Recently, I painted my bedroom a pale pink. As I admired my work, I realized that the dingy ivory electrical outlets looked just hideous. I knew I needed new, fresh, white outlets. I called my dad to see if he thought I could tackle this on my own. After a resounding ‘Of course’, I headed off to the hardware store.
Outlet Tester/Voltage Meter
Needle-nose pliers (pictured later)
Wire cutters (pictured later)
Once you have all your supplies ready, shut off the breaker to cut off all power to the outlets. My mother, who has done wiring for years with my grandfather (who was an electrician) will actually do wiring with the power still on. That scares me, and is not recommended. The shock wont kill you, but it will hurt. And will put a dent in your pliers. So, just go turn off the breaker.
My breaker box is horribly labeled – I really can’t tell what connects to what. So, it’s a lot of trial and error to make sure the outlets are off. One way to test that your outlets are truly off is to plug in a lamp or an alarm clock. If it doesn’t turn on, the power is off and it is safe to work with. However, if you are working with switches also, you should get a voltage meter. You can get a simple tester for about $10, or more advanced ones for more. It is worth it. I thought I had turned off the breaker for all my outlets, and just happened to test this one to get a picture for this post. As you can see, it is live. I was lucky I tested it!
Step Two: Remove the existing outlet
I recommend doing one outlet at a time. It is easier to keep track of everything and make sure you don’t miss a step. To remove the existing outlet, start by removing all the screws in the cover plate and the outlet itself. Once the screws are removed, gently pull the outlet away from the wall. Mine had to be pried out a bit, as the outlet screws had been painted over at one time.
Once you have pulled the outlet away from the wall, you will see one of a few possible configurations. The most likely is the first picture – a white wire and black wire, wrapped around a screw, with possibly a third copper ground wire wrapped around a green screw. This is the easiest – just loosen the screws to remove the outlet from the wires.
The second possibility is that you will have two white and two black wires wrapped around screws. This just means that the power is continuing from this outlet to another. Again, loosen the screws to disengage the wires from the outlet. However, make sure that you bend the wires or label them somehow so you know which ones go on the upper screws and which to the lower screws. This is very important, as mis-wiring these will cause your outlets to not work.
The third possibility is that the white and black wires will be wired directly into the back of the outlet. This is more difficult, but not outside of your ability, I promise. I had quite a few like this, and while it was a bigger pain, it was very do-able. For these, you can try to loosen the screws in the back of the outlet and pull out the wire. If you are able to do this, great. I was not – they were just in too tight. I had to use a wire cutter to cut the wires off of the outlet. Once you have cut the wires, you will need to strip off some of the wire covering. To do this, you can use either a knife or blade to slice the covering and pull it off. Or, you can use this handy wire-stripping tool the will cut and strip the covering. Leave yourself about 3/4 of an inch of bare wire to work with.
Step Three: Connecting the new outlet
Once you have removed the existing outlet and have the wires ready to go (if you had to cut the wires), you are ready to connect the new outlet. If your outlets were wrapped around the screws, all you need to do is now wrap the wires around the screws on the new outlet. White goes to the silver screw, black to the gold screw and the copper ground wire goes to the green screw. If there were two white and two black, make sure you mapped which went to the upper screws and which went to the bottom. Tighten the screws, making sure the wire is secure under the screw head. Once you have connected the wires, wrap the outlet with electrical tape. This is not required, but my parents recommended it, so I did. Seemed like a good idea.
If you had to cut your wire off of your outlet, you will need to create a hook at the end of your wire. Make sure you have left yourself enough wire for the hook (3/4 – 1 inch). Using needle-nosed plier, grab the end of the wire and bend it over the nose of the plier. Make sure it is tight enough to be secure around the screw, but not so tight that you can’t get it on. Wrap the hook around the screw and tighten, again, making sure the wire is secure under the screw head.
* a note about grounding wires. None of my outlets had the grounding wire attached. In all the outlets, the copper grounding wire was tucked into the electrical box on its own. I asked my parents about it and they figure that whoever wired the house never connected the grounding. This is, of course, not optimal. They said that since the grounding wasn’t hooked up anyway, it wouldn’t really matter if I connected the wire to the grounding screw on the outlet. However, since it does not hurt to do so, I did it anyway. We are not electricians, so if you have any concern, feel free to contact one. But in this case, I did connect the grounding wires anyway, just to be safe.
Step Four: Finishing the job
Once your outlet is connected, you can screw it back to the electrical box, and attach the cover plate. Do be careful when screwing in the cover plate – I once tightened it too much and cracked it. Also, keep in mind that your wall may not be even. I had to loosen a screw in the outlet to make the plate appear even. Play with it a bit – don’t feel like you have to tighten it as much as possible – just make sure it’s secure and looks nice! (see the picture below – it’s a little too tight an looks a bit buckled in the middle – needs to be loosened a bit!)
Step Five: Celebrate!
You did it! Knew you could! And doesn’t it just look so much better?!? You so got this, girl!