How to Install a Receptacle

Knowing how to replace a receptacle in your home is a handy thing to know.   We are sometimes tasked with replacing one of these as part of our Home Maintenance duties.  It is not to be taken lightly.  A healthy respect for electricity and a knowledge of proper wiring methods is essential.  Choosing the right device is also key.  Quality is important but also is the rating of the device.  You don’t want a device rated for 15 amps on a 20 amp circuit.

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There are reasons why receptacles need to be replaced -the internal connection might be loose or sloppy, causing it to overheat slightly -or more than slightly (be aware of such things) or maybe it took a physical hit and broke How to install a receptacle How to Install a Receptacle(the body of the device is made of plastic).  Also, if you build an addition to your home or remodel a room, you will be buying some of these -or, your electrician will be.  You are encouraged to spring for the higher price model.

To arm yourself with the latest information it would be wise to obtain the latest (2011) edition of the National Electrical Code (in the U.S.).  The code,  the Code Handbook, as well as numerous ‘how-to’ tutorials may be obtained at Mike Holt Enterprises.  Holt is recognized in the electrical construction industry as an authority on the application of the National Electrical Code.  

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The Difference Between Higher and Lower Cost Devices

There is a difference between cheap and higher price receptacle devices.   Some of the cheaper devices have a “back-wired” arrangement, whereby the installer has a choice whether to solidly attach the conductor under the screw post (preferred method) or to put the conductor into a hole in the backside of the device where a spring clip will capture it and prevent the conductor from coming out.

Those spring clips make for a faster installation for builders who do hundreds of these every week.  The spring clips have been known to show fatigue with age. With fatigue comes a loose connection and the build-up of residual heat when placed under an electrical load.  In an electrical circuit, the build-up of residual heat is not a good thing.  To expand on that, a relatively heavy load on a receptacle will cause the build-up of heat within the receptacle as well as the lead cord connected to it.  Resistive loads such as electric heaters, toasters, hair dryers, and the like are a heavier load, measured in watts, than say, a lamp (with a 100 watt light bulb for example).

With that knowledge, if you notice a warm or hot electrical outlet (receptacle) with not much on it (in terms of watts) and it is heating up, it would be prudent to determine the cause.  If the internal connection in the receptacle device not as robust as it once was, it would cause it to heat up.  Likewise, if the wiring terminations are not as snug as they once were, same result.  In any event, it warrants further attention.   To ignore the situation or to procrastinate invites the possibility of disastrous consequences.  It is a Life-Safety Issue.  Take action.

See Signs of a Loose Connection for some images of receptacles that were damaged by residual heat build-up.

On the other hand, the more expensive devices do not have the back-wire arrangement. They are called “specification grade” (spec grade) devices because it is what architects call for on projects that they design.  The termination method is called ‘side-wired’ and is accomplished by fashioning a hook on the end of the solid copper conductor and placing it under the screw post and tightening it down, thereby clamping it solidly in place.

Technically, on a ‘side-wired’ arrangement there is much more surface area of the conductor in contact with the surface area of the device.  It simply is a better electrical, as well as, mechanical connection.  Electrician apprentices are trained to use the ‘side wired’ termination method when installing or replacing a receptacle.  That method results in a good solid mechanical connection that won’t fail because of fatigue as spring clips sometimes do.

 

Part Two -

I’ll now speak to you DIY types -those inclined to “do-it-yourself.”  How many times have I heard “What is there to know?  Black to black – White to white, right?”  I cannot count them all.  There is much to know, as we are talking about Life-Safety.  Complacency in this area may have grave consequences!

If you decide to attempt to replace an electrical outlet device -be it a receptacle or a switch, rather than calling in a “Qualified” electrician to perform the repair, it is imperative that you have a working knowledge of the appropriate articles of the National Electrical Code (in the U.S.) or the equal Canadian code -or wherever you may be located.  No doubt there is a code published by the authority having jurisdiction over electrical installations.  Attempting such tasks without knowledge of accepted wiring practices is to tempt fate in the form of house fire and the inherent risk to Life and Property.

Am I causing you to think twice about it?  That is my goal.  Your decision to do this electrical work is not to be taken lightly.  You and your Family have to Sleep in that House.  Will you be able to sleep?

Anyone attempting to perform electrical work must understand that their work should be inspected by the authority having jurisdiction.  In a municipality, it is usually the Building Dept.  If outside of a municipality, I’d check the local listings for an electrical inspector.

To arm yourself with the latest information it would be wise to obtain the latest (2011) edition of the National Electrical Code (in the U.S.).  The code,  the Code Handbook, as well as numerous ‘how-to’ tutorials may be obtained at Mike Holt Enterprises.  Holt is recognized in the electrical construction industry as an authority on the application of the National Electrical Code.  

Buy a code book nowNational Electrical Code. 

Important points pertaining to attaching circuit wiring to the receptacle device:

  •  Strip length is important to get right.  If you are not well practiced at this, use the “strip gauge” found molded into the back of the plastic device as a guide.  The proper strip length is about 5/8″
  • Use a wire stripper. Strippers typically have holes for different size wire. Know the size wire you are working with and use the proper portion of the tool. It is possible to ‘nick’ the wire if using the portion of the tool designed for smaller wire and that should be avoided.  If a solid copper conductor is ‘nicked’ -depending upon the severity, it creates the possibility of the wire breaking at that point when bent, formed or fashioned.
  • The black conductor is the energized one and should be terminated under the ‘brass colored’ screw post.
  •  The white conductor is the neutral and is terminated under the silver colored screw post.
  •  The bare copper conductor is the grounding conductor and is terminated on the green screw post.
  • When done, perform an inspection of your terminations.  No insulation should be lodged under the terminating screw posts.  If too much insulation was removed, too much copper conductor will be visible beyond the post.  Proper strip length avoids these two scenarios.

 

See Part Three: a tutorial on how to actually install one of these devices in an electrical outlet box (in a wall). 

After installing your receptacle, you’ll want to test it for correct wiring.  In fact, it’s a great idea to test all your receptacles if you haven’t done so.  Additionally, test the Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCI) in your home every month.  It is advisable to test the GFCIs for proper function and to test for correct wiring, as well.  To do that, buy a simple and inexpensive gadget called a GFCI Tester and keep it around the house.

 

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 What’s on your mind?  You have any thoughts on this or experience? If so, why not share them by commenting below.

Additional Resources:

Mike Holt’s Code Resources

Code Forum

 

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Filed under: Electrical Maintenance, Electrical Safety, Precautions

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