How-To: Replace an outlet

Ready for the rest of the wires? Of course you are! Our outlet is what’s called “backstabbed” meaning the wires go directly into the back of the outlet. There are two ways to remove the wires from the old outlet. 1. Pull. Really, that’s it. It takes some brute strength so I prefer and suggest the second method. 2 Cut the wires. You can cut all 4 wires from the outlet if you can tell which two are the white wires and which two are the black wires. Snip, snip.

Tip: the ground wire goes on the new outlet much easier if you put it on at an angle (here the outlet is almost upside down), then turn the outlet about 90 degrees counter clockwise to finish putting on the wire. There is a small metal piece next to the screw that you can use to your advantage too. Push the wire tail against the metal piece to make the hook touch the wire. And tighten the screw back down. Jeff calls it putting the man touch on it.

Once the outlet is away from the wall don’t let the mess of wires overwhelm you. There is 1 ground, 2 white and 2 black or sometimes just one white and one black, our outlet had 2 white and 2 black wires, so we’ll use this as our example here.  Our ground wire and one black wire got painted somehow and look white in some places. For those who aren’t card carrying electricians, I suggest you take things one wire at a time to avoid confusion. I started with the ground wire, loosening the screw and then where the wire comes back to almost touching itself, I put the screw driver in between the two and worked it to a little bit wider hook to get the wire off the old outlet and onto the new.

Now, this next step is very important. To pull the outlet away from the box, grab it by the yoke (or the metal part on the top and bottom of the outlet). Our outlet was painted with the wall so I had to gently grab the sides and wiggle it loose from the paint before I could pull it out by the yoke.

Take off the plate and set it aside, these plates and outlets are cheap so you could throw them away if you wanted to or keep for sentimental reasons, whatever they may be. Unscrew the screws attaching the outlet to the box behind it; there should be two, one on top and one underneath the outlet face. These screws are where you can use a cordless screwdriver, I just really like to use a hand powered screwdriver.  

I went back to check my receptacle tester and sure enough, power was indeed off.

First, make sure the outlet and receptacle tester is working and plug in that bad boy. I got a single green light, meaning my outlet was correctly wired and getting power. Before I even take the plate off the wall I want to make sure I get the power turned off so I don’t electrocute myself. We’re working on the living room, and our panel happens to be labeled, so I found the breaker for the living room and switched it off. Of course, there’s always a chance the outlet in a particular room may be connected to the circuit of a different room.

Let’s get started

I would just like to note, that this is Jessica, the office manager doing the work. I’m certainly not an electrician and don’t claim to be, so it’s likely that homeowners and I would be in the same boat when it comes to working on electricity. I thought if Jeff could walk me through the process then we could walk anyone through it. It turned out to be super easy and not nearly as intimidating as I thought it would be.

Before

We have decided to tackle a fairly large flooring project, after way too long of living on concrete floors we’re finally putting down tile ourselves. While we’re updating the floors, we thought it was about time to update our outlets. We chose decora outlets for no other reason than personal preference. Another reason to change the outlets was that the house was built in 2006, since then the electrical code has changed; now outlets must be Tamper Resistant and the ones we’re replacing are not. You may notice the TR stamp on our new outlet, telling us it’s Tamper Resistant.

Need help?

Look at you changing out your own outlets! You’re awesome!

I found putting the outlet back into the box and compressing the wires to be more difficult than pulling the outlet away from the wall. Our ground wire is completely exposed, compared to the white and black wires that are insulated. It’s important that the ground wire (the highlighted wire) not touch any of the other screws on the outlet.  I couldn’t compress the wires all the way so I used the screws on the outlet to help me reattach it to the box.

Then we repeat the process on the other side with the black wires. Be sure to tighten the screws down.

Also, notice on the top wire that the insulation goes up to the metal on the outlet but doesn’t touch the plastic; that’s perfect. The bottom wire overlaps a bit, not a big deal but we want to be as close as possible.

Before the wires connect to the screws take the pliers and put a little hook on the end of the wires.  I didn’t take quite enough off my black wire so I had to straighten it out, strip some more insulation off and re-bend the hook.

We use Cooper brand outlets; they’ve worked well for us in the past so that’s our preference. They’re about $3 each from Elliot Electric Supply. Leviton is a great brand too; they’re a little over $2.50 each from Home Depot. And don’t forget the plates, the ones we use are Polycarbonate plates, meaning you can bend them and they don’t break. We have a few plates, when the house was built, that someone screwed the screws in too tight and broke the plate.

After

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This step is where you may notice your outlet is slightly twisted, just put the plate on, plug in the receptacle tester and give it a wiggle. This should help straighten it out. While we’ve got the receptacle tester plugged in, let’s turn the power back on shall we? Go back to the breaker box and flip on that breaker. Check the receptacle tester to make sure everything is on and the outlet was wired correctly, if you’re getting a reading other than “correct” you may need to start the process over and make sure everything is well connected and secure. Once you get the “correct” light you’re good to go!

How much you tighten the screws on the outlet will depend on how you want the outlet and plate to match up. I tightened my bottom screw a little more than the top, but I couldn’t tell until I held the plate over the outlet. It’s difficult to tell but the top of the outlet sticks out from the plate just a hair. I tightened the screw on the top of the outlet just a turn or two, checked it with the plate and once I was happy with the alignment I put on the plate.

Right way vs wrong way: if you’ll notice the top wire isn’t under the screw all the way, this is wrong. In this case my hook around the screw wasn’t quite tight enough so it pushed part of the wire away from the screw.

Then, hook the white wires on to the white wire side. I was a little worried I would mix the wires up but if you notice the metal tab between the two screws, which connects the wires when electricity is flowing. It makes no difference which white wire goes on top and which on bottom. Side note: be sure not to break the metal tabs. There’s also a plastic tab that helps bend the wire a little more around the screw.

The back of the outlet will say which wires go to which side; this one was labelled white wire and hot wire (black wire).

If you cut the wires you’ll need to strip the insulation off to make a connection to the new outlet. The outlet back has a gauge on it so you can tell how much wire needs to be stripped. Handy! I just grabbed any wire, happened to be a white one and stripped it. And check the stripped wire against the gauge on the back of the new outlet. Perfection: Beginners luck.

What are Tamper Resistant outlets?

Tamper Resistant outlets have spring loaded shutters that close off contact to electricity. The electricity is only accessible when both springs are compressed at the same time. This keeps little fingers from being able to come into contact with the electricity. Although whether you have children or not, new homes and remodels still require the Tamper Resistant outlets. Note: if your house was built before 2008 and you do not have Tamper Resistant outlets, you are not required to replace them.  If you are replacing outlets, however, they do need to be the Tamper Resistant style.

Tools Needed:

  • New outlet and wall plate Click Here and Here
  • Screwdriver – Philips and slotted
  • Receptacle Tester - Click Here
  • Pliers
  • Wire cutter (it’s likely your pliers and/or wire strippers have a wire cutter on them)
  • Wire strippers Click Here
  • *Optional: Cordless screwdriver