How can I fix electrical outlets that don't "hold" plugs that are plugged in to them?

47

10

In short, most of the outlets in my house have one working receptacle and one that any cord plugged in will immediately slip out of. Some of my outlets don't have any working receptacles (I hope I'm using the right terminology here).

Is there any way I can repair these, or am I going to have to go through and replace every outlet in my house?

Chris Sobolewski

Posted 2011-03-07T13:26:13.390

Reputation: 459

1The quick solution to this is to bend out the prongs on the plug so that it doesn't fall out. But replacing the outlet is the correct answer. – BMitch – 2012-04-04T17:46:53.993

1@Tester101: +1000, I'm currently going through replacing my house's outlets with T/R ones as part of child-proofing. The 10-packs work out to less than a buck an outlet; definitely a good deal if you're replacing a lot of them. You can also buy the nylon outlet plates in the same 10-packs, and those work out to less than a quarter a plate for hard plastic and about $.38/plate for nylon. – KeithS – 2012-04-04T18:01:43.697

4If plugs are falling out, it generally means the metal contacts inside the receptacles are worn out. (I'm guessing this is an older house?) – myron-semack – 2011-03-07T13:34:20.007

Built in 79... I don't think that qualifies it as "old", though I can tell you that whoever the previous group over owners were have done nothing to it. It had the original windows, furnace, paint (in some areas) and carpet. – Chris Sobolewski – 2011-03-07T13:47:11.740

1@Chris - my house is about the same age, and I've had the same issues. The receptacles are just worn out and need to be replaced as @ChrisF suggests. Luckily it's pretty easy (and cheap) to do yourself if your comfortable doing that kind of stuff. – Eric Petroelje – 2011-03-07T13:56:14.363

6If you are replacing a bunch, look for a contractor pack at the big box store (usually 10-20 per pack) you can save some money that way. – Tester101 – 2011-03-07T17:36:00.510

Thank you for the tip. I'll be replacing most of them in the house! – Chris Sobolewski – 2011-03-07T19:02:34.897

2I have noticed metal fatigue on older sockets that require replacement. This metal fatigue is ALSO the reason I ONLY use the screw connector not the quick connector - I DID experience a FIRE from one where the metal on the quick connect fatigued and did not solidly connect the socket to the wire and the wire got so hot it melted and burnt and started the wall afire. – Mark Schultheiss – 2011-03-07T19:21:46.593

Answers

46

You will need to replace them (or get an electrician to replace them).

Replacing sockets is a straightforward job:

  1. Turn off the power to the receptacle.
  2. Verify that power is off at the receptacle.
  3. Unscrew the old socket from the box.
  4. Make a note of which wires go where.
  5. Remove the wires from the old socket.
  6. Wire up the new socket - double checking that live -> live, neutral -> neutral and earth -> earth.
  7. Screw the new socket onto the box.
  8. Turn the power back on.

This is still a job a householder can do in the UK. However, if you are uncertain about any of the above steps or you think there might be something more serious wrong with the electrics then get an electrician in.

If the plugs aren't holding in the sockets then the sockets are potentially dangerous.

ChrisF

Posted 2011-03-07T13:26:13.390

Reputation: 16 130

BTW, I've heard hospitals mount the receptacles "upside-down" (ground-up, hot and neutral below, in US) for the exact reason that @Joe mentioned. – Frederick – 2014-02-25T00:33:03.710

5And for those who don't think a cord unplugging is dangerous -- growing up my mom had lots of pictures hung up ... one had its wire break, and when it fell the wire shorted against a plug whose contacts were exposed (in that case, we think the falling picture hit the plug to expose the contacts). Luckily, the breaker tripped, so all we had was a massive scorch mark on the wall; if it hadn't, it might've been a fire. – Joe – 2011-03-07T14:41:37.287

3I suspect it's not a UK house - would this sort of thing happen to the venerable BS 1363? :-) – Duncan Smart – 2011-03-07T15:40:40.977

With my wiring, yes. New code in my state (Ohio) dictates that the ground lead must be facing UP so that if something shorts, it won't short between hot and nuetral, but between hot and ground. Not sure how much that alleviates the risk. Either way, it's not a HUGE deal because it's so bad that they literally fall all the way out, but it needs fixed soon nonetheless. – Chris Sobolewski – 2011-03-07T16:37:23.673

@Duncan Smart, never had this problem with UK sockets. Sometimes too stiff, but never too loose. – Lee Kowalkowski – 2011-03-07T21:51:41.477

You should replace it as soon as possible! A loose electrical contact could cause arcing, which in turn produces heat, and could start a fire. – JeffG – 2011-03-07T22:13:40.350

In Australia, this sort of work is supposed to be done only by a licensed electrician. Of course, in practice, householders and handymen do it all the time. – staticsan – 2011-03-07T22:58:21.667

@JeffG: Thank you for the concern. For the moment, we simply refrain from using the outlets. :) – Chris Sobolewski – 2011-03-08T01:35:06.193

4@staticsan Are the outlets upside-down in Australia? ;) – JeffG – 2011-03-08T01:36:58.970

I'd like to add one more step - Check the circuit is dead. Verify with multimeter or inductive tester. I've paid the price the hard way several times trusting labeling on the breaker panel as gospel. – kkeilman – 2011-03-08T01:40:45.470

3@ChrisF @Chris Sobolewski Just wanted to add that you should make sure that BOTH sockets are dead, I have seen outlets wired so that the sockets are on different circuits and therefore different breaker. – crasic – 2011-03-08T04:16:04.963

10I'd recommend getting an outlet tester. They're cheap (around $5, iirc). Then, when you've reinstalled the outlet, you can verify that it's wired correctly. Don't assume it was wired correctly to begin with. – Tim – 2011-03-09T00:00:38.243

@JeffG Not intentionally, I'm sure. But compared to UK sockets, they are: earth at the bottom, active on the left. – staticsan – 2011-03-09T00:34:16.550

I second using a real outlet tester. I've had multimeter probes push too far through old outlets before and cause a short... – Brian Knoblauch – 2011-03-18T13:43:50.847

23

Replacing is straightforward. See ChrisF for the details.
However, I just wanted to add the following (Since you appear to be from Wisconsin, I'll assume 120v 60hz wiring) :

1: Standard wiring for an outlet is

  • Black wire - Gold coloured screw. (HOT)
  • White wire - Silver screw (Neutral)
  • Bare or green - Green screw (usually connected to the metal mounting flange)

Get a three pronged wiring tester and test the wiring BEFORE removing the outlets. Put a post-it on any that doesn't test properly. That way, you'll know to check it when you're wiring.

Three things you need to watch for:

  • Chained outlets - This occurs when there are two blacks attached to the hot (gold) terminals. They may be attached to the same screw or a different one on the same side. What is happening, is the hot is being carried over to another outlet or to a switch on the same wall. (same for white) - rewire the same way. BUT - Make sure it isn't a SPLIT!

  • SPLIT outlets - These are most common in the kitchen. There should be two blacks to separate terminals, two whites (also to separate terms) and two greens (to same terminal). The difference here is that there is a small knock-out removed between the screws that electrically separates the upper and lower receptacle. This allows you to wire each receptacle to different circuits, allowing you to plug in the toaster and the kettle at the same time without tripping the breaker. When buying receptacles, ask the hardware guy to show you where the knockout is, and when you remove the old one, check for a split. -- Edit based on comment to another answer: Beware of splits because one outlet may be de-activated at the breaker, but the other could still be live. Always check both outlets before opening.

  • Switched outlets - These usually are splits, with one receptacle wired black & white (always on) and the other wired red or blue and white. The red wire is a switched hot, coming from a wall switch. The knockout should be removed, but they may not be on separate circuits. If they are on the same circuit, they will often only have a single white on the neutral side, and the knockout on the neutral side will not be removed.

If you come across any other creative wiring, call an electrician to sort it out.

enter image description here

Chris Cudmore

Posted 2011-03-07T13:26:13.390

Reputation: 11 463

1OMG you can split an outlet between to seperate breakers?! This has very clearly NOT happened in my kitchen. It might be worth calling in an electrician to pull cable for me to get that done... – Chris Sobolewski – 2011-03-07T16:40:08.637

1What happened to that receptacle? Looks like it was on fire. – Tester101 – 2011-03-07T17:34:36.923

It was the best view of the knockout I could find on google images. – Chris Cudmore – 2011-03-07T19:43:18.960

1@Chris Have you ever been in a house, usually a living room (where, in North America at least, we traditionally don't have ceiling-mounted lighting) where the lower of a pair of outlets is switched but the top isn't? That's how this is accomplished… – msanford – 2011-03-08T16:16:29.070

@msanford - That's what I was talking about in the Switched outlet section. Tell me what's not clear, and I'll change it -- Or edit yourself if you have rights. – Chris Cudmore – 2011-03-08T17:04:43.243

No your answer's perfect! I was just providing another example. – msanford – 2011-03-16T15:29:55.143

6

In addition to the other answers, here is some advice on selecting receptacles.

  • Choose heavy-duty models. Cheap ones will break sooner, and the contacts will wear out sooner, like your current units.

  • Prefer a contoured face to a flat face. When you go to plug in a lamp at night, or something behind furniture, it's easier if the contours guide the plug in. (If you try to use your finger to find the hole, you can easily shock yourself.)

  • Prefer screw terminals to quick-connect push-in terminals. However, good units let you push wires in the back and then secure them by screwing down to clamp them in place.

  • Consider tamper resistant ("TR") receptacles. Code requires these in many areas today. (They may require replacements in existing work to be TR, too, I'm not sure.) If someone tries to push a knife/screwdriver/paperclip in to one slot, it won't go in, protecting from a shock.

Jay Bazuzi

Posted 2011-03-07T13:26:13.390

Reputation: 8 674

One thing about contoured faces; while they're generally nice to have when fumbling around in the dark or behind furniture to get a plug in the socket, there are a couple of outlet types that you usually want in your house, that usually don't come contoured. These are GFCI outlets, and tamper/weather-resistant outlets. I have yet to see any decorator outlet with a contoured face, GFCIs included, and TR/WR outlets are usually flat to allow for the shutters right behind the face. – KeithS – 2012-04-04T18:14:20.917

@KeithS: Indeed. Also, I'm tempted to go all deco, so that I only need one kind of faceplate. It would be a shape to give up the contoured face. I have started using a finger against the ground pin to line things up in the dark. – Jay Bazuzi – 2012-04-05T03:57:44.993

And to give more specific data on requirements, licensed electricians are required to install TR outlets in any new work and in renovations involving rewiring. Non-TR outlets are grandfathered for existing work (but as of 2011 NEC replacements for broken sockets must be TR), and may still be used in certain exceptional cases (high off the floor, behind major appliances, as part of light fixtures). – KeithS – 2012-04-05T16:28:16.033

Good point about the contoured face. I still recall trying to plug in an alarm clock in the dark as a kid and trying to use my finger to guide it in... ouch. – Chris Sobolewski – 2011-03-08T01:39:24.160

1@Chris - the UK plugs and sockets are much safer in this regard. There's a guard over the line and neutral which is pushed out of the way by the longer earth pin. – ChrisF – 2011-03-08T09:41:06.103

2UK plugs are great in a lot of ways. Switches at the socket. Plugs that don't fall out. Handy source of caltrops when mob turns to looting. – Jay Bazuzi – 2011-03-08T18:43:02.680

3

The only way to repair your receptacles is to replace them.

Chrisf glosses over a point that I consider the key to such a project: "Wire up the new socket".

You have likely never done this before so I want to caution you to make sure you have a good solid connection when connecting the wires to the new receptacles.

Any kind of connection which is loose or can become loose is a fire hazard. With this in mind, I highly recommend you consider the Leviton Spring and Clamp receptacles. They make it much easier to get a good connection. Please see the following article for more details.

http://www.handymanhowto.com/2011/01/17/electrical-outlets-side-wire-versus-back-wire/

It shows you the difference in quality between residential and industrial grade and also why "quickwire" is not as good as the alternatives.

Philip Ngai

Posted 2011-03-07T13:26:13.390

Reputation: 2 964

3

I recommend AGAINST the friction-clamp back-wiring (sometimes branded QuickWire), and I know shirlock homes echoes my sentiments on this. Instead, look for outlets with "clamp-type" back wiring, where the side screw tightens and loosens a metal plate that will hold a straight wire against the contacts. See this post: http://diy.stackexchange.com/questions/7977/when-to-use-holes-instead-of-side-terminals-to-wire-an-outlet

– KeithS – 2012-04-05T15:02:24.300

I thought that was what I said. – Philip Ngai – 2012-04-05T18:34:02.957

The clamp style is referred to as back & side. I hate backstabs but they have provided quite a few paychecks over the years when they fail. – Ed Beal – 2018-01-03T19:57:15.800

0

Often, contractors use the least expensive materials they can find. That includes outlets. The cheap outlets ($1 USD) often have less metal to press against the plug and so don't hold as well. An outlet for only about twice the price ($2 USD) hold better. This information comes from a wikipedia search and of course, everything on the internet must be true or it wouldn't be on the internet . . . right?

Doug

Posted 2011-03-07T13:26:13.390

Reputation: 9