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How to Replace Household Receptacles in 7 Easy Steps

January 15, 2012

Introduction - Why Change a Worn Receptacle?

The purpose of these instructions is to provide the handy man homeowner adequate instruction in how to replace a damaged or worn standard 120-volt AC (Alternating Current) receptacle. There are many reasons for the homeowner to undertake this simple task on their own, including:

  • Savings vs. hiring a contractor
    Installing receptacles on your own can result in considerable savings over hiring an electrical contractor to do what can easily be done by the homeowner that possesses some mechanical ability and a desire for savings.

  • Reducing energy costs
    Replacing receptacles can even result in lower energy costs for the homeowner. Older worn receptacles that no longer hold plugs in tightly cause an increase in resistance in an electrical circuit which causes more electricity to be used than with a new receptacle with tight connections.

  • Reduce risk of fire
    Worn outlets also cause sparking and overheating to occur, which in some cases could even lead to fire. A loose connection can cause sparking to occur, which produces heat. Heating and cooling cause the electrical wires and receptacle contacts to expand and contract. This constant expansion/contraction cycle eventually loosens connections, adding even more resistance to the circuit and producing more heat. If this never-ending cycle continues unabated, it may eventually lead to the homeowner's worst nightmare, an electrical fire.
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What is Covered By These Instructions

These instructions cover the removal and replacement of a standard 120-volt AC receptacle. These instructions only cover the installation of a non-controlled receptacle supplied by a single set of 12-14 gauge conductors with a 12-14 gauge ground wire in an approved receptacle box with circuit breaker protection. Additionally, these instructions also cover:

  • Estimated Costs and Time Involved
  • Tools and supplies needed for the task
  • Determining if a receptacle is controlled
  • Identifying the proper circuit breaker supplying power to the receptacle
  • How to determine the amperage of the circuit
  • How to remove the existing receptacle
  • Preparing the new receptacle
  • Preparing the wires for installation
  • Installing the new receptacle
  • Testing the installation.
  • Step Seven: Installing the New Receptacle

What is Not Covered by These Instructions:

  • Controlled receptacles
  • 220 volt receptacles
  • Anything not explicitly stated in the section What is Covered By These Instructions
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Estimated Costs and Time Involved

Estimated Costs

Costs involved in replacing a receptacle can vary widely depending on what tools the homeowner already possesses. The total cost for this project, including tools shown below is $76.02. Most of the tools required, other than the voltmeter can be found in most handy man tool boxes. Currently, the price of voltmeters has fallen and can even be found for as little as five to ten dollars. After the initial investment in tools, savings involved increase dramatically in subsequent receptacle changeovers. The cost for additional replacements will be under five dollars per receptacle.

Material Costs
1 20 Amp Receptacle 2.59
1 roll electrical tape 2.99
1 receptacle faceplate 0.49
1 needle nose pliers 15.99
1 Retractable razor knife 3.99
1 Wire strippers 12.99
1 #2 Phillips screwdriver 3.99
1 3/8ths flat screwdriver 3.99
1 voltmeter 29.00
Total Material Cost 76.02
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Estimated Time:

Time involved in upgrading to a new receptacle is minimal. A homeowner with no prior experience can expect to perform the changeover in 45 minutes or less. Identifying the amperage of the circuit and determining if it is controlled are not included in the estimated completion time. The greatest amount of time used during the installation should be devoted to the most important step, which is identifying the hot, neutral and grounding connectors correctly.

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Tools and Supplies Needed

tools needed
  • #2 Phillips Screwdriver
  • 3/8 in. flat head screwdriver
  • Needle nose pliers
  • Retractable Razor knife
  • Wire Strippers
  • Voltmeter
  • 1 Roll electrical tape
  • 1 20-amp receptacle
  • 1 Receptacle face plate

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Step One: Determine if the Receptacle is Controlled

Note: A receptacle is considered a controlled receptacle if its power can be turned off to it by any device other than the circuit breaker controlling power to the circuit. Controlled receptacles are often found in locations like bedrooms, where a light switch is used to turn on a bedside lamp that is plugged into a receptacle.
WARNING! These instructions do not cover the replacement of controlled receptacles because of the multitude of wiring configurations that may be encountered with such a device. If you are in doubt about whether a receptacle is controlled, or if you want to replace a controlled receptacle, contact a qualified electrician. Following these directions to change a controlled receptacle could result in property damage, injury, or death. Once you have determined the receptacle is not controlled by any means other than the circuit breaker, you can proceed with the removal and replacement of the worn receptacle.

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Step Two: Identify the Circuit Breaker Controlling the Circuit

Caution! Before attempting to remove the existing receptacle, make sure power to the unit has been shut off at the circuit breaker. The first step in replacing the worn receptacle is to identify the circuit breaker that controls power to the receptacle.
To find out which circuit breaker controls the receptacle in question, we can use a simple voltmeter like the one pictured below.

Caution! To avoid electrical shock always hold the voltmeter's probes (leads) by their insulated handles. Never touch the metallic tips on the leads of the voltmeter while inserted into the receptacle.

Note: Consult the owner's manual for proper operation of your voltmeter.

  1. Insert the tip of the red lead of the voltmeter into the shorter of the two vertical slots (see Figure 1) in the receptacle. This is the "hot" side of the receptacle.

    Now, insert the black lead into the rounded hole. This is the ground connection for the circuit. The longer vertical slot is for the "neutral" side of the receptacle. See Figure 2 for correct connection of voltmeter leads. Observe the reading on the voltmeter. You will notice that it reads close to 120 volts.

    Caution! If you cannot obtain a voltage reading when testing the receptacle in this manner, STOP IMMEDIATELY!

    This is an indication there is either no ground conductor connected to the receptacle or other problem with the wiring in this circuit. Contact an electrician to install new wire with a grounding conductor to the receptacle.

    contacts identified voltage tester
  2. Go to the breaker panel and starting with the breaker at the top left of the panel, turn off one breaker and then observe the reading on the voltmeter. If the meter still indicates there is voltage to the receptacle, return to the breaker panel and turn the next breaker off.
  3. Repeat steps A and B until the voltmeter shows no voltage on the circuit.
  4. Turn on any breaker that you shut off during the above steps, except the one that controls the circuit feeding the receptacle you are working on.
  5. Recheck voltage at the receptacle to insure you did not reenergize the circuit while performing Step D.
  6. Note: Do not worry if the voltmeter does not read 120 volts exactly. Variations of +10% or -10% from the nominal 120 volt rating are within acceptable range.

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Step Three: Identifying the Amperage Rating of the Circuit

This can be accomplished by looking at the amperage rating that is printed on the circuit breaker that controls the circuit the receptacle is on. It will be labeled either 15 or 20 on the handle of the circuit breaker. This rating tells you which kind of receptacle you need, either 15 or 20 amp. If the breaker label says 20, then you must replace the receptacle with a 20-amp receptacle. If the breaker label says 15, you can replace the receptacle with either a 15, or 20-amp receptacle. Using a 20-amp receptacle, in this case, will provide better over-current protection in the event of voltage spikes. In short, you cannot go wrong using a receptacle rated for 20 amperes.

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Step Four: Removing the Existing Receptacle

  1. Start by removing the screw located in the center of the receptacle face plate with either a flat bladed screwdriver or Phillips screwdriver as needed. See Figure 3. Most face plate screws take the flat-bladed screwdriver. The screw is right-hand thread, like all the screws you will encounter in these steps, so you need to turn it counter clockwise to remove it.
  2. contacts identified

  3. Remove the two receptacle mounting screws located at the top and bottom of the receptacle as shown in Figure 4.
  4. mounting screws located at the top and bottom of the receptacle
  5. Carefully pull the receptacle out of the receptacle box, noting where each wire is attached.
  6. Take a one inch piece of black electrical tape and wrap it around the wire attached to the hot side of the receptacle. See Figure 5. The tape will identify the hot wire when we reinstall it on the new receptacle.
  7. tape and wrap it around the wire attached to the hot side
  8. Remove the (usually black) wire from the hot side of the receptacle by removing the screw that attaches it as shown in Figure 6 below..
    tape and wrap it around the wire attached to the hot side
    Note: You will notice the wires are looped around the connecting screws, which can make it difficult to remove the wire. You can either pry the loop apart with a flat bladed screwdriver, or remove the screw completely to remove the wire. I have found it easier to remove the screw entirely. This method saves having to make a new loop on the wire before reattaching it to the new receptacle.

  9. Remove the (usually white) insulated wire from the opposite side (neutral side) of the receptacle in the same manner.
  10. Remove the ground wire, as shown in Figure 7, (either a bare copper wire, or one with green insulation) from the receptacle. Remove the ground wire

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Step Five: Preparing the new receptacle

New receptacles come equipped with plaster catches on the top and bottom as shown in Figure 8. The old receptacle on the left has the catches removed. The new receptacle on the right still has the catches attached.

plaster catches

These are provided for installations where approved receptacle boxes are not used. These instructions only cover installations in approved receptacle boxes, where the use of these catches are not necessary. Removing these catches before installation is optional. However, failure to remove them may result in the faceplate sticking out slightly from the wall.
  1. To remove the plaster catches, locate the scored lines on the mounting bracket (See Figure 9) and place the edge of your needle nose pliers right along the line as shown in Figure 10. Gently twist the pliers back and forth and the optional catch will break off along the scored line. plaster catches plaster catches
  2. If you have determined you want to leave the additional catches on the receptacle, skip Step Five and proceed to Step Six.

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Step Six: Preparing the Wires

If the ends of the wires are damaged where they connected to the old receptacle you may find it preferable to cut off the existing loops and draw (bend) new ones. To draw new loops, execute the following steps:
Caution! Before cutting any length off of any wire, determine if there is enough remaining wire to reconnect to the receptacle. If you cut off the existing loop, you will lose that distance plus another three quarters of an inch required for the new loop. If you have determined enough wire will remain to make the connection, proceed with the following steps.

  1. Strip three quarters of an inch of insulation off the wire that needs a new loop. Wire strippers like the ones shown in Figure 11 have several holes, each for a different gauge wire. Wire strippers The safest way to find the proper hole to use, if you are not sure of the wire gauge, is to try stripping the wire using the largest hole, then progressing to each smaller hole as needed until the strippers cut into the insulation and bare the wire. Then pull the insulation off the end of the metal conductor. If you do know the wire gauge, use the hole appropriately marked on the strippers for that gauge.

  2. Make new loops by holding the wire in one hand and with the other hand grasp the bared wire with needle nose pliers approximately one eighth of an inch from the end as shown in Figure 12. Twist your wrist will pulling slightly with the needle nose pliers to produce a loop like the one shown in Figure 13.
    Caution! Avoid making sharp bends in the wire, as this could lead to breakage. Make a nice, gradual bend in the loops.
    grasp wire gently twist

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Step Seven: Installing the New Receptacle

  1. Attach the looped end of the hot wire (identified by the tape installed in Step Four D.) onto the gold contact screw on the hot side of the receptacle as shown in Figure 14.
    Attach the looped end of the hot wire
    Note: The hot side of the new receptacle can be determined by the color of the contact screws. You can attach the wire to either of the gold colored screws, it does not matter, as they are connected together internally inside the receptacle body. The gold colored screws are for the hot wire. The silver colored screws are for the neutral wire, and the single green colored screw is for the ground wire.

    As shown in Figures 14 and 15, the loop in the wire should be attached in a clockwise direction.
    Note: Attaching the loop in a counterclockwise direction can cause the wire to slip off the contact screw as you are tightening it.
    the wire should be attached in a clockwise direction.

  2. Attach the neutral wire to the silver contact screw on the opposite side of the receptacle from the hot wire. Again, you can connect the wire to either silver screw.

  3. Attach the ground wire to the green contact screw as shown in Figure 16.
    Attach the ground wire to the green contact

  4. Double check that all contact screws are tightened securely.

  5. Tighten any unused contact screws.

  6. Make two wraps of electrical tape around the body of the receptacle, making sure to cover the exposed contact screws. This serves as extra protection against short circuits in the event the receptacle comes into contact with the side of the receptacle box while energized.
    Note: This step is optional, but highly recommended.

  7. Gently push the receptacle with wires attached back into the receptacle box. Install receptacle mounting screws shown in Figure 4 above by turning clockwise.

    Note: Notice that the receptacle mounting bracket has slots that the mounting screws pass through. This allows you to shift either the top or bottom of the receptacle side-to-side, so you can mount the receptacle straight. Snug the screws up enough that the receptacle does not move freely side-to-side, but can still be moved by hand.

  8. Place the faceplate over the receptacle and stand back to get a better view of the alignment. Adjust the receptacle for best appearance and tighten the mounting screws.

  9. Place the receptacle faceplate over the receptacle and install the faceplate mounting screw snugly. Caution! Over tightening the faceplate mounting screw could crack the faceplate, so only snug the screw enough to keep the faceplate from moving.

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