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Warning signs that you may need to replace an electrical socket in your home

September 6. 2018

The electrical sockets in our home are something we interact with on a daily basis. Whether it's plugging in our phones to charge them or running the vacuum to tidy up around the house, electrical sockets are frequently used and almost always work, until they start having issues. There are many ways that the plugs in your home may work improperly or entirely fail. In this article, we'll go over some of the most common reasons they may not work. 

First, let's quickly go over the anatomy of a standard outlet in a house. A typical outlet will have three different wires connected to it and each one serves a distinct and vital function. 

  • Hot wire: This is the black wire that supplies the outlet with 120 volts. If you're looking directly at the outlet, the hot wire should be attached to the right side.

  • Neutral wire: This is the white wire that brings the current back to the source, which is the main panel. It should be attached to the left side of the outlet.

  • Ground wire: This will be either a bare copper wire or a green wire attached to a green screw on the outlet. Its job is to direct any stray voltage away from you and to the main grounding system at the panel.

If you can control the outlet with a switch on the wall, you may find an extra red wire attached to the outlet inside the box. This serves the same purpose as the black wire; only it's operated by the wall switch. Now, let's go over some common issues that may indicate a faulty outlet. 

Cords do not stay plugged in 

If you try to plug something in and it is loose to the point where it hangs or falls out, this is due to the internal metal blades becoming too loose. A loose connection between the internal mechanism and what you're plugging in can cause the outlet to heat up as the electricity tries to bridge the gap, and in some cases may cause the outlet to melt or even catch fire. 

Black marks around the face of the plug 

If you notice any black burn marks on the face of the plug around the prong slots, it's likely caused by something shorting out against the outlet. It's not recommended to use an outlet with visible damage like this until it's been checked by a qualified electrician, as it could be indicative of a more severe problem inside the outlet box. 

Burning smell or visible smoke 

If you notice a burning plastic smell or see any amount of smoke coming from the outlet, do not continue to use it. This is a serious issue that could be caused by the outlet itself starting to melt or even catch fire in some cases. If this happens to you, stop using the outlet right away. 

Circuit breaker tripping 

A faulty outlet may inadvertently cause your circuit breaker to trip when you try to use it. This is especially common with newer arc-fault breakers which are more sensitive than standard breakers. If the screws holding the wires aren't fastened tightly, the wires may be just loose enough to create a small arc which may trip the breaker. Tightening the screws may fix this issue; however, if the screws do not tighten and the wires are still loose, or the circuit breaker continues to trip when you try to use the outlet, it will need to be replaced. 

Visible damage to the outlet 

If you can see any damage to the outlet such as cracks or bare metal showing, you'll want to have it replaced right away. Exposed internal components may lead to loose connections, which in turn is a leading cause of electrical fires. On top of that, you are vulnerable to electrical shocks if the guts of the outlet are exposed. 

Kitchen or bathroom outlets aren't working 

All outlets in your kitchen and bathrooms require an additional level of protection, which is called GFCI protection. This stands for Ground Fault Current Interruption. In a nutshell, this protects you from electrocution if anything electrical comes into contact with the sink or other sources of water or liquids. 

If your kitchen or bathroom plugs have suddenly stopped working, take a look around for a rectangular shaped outlet with a "Test" and "Reset" button. This is the GFCI outlet that protects the outlets in the room. In some cases, it may have tripped, and you'll simply need to preset the "Reset" button. If you try pressing either button and nothing happens, the GFCI outlet has blown, and it will need to be replaced with a new one. 

Consider the age of the outlet 

Many older outlets do not have a ground prong. Not only does the absence of a ground wire make the outlet less safe to operate, but many modern appliances come with a three prong cord that simply won't work with a non-grounded outlet. If you have these outlets in your home, they're due for an upgrade to safer, newer outlets. In addition to being grounded, modern outlets are designed as "tamper resistant". This is essentially an internal shutter mechanism that protects against electrical shocks by preventing keys, silverware, or other metallic objects from being inserted into the outlet. This is a great safety feature if you have children in the house! 

In some situations, you can do some troubleshooting to discover the cause of the problem. Carefully removing the cover plate and visually inspecting the outlet and the box for any damage or loose wires is a good starting point. If you're unable to find any issues with the outlet or you're not comfortable working with live electricity, consulting with a qualified electrician for your outlet repair is your best bet. This ensures that your outlet repair is handled by a licensed and insured electrician.

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