A standard 120-volt electrical receptacles typically have one of two amperage ratings to them: 15 or 20-amp. They look very similar, but the 20-amp outlet is the one with the “T” shape for one of the vertical slots. This shape allows special plugs on a few appliances to fit that require more power. Standards appliances and cords can also get plugged into 20-amp outlets. When you start wondering how to install electrical outlets, you want to get one that looks like the old one with the same amperage rating on it. Never try to install a 20-amp outlet on a 15-amp circuit.
If you’re wondering how to install electrical outlets and you don’t want to bring in a professional electrician to do the job for you, you’re in luck. This step-by-step guide will outline how to install electrical outlets. We’ll also list out all the tools you’ll want to have on hand, how to identify the circuit rating, safety precautions, and when it’s time to replace your outlets. You can take this guide and learn how to install electrical outlets throughout your home in a few hours. Let’s get started.
A lot of people are wary of working around electricity, but they’re surprised on how easy it is when they start looking at how to install electrical outlets. This is a relatively quick project that you can do yourself without a host of special knowledge. Electrical Outlet by Austin Villages / CC BY-ND 2.0
Equipment, Tools, and Materials
First off, it’s essential for you to have all of the proper tools, equipment, and materials on-hand. This will ensure that you can complete your project from start to finish without having to stop and risk losing your place. If you’re wondering how to install electrical outlets, have these things on hand:
- Needle-nose pliers
- Non-contact voltage tester
- Replacement 15-amp to 20-amp outlets
- Wire strippers
How to Install Electrical Outlets – Step-by-Step
Since you’re not going to be rewiring your whole house for this project, you’ll realize how to install electrical outlets is actually very easy and straightforward. You’ll find tips on some of the following 10 steps to ensure your project goes smoothly and you have success.
Step One – Switch Off Your Power
One of the first things you have to do is switch off the power to your outlet’s circuit. You do this by shutting off the appropriate circuit breaker in the breaker box on your home. It’s also called the service panel. Make sure that you hit the correct circuit breaker because there are several in your home. You don’t want a live outlet when you’re working in it or you could get shocked.
Step Two – Test for Power
Always test for power before you start working around electricity. This part in how to install an electrical outlet is extremely important, and you’ll need your non-contact voltage tester for it. Get the tester and insert the probe tip into each of your electrical outlet’s slots. You want the tester to indicate that there is no voltage flowing through it. If it does, you’re safe to go to the next step.
- Tip – Make sure your non-contact voltage tester is functioning correctly with operating batteries. Test it by putting it in an outlet that you know is active. Some testers can light up when they sense an electrical current, others will make a noise, and some do both.
Step Three – Open Your Outlet
Get your screwdriver for this step on how to install electrical outlets and remove the center screw in the outlet’s faceplate. Test for power a second time by inserting the non-contact voltage tester’s probe into the space by the outlet body. Touch all of the wires inside the electrical box with the tester. It should indicate that there is no voltage flowing through.
Step Four – Look at the Wiring
Remove your mounting screws next. These screws hold the receptacle strap to your electrical box. Once they’re out, gently remove the receptacle out of the box. Gently grip the receptacle by the bottom and top ears and pull to remove it.
Once it’s out, take a look at the wire configuration. Usually, you’ll see three different colored wires that attach to the outlet. Black wires are the ones that carry live voltage, so they’re considered to be hot. These wires should attach directly to brass-colored screw terminals on the outlet. White wires are neutral, and they should be attached to the silver-colored terminals.
Finally, you have bare copper wires (they can have green insulation on them too). These are ground wires that attach to the green grounding screw on the outlet. There is a short grounding wire known as a pigtail that can create a link from the metal electrical box to the circuit grounding wires.
Some outlets will only contain one neutral and one hot wire that attach to the receptacle. Others can have up to two hot wires and two neutral wires that attach to opposite sides of the outlet. The wiring depends on where your outlet is in your circuit. It can be at the end-of-run or middle-of-run. It also depends on how your electrician chose to wire the circuit. No matter what you have, your goal is to recreate the same setup in the net outlet when you learn how to install electrical outlets.
- Tip – Some outlets will come with a switched portion to them, and this is always live. Make sure you take a close look at the outlet to see if your center tab is broken out and hot on the brass screw side. You’ll find more on this in step 8.
Step Five – Confirm Your Outlet’s Amperage Rating
When you’re learning how to install electrical outlets, it’s essential that you know what your outlet’s amperage rating is. Double-check the amperage of the new outlet. You can safely attach a 15-amp outlet to a 15-amp or 20-amp circuit. However, the circuit has to have wiring that matches your amperage rating. For a 20-amp circuit, you’ll need 12-gauge wire. For a 15-amp circuit, you’ll need 14-gauge wire.
However, it’s essential that you never try to install a 20-amp outlet onto a 15-amp circuit that has 14-gauge wiring. If you do, you’ll get a dangerous wire contradiction. Your 20-amp circuit breaker will feed wires that are only 14-gauge, and this is the perfect time to call a professional since it can be dangerous to handle on your own. If your circuit wires, circuit breaker, and outlet are all consistent, you can move to the next step.
Knowing what amperage your outlet is will help ensure that you don’t overload your circuit breakers, short anything out, or end up causing fires. This is why knowing how to install electrical outlets is so essential. Electrical Outlet Repair 6 by Lynn Friedman / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Step Six – Remove the Outlet
Disconnect your outlet wires and replace them. Outlets use two methods to connect the wires. They can have push-in “back-wire” slots in the back of the outlet, or they can have screw terminals on the sides of the outlet. Find out which one yours has when you figure out how to install electrical outlets.
A lot of electricians believe that your screw terminal connectors are the more secure types of the two. They usually work to not create back-wire connections. If your old outlet does have this type of connection, you’ll remove the wires by inserting a small flat screwdriver or nail into the release slot. These slots are night next to the wires. The wire connection will loosen and slowly pull free of the outlet’s body. If the outlet has screw connections, loosen the screws up and remove your wire loops from around the screws.
- Tip – If it’s not possible to tell the color of the insulation around your wires, you can label them using small tabs. This is a common problem with older wiring. This will tell you at a glance which wires are attached to a neutral screw and which are attached to a live on.
Step Seven – Connect Your New Outlet
Attach a green insulated or bare commer circuit wire to the green screw terminal on your outlet. To complete this step on how to install electrical outlets, bend a C-shaped loop at the end of your wire. Gently loop it clockwise around the green screw terminal on teh outlet. Finish by tightening the screw firmly.
Attach your neutral white wires to the silver screw terminals on the outlet. Create a C-shaped loop on one of the wire’s ends. Gently loop this C-shaped end around your silver screw terminal in a clockwise direction. Tighten your screws firmly. Take note that some outlets allow you to insert the straight end of the wire into the slots right next to your screw terminals on the sides of the outlet. Never connect more than one wire to a terminal.
If your older outlet was back-wired, don’t use your back-wire fittings on your new outlet when you learn how to install electrical outlets unless you can tighten them up with a screw. Instead, you want to slowly trim off the ends of your wire and strip ¾-inch of insulation from the wire using your wire strippers. Bend your wire into a C-shape at the end and connect it into the side terminal.
Complete wiring yoru connections by attaching your black wires to the brass-colored screw terminals. You want to use the same technique to attach them. Again, never connect more than one wire to a single terminal.
Step Eight – Split Outlet Variation
If you’re doing a kitchen remodel and you notice that you have old outlets, you could find that they have a split wiring. If you do, the top and bottom halves of your outlet operate separately from one another This could be done so different circuits can feed the bottom and top halves of the outlet. For example, outlets on your kitchen countertop could have one circuit feeding the top half of the outlet and a second circuit running to the bottom half of the outlet.
Another reason why you may have one of these split outlets is so that you can use a wall switch to control one half of your outlet. If this is the case, one half of your outlet will run normally while the other one will only run if the wall switch is on. If this setup, you’ll have a brass connecting tab broken off along the side of the outlet. So, there isn’t an electrical pathway between the top and bottom half of the outlet. When you’re replacing this outlet, inspect the tabs. If they’re severed, make sure to break off a tab in the new outlet before you install it.
Step Nine – GFCI Outlet Variation
How to install electrical outlets of the GFCI variation isn’t difficult as long as you paid attention to how the original wires were connected in the old outlet. Any middle-of-the-run GFCI outlet comes with two pairs of neutral and hot wires. Each pair has to connect to specific terminals.
The wires that enter the outlet from the power source have to connect to both the neutral and hot screw terminals. They’ll be marked “LINE.” The pair of wires that run toward the other fixtures out outlets have to connect to the corresponding terminals with a “LOAD” marking on them. If you’re wondering how to install electrical outlets of this type, be careful to review any manufacturer’s wiring schematic. This will ensure you connect it correctly.
Step Ten – Mount the Outlet and Switch on the Power
When you finish with the wires, tuck them neatly into the box as you push the receptacle into place against your box tabs. Carefully secure it to the box using two screws. Install the faceplate on the new outlet. The final step in how to install electrical outlets is to restore power to your circuit. You do this by switching on your circuit breaker and testing it to ensure it works.
Finding Out the Circuit Rating
The outlet rating can be 15-amp or 20-amp, but you should also know the circuit rating. The circuit’s breaker and the wiring give you important clues to the circuit amperage. Circuit wiring on a 20-amp setup uses 12-gauge wiring with a yellow outer layer. For 15-amp circuits, they use 14-gauge wire that has a white outer layer to it. The circuit breaker for a 20-amp setup should have a “20” stamp on it. So, a 15-amp setup will have a “15” stamped on the breaker.
You want to fix any broken or damaged electrical outlets you have in your home quickly. Doing so will stop them from overloading your circuit breakers, and it’s better for the wires because there isn’t a lot of additional stress on them. Fixing a Slightly Broken Outlet by Andrew Fresh / CC BY 2.0
It’s not uncommon for people who are DIYing how to install electrical outlets to get confused about using a 15-amp or 20-amp outlet. In fact, you can install a 15-amp outlet on a 20-amp circuit, and many professional-grade electricians do this as their standard practice. This is safe because a smaller appliance that gets plugged into a 15-amp outlet won’t generally draw enough power to overload your 12-gauge wires on this circuit.
However, this situation is much different if you’re wondering how to install electrical outlets with a 20-amp outlet on a 15-amp circuit using 14-gauge wire. You can plug in a larger appliance if you wire it like this, but it can draw enough power to overload your wires. In most residences, 20-amp outlets are very rare, even for using them on 20-amp circuits. These receptacles get reserved for outlets where you use a more powerful appliance like motor-driven power tools or space heaters. Never install them on a 15-amp circuit.
You could also consider installing tamper-resistant outlets. Electrical code requires that each outlet in your home get fitted with tamper-resistant receptacles. This prevents children from putting objects into the outlet’s slots and getting a shock. You can still purchase more traditional receptacles without these tamper-resistant slots, but you should buy newer models to stay in code.
When Should You Replace Electrical Outlets?
Now that you know how to install electrical outlets, you should know the clues that tell you it’s time to replace your current ones. There are several, and you might not experience them all. The most obvious clues to keep an eye out for are:
A cracked or damaged outlet is dangerous. Modern outlets come with very durable vinyl bodies that rarely break or cracks. Older outlet bodies use a brittle plastic that is more prone to crack from stress. You might be able to spot cracks or chips on the front of your outlet, especially around the slots. However, it’s possible to get cracks in the back or side of the outlet too that you won’t see until you take it apart. You want to turn off the power and replace any damaged outlets with new ones.
It’s surprising to note that many homeowners don’t realize that their receptacles on your outlet come rated for a specific amperage. For standard circuits, you’ll get a 15-amp or 20-amp rating. You can identify a 20-amp receptacle by seeing a small horizontal “T” shape that will jut out from one of the outlet’s vertical slots. It will accept 20-amp plugs that you find around heavy-usage appliances like heaters.
It’s extremely common to incorrectly use your outlets with the wrong rating for the circuit amperage. There is zero danger when you attach a 15-amp receptacle to a 20-amp circuit. However, there is a problem when you switch them around and attach a 20-amp receptacle to a 15-amp circuit. If you’re lucky, the result will be a blown breaker. If you’re not lucky, you could cause a fire or damage the wires. This is why it’s essential you know how to install electrical outlets.
Loose Wire Connectors
If your receptacle gets a lot of use, the wire connectors in the circuit will start to get loose. Every time they draw a current through your wire connection, it will generate a small amount of heat. This repeated cycle of contraction and expansion can eventually loosen up the screws. When this happens, you could hear crackling sounds. If the wire connectors get completely loose, you may have a short circuit that causes a circuit breaker to trip.
This is very common if you wired the outlet using a push-in fitting on the back of the receptacle. These are very insecure connections, and this is why professional-grade electricians tend to avoid using them to make their wire connections. You can switch off the power and tighten all of your connections now that you know how to install electrical outlets. Make sure that your mourning strap is tight so it can’t wiggle around when you extract or insert plugs.
Loose wires are one of the biggest reasons people learn how to install electrical outlets since they wear out over time with repeated use. Tightening the wires back up only takes a few minutes, and it can make your outlet as good as new. Socket To Me by puuikibeach / CC BY 2.0
No AFCI or GFCI Protection
If you want to add a bathroom, you’ll need to know how to install electrical outlets of this type since they’re required for wet and humid rooms. Electrical codes require that most outlets located in your living area have AFCI protection and outlets in wet areas of your home have GFCI protection. Existing wiring can be exempt from this unless you redo it. So, any time an electrician comes in to do work, they may have to upgrade the existing outlets to ones with AFCI or GFCI protection.
You should also make the changes when you work on how to install electrical outlets. GFCI protection is also required on all outdoor locations and below-grade locations like in the basement. They also have to be installed anywhere in your home that is by a water source like near a sink.
No Ground Connections
Many electrical outlets will lack a ground connection. This happens because the outlet doesn’t get properly connected to the circuit grounding wire. It could also be because the system is not grounded, and this is common in older wiring systems that don’t have ground protection. You can identify whether or not you have ground connections by using a plug-in circuit tester. If the outlets come with two-slot receptacles but don’t have a round grounding slot, this clues you in that your system may not be grounded.
You can test the outlets and see if they indicate that they’re grounded. Shut off the power first, look at the ground connections on the outlet, and make any necessary corrections. You can also have an electrician come out and look at older wiring systems before they work to ground your system.
Buying and using a bargain, cheap receptacle could work for a little while. However, they can develop problems. Outlets that get mass produced in foreign facilities can be very poor quality, but they can be safe to buy if they have an approval listing that comes from a recognized testing agency like Underwriters Laboratories. The rating will get stamped on the outlet’s body if they have them.
All outlets come designed to have neutral and hot wire connectors on them. Polarized plugs on most small appliances and lamps will route their neutral and hot current in the correct direction. If the wires get installed backwards, the appliance will still work. However, you have a bigger danger of shock or fire if it short circuits.
When you reverse your neutral and hot connections, this is called reverse polarity. You most likely won’t realize it until you have problems. You should test your outlets with a plug-in circuit tester. If it shows you have reversed polarity, turn off the power. You’ll use what you learned about how to install electrical outlets to change the connections to their proper places.
Finally, it’s important to note that even though outlets don’t have any moving parts, they have metal connection points in the interior. These contact points help grip the neutral, hot, and grounding prongs on your cord plugs. As you continue to use it, the contact will wear and not grip the prongs as much. This also works to create a greater heat and electrical resistance. This can cause circuit breakers to trip and problems in your wiring. You could hear audible crackling due to sparks when you use it, and the appliance plugs start to feel loose.
Now you know how to install electrical outlets throughout your home. You can use this step-by-step guide on how to install electrical outlets to safely and quickly upgrade all of your outlets. It’s always a good idea to call in a professional if you’re not 100% comfortable, but this is a relatively straightforward project that you can easily take on in a weekend.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.