in the US (since 2008) and Canada (since 2009). These have a built-in plate that covers the holes unless something is pushed into both sides at once, which greatly reduces the chances of a child pushing something into an outlet and being injured.

Big box stores will still have the old kind on-hand (it's not illegal to sell them, and AFAIK they can still be used in non-residential environments), so be sure you get the right ones if you want to do the work to code and have the most up-to-date safety features.

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I did not know that; I just bought a house built in '81 and obviously it has non-child-resistant outlets all over, so I have been replacing with identical hardware (or in some cases swapping for GFCI) where necessary. –  KeithS Jun 22 '11 at 18:33
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I believe that TR outlets are only required in new construction, and not in renovations (unlike GFCI). Obviously, check the codes of your jurisdiction to be sure. –  Aaron Dec 5 '11 at 0:17
    
They can be used in garages and outdoors (although those may require weather-resistant receps). I buy all my GFCI receps as both TR and WR, so I don't have to worry about it. –  Jay Bazuzi Dec 5 '11 at 18:31
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One very important thing that others have not mentioned - If the outlet is in a kitchen in an older home, it will often have separate circuits for the top and bottom plug.

So, if that's the case, make sure BOTH circuits are off, and when you put the new outlet in, make sure you break off the little tab that connects the top and bottom wire connectors on both sides of the outlet (note that you ONLY do this if there are two circuits on the outlet. Leave the tab on if there's only one)

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Other people have already answered this one pretty well. I just wanted to add one thing. While you are replacing the outlets, it might be a good idea to use GFCI receptacles where appropriate.

GFCIs should be used wherever stuff that is plugged into it could be exposed to water. (Outlets that are near kitchen/bathroom sinks, outdoor outlets, outlets that are right under a water line, etc).

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I would only do this is places where the particular outlet is not already being protected by another GFCI outlet, or a GFCI breaker. –  Brad Gilbert Jul 24 '10 at 3:43
    
i was wondering about this. Besides cost is there a harm to just using GFCI outlets everywhere? –  JoshReedSchramm Jul 28 '10 at 19:16
    
GFCI outlets will wear out much more quickly; the quick-trip mechanism will eventually stop working. On newer ones, that will cause the plug to go dead, while on older ones it'll supply power but won't trip (a BIG deal when that's the whole point of a GFCI). @Brad - The rule is, one GFCI per breaker circuit that supplies power near water, placed as far upstream in the circuit as you wish to protect. –  KeithS Jun 22 '11 at 18:40
    
The point I was trying to make is that it's rather pointless, and expensive, to put in a GFCI outlet downstream of another one, or on a GFCI breaker. –  Brad Gilbert Jun 25 '11 at 1:19
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Note: in some jurisdictions (e.g. Australia), it's illegal to do your own wiring - you have to use a licensed electrician.

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Where's the fun in that? –  Brad Gilbert Jul 24 '10 at 3:41
    
Another Aussie here: A licensed "electrical contractor" is also OK (and usually cheaper). Also note that changing your lightbulbs is illegal under the same regulation (no joke). –  MGOwen Jul 29 '10 at 7:22
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Some kinds of work is also allowed if supervised or inspected by someone licensed, but you should ask your local sparky as to what that allows you to do. –  staticsan Mar 7 '11 at 23:25
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