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I'm looking at a 1970-era house in VA. The outlet boxes are fed by 12/2, 12/3 NM cable. I am planning to update some of the outlets, for example to be more modern, or to be GFCI. Unfortunately,

  • many of the feeder wires do not have enough length inside the box to supply the outlet
  • the outlet boxes are too small in my view to safely hold, say, a chunky GFCI outlet block and the wires. There's no way I could get the outlet, three wires and a pigtail or two in there for example.
  • the feeder cables are stapled to the framing.

So my question is how to replace the box and potentially replace the wiring that feeds it. My options seem to be

  • rip open the wall to the studs. Remove the old wires. Put a new box in and rewire. Yikes. Now I have a 4ft or worse hole to drywall.
  • somehow destroy the old box in place, without opening up the wall, and put in a new, deeper work box.

Is there an elegant solution? Or do I just take my lumps and rip the wall off? It seems so... extreme.

EDIT: The advice here and some more research has got me to this: to switch boxes, prise the old box slightly away from the stud and then take a hacksaw/sawzall to the nails that hold it to the stud. Then, replace with a new box. I was also pointed to some box manufacturers that sell boxes that are screwed into the stud from the front (eg this one) which look to be very useful for those cases where the usual blue plastic with ears is not going to work.

  • Are all the outlets properly grounded? Also, what make/model is the breaker panel? – ThreePhaseEel Dec 6 '16 at 5:20
  • not a lot of luck I'm afraid – Dan Mantyla Dec 6 '16 at 6:09
  • I don't know why you're going and doing all these invasive things in your blind determination to "update outlets" without any idea if you can get to a correct state by a different path altogether...so, can you please respond to my questions? – ThreePhaseEel Dec 7 '16 at 1:08
  • Outlets are grounded, and the panel is a reasonably modern Square-D. So as far as GFCI goes the solution is evidently to put a GFCI breaker there. But that use case was just an example. I would have similar problems if I wanted to replace the tobacco-stain-color outlets with something white, or put in one of those units that have an outlet and a usb port. Todays units and yesteryear's boxes and wiring standards just combine to be hard work, thats all... – AlwaysLearning Dec 7 '16 at 1:16
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The answer is: Don't.

Outlets are black, beige or white, and rarely dark brown or gray. Beige came into style by the 60s and white by the 90s. Yours are probably beige.

Leave the old receptacle boxes alone. They ARE grounded, there's nothing wrong with them, they obviously do have enough wire to reach the old receptacles. That's all you need.

"Modern" receptacles are the same size. Just change your receptacles from whatever's in there now, to a quality $3-4 each midgrade receptacle. If replacing backstabs, get receptacles with screw-and-clamp terminals - the wires poke in the back, but clamp by tightening down the screw terminals. Slick.

If the wires are ALL 12 AWG and the breaker is 20 amps, you can use 15/20A receptacles which have a "T" shape on the neutral slot.

If you had "back stab" types before, don't cut them off because you'll lose precious wire length. Instead, pull steadily on the wire while twisting the receptacle back and forth (not enough to deform the wire), and the wire will ease out. It will have scratches but will work fine with screw-and-clamp or side terminal screws. Don't use it again on a "back stab", in fact never use backstabs ever because they stink. Also don't pry it out with a wire nipper because you'll nick the wire.

GFCI

Ground faults are current following abnormal paths, such as through a human who is being electrocuted. Mainly, they protect people and pets from shock. Usual cause: bathroom mistake or defective plug-in appliance.

If you want GFCI, remember the first rule: Only the first GFCI device needs to be GFCI. Everything downstream can be plain old outlets, and they inherit GFCI protection because they are fed off the "load" terminals of the first GFCI. That's how the GFCI can be a circuit breaker. It can also be a new receptacle you insert at the front of the chain, for instance 1 foot from the service panel. I do that all the time. GFCI receptacles are cheaper than breakers.

Honestly it depends what threats you're worried about, but if you're distrust your old wiring, or want to follow the latest code, I'd consider AFCI instead, or both.

AFCI

Arc faults are loose connections, broken wire etc. causing current to leap across a gap. This makes a lot of heat and starts fires. If you've heard the unique "sizzle", it also sounds like that on the wires. AFCI's have a computer inside which listens for that peculiar electrical noise. Usual cause: defective in-wall wiring or receptacles; sometimes bad appliance.

Generally the cheapest way to get AF protection is with an AFCI circuit breaker.

Combo AFCI+GFCI

You can also get combo AFCI/GFCI breakers, but they are expensive. Watch for ones which will indicate why they tripped, otherwise you'll go bonkers.

Another way to get combo AFCI is to use an AFCI breaker, but a GFCI receptacle in the first point in the chain. This makes it more obvious what tripped.

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For the GFCI part of your question, that could be accomplished with an updated breaker. Would a non-GFCI updated outlet style fit in the existing box? If so, replace it (standard tamper-resistant outlets are not very bulky.). Then, update the breaker serving that circuit with a GFCI or combination AFCI/GFCI breaker.

  • Note that it requires a standard hot and neutral on that circuit, no shared neutral. Not a common wiring setup, but I had one of those in my last (older) house. With a standard depth outlet, could you fit a small wirenut and pigtail to give you some breathing room with the wiring? – Peter J Dec 6 '16 at 14:41
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GFCIs (and AFCIs) can go at the panel

Since you have a Square-D and not some shudderworthy nightmare like a Federal Pacific or a Zinsco, GFCI breakers (QOxxxGFI/HOMxxxGFI, depending on which type of breaker you have) are readily available for it. This is an advantage especially for outdoor circuits in that a GFCI at the breaker panel can protect against faults due to water in junction boxes that might bypass a receptacle-type GFCI mounted outdoors. One caveat, though, is that if you have a shared neutral or multi-wire branch circuit that needs GFCI protection, you'll need to use a two pole GFCI breaker for it, and those don't protect as well as their single pole counterparts.

AFCI and DFCI (GFCI + AFCI) breakers are also available for your panel; just keep in mind that there are no two pole DFCIs at this point in time.

Tamper and weather resistant receptacles shouldn't require box changes, nor should a color change

The TR (tamper resistant) and WR (weather resistant) receptacles required by today's Code are available in standard receptacle form factors (as well as more modern decorator and proprietary styles) -- the same is true for combination switch/receptacle devices. Furthermore, standard-form-factor receptacles and matching faceplates are available in other colors than that pesky almond -- white is pretty universal, with black, grey, brown, and beige/light almond/ivory not too far behind.

Get the good stuff when you're doing this

Cheap receptacles are cheap for a reason -- they use cheap "stab" type back-wire systems that are failure-prone, and just aren't as robust as their beefier spec- or commercial-grade brethren. Getting specification (spec) grade receptacles gives you plate-clamped wire connections that are quick, yet much more reliable than a "stab" in back-wire and less prone to wire dress issues than conventional screw terminals, as well as a more robust receptacle overall.

Don't bother with USB receptacles

While USB wall receptacles seem like a good idea, the tiny switch-mode power supply inside them that generates the 5V USB supply voltage from the incoming 120VAC mains supply is basically bound to fail at some point at time, leaving you with an at-least-partially-useless wall ornament until you go out, buy another USB receptacle, and install it into the wall. What a hassle!

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A high end renovator in Dallas TX told me his skilled renovation crews have a way of pulling out old aluminum NM with original drywall in place. This is quite a claim, and so take it for what it is.

He said they can pull out staples without enlarging the opening of the box. Naturally I would like more details before I would believe this. Years ago I saw a skilled electrician remove a staple through a 3.5 inch circular opening to use slack in my aluminum NM cable to get longer wire into a new box.

If the original wiring was copper and one wanted a larger volume (deeper) box, I would think it might be possible to cut the nails holding the original box, pull out the box, pull out one or more staples to get more wire, and put in a new box of larger depth.

If short wires are the only problem, maybe the WAGO lever connectors would be easier to attach than twist-on connectors. Pigtails would then be used as necessary.

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    Thankyou Jim. I too would love to know how the renovators could do this. Pictures or it didn't happen, as they say...! – AlwaysLearning Dec 7 '16 at 0:55

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