Wording With Purpose

Change an Outlet

Homeowners need a few basic troubleshooting skills and some level of repair/handyman knowledge. One key lesson to master is to know when to outsource the repair to a professional. Electrical repairs performed incorrectly may lead to death for you or someone you love. Be safe. Be smart. If you’re in doubt, hire it out.

A second vital lesson is that Murphy’s Law applies to any and all household repairs. If there is a way the job can go wrong, it usually will. A corollary I have added to Murphy’s original insight is that any job requires a minimum of three trips to the shop for tools.

In this example a well-used hallway outlet no longer provides a solid connection to appliances like the vacuum cleaner. If the cord or the nightlight is wiggled, the juice flows. Intermittent connections are a nuisance but may also allow heat buildup due to higher resistance. That represents a fire potential so it’s time to fix the problem.

Outlet Swap (1)

Turn off the power to the outlet! Yes, I know your brother-in-law changes switches and outlets without a visit to the breaker box, but you are smarter than he is.

The breaker box in my Crosland home is poorly labeled and wired with no apparent rhyme or reason. The only way to locate the correct circuit is to guess and check. One of these days I plan to upgrade the labeling in the breaker box and create a map. OK, I added that task to my list.

Here’s a friendly word of advice before you begin cycling breakers. Shut down your desktop computer as aging hard drives may not respond well to a sudden power loss.

Outlet Swap (2)

I was home alone and the breakers are located as far from the outlet as possible. I used a radio on high volume to alert me to the correct breaker. Alas, Murphy reared his head. I cycled through each breaker, but the radio continued singing. I repeated in reverse order and still found no joy. Now I have every digital clock and appliance in the house blinking 12:00.

Investigation revealed the radio I chose was outfitted with battery backup. I switched to a clock radio and repeated my test.

Outlet Swap (3)

If I had a helper I could use this inexpensive tester or even a lamp and have the helper yell when the light extinguishes.

Outlet Swap (4)

Murphy punched me again. The ceiling lights in the hallway are on the same circuit. I will be changing this outlet in the dark. Exit and return to the shop for a flashlight.

Removing an outlet is simple. Lossen the mounting screws and pull the outlet forward. You may need to unfold the wires with your fingers to have enough clearance to work. Aren’t you glad the power is off?

Outlet Swap (7)

White wires (also called neutral) are attached to the silver screws. Black wires (also called line or hot) are attached to the brass screws. The bare copper wire is the ground and attaches to the green screw at the bottom. Don’t mix, match, or employ your own color scheme here! Smart people figured this code out long ago and agreed it would be the standard.

In my application there are two pairs of wires with one set feeding a second outlet on the other side of the wall. Look closely and you can see the top and bottom terminals connected by a copper strip to make the junction.

I do one wire at a time and double check that all the screws are tight. Gently fold the wires back into the box while pushing the outlet into place. Take special care to keep the ground wire away from the other terminals.

Outlet Swap (8)

Tighten the mounting screws on the outlet. Restore power and test. Murphy kicked me again. I used an outlet from my parts box, and the bottom position had a broken prong or something embedded deep inside the socket. I replaced the outlet a second time using a new outlet fresh from its wrapper and dropped the defective outlet into the trash.

I checked the function of the outlet then reinstalled it in the box. Murphy strikes again. The original outlet/cover are ivory colored and the new outlet is something called light ivory. Grrrr!

I added a new cover to my shopping list.

Outlet Swap (9)

Some days Murphy overrides the Law of Gravity.