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A Practical Guide to Electrical Outlets: Know Your Panels, Switches, and Wiring

Before even attempting to attack an outlet issue in your home, you must first confirm that you are permitted to do so. In some places, you cannot take on certain electrical tasks, so be sure to check with the local building department first. If you just want to upgrade outlets or switches though, you can probably do-it-yourself. Keep in mind that if you do not own your home, a licensed, insured, and bonded electrician has to perform electrical tasks.

Tools of the Trade

When you are working with electrical outlets, panels, switches, and wiring, you need a few tools, including wire strippers/cutters, a small voltage detector, a neon tester, and a GFCI tester. Wire strippers/cutters are used to cut, crimp, bend, and strip rubber insulation. A voltage detector is used to make sure something is not "live." A neon tester is for evaluating wires and outlets on electrical devices. A GFCI tester is used to test the outlets in your bathroom and kitchen to determine whether they are grounded properly and comply with codes.

Safety First

Prior to starting work on any outlet project, you first need to ensure that the item you are working with does not have any electricity running to it or through it. Flip the appropriate circuit breaker in your home’s service panel (also known as a breaker box) to cut off the power to the outlet you are dealing with. Your service panel should include a labeled breaker guide. Flip the breaker labeled for the room in which the outlet you will be working with is located.

In the Outlet

Once you have confirmed that the outlet in question is not receiving any electricity, you can remove the outlet or switch faceplate. To remove a faceplate, unscrew the screws and pull them out. Before touching a wire, make absolutely sure they are not "live." Screw the wires into your new outlet or switch in the exact same way they were attached to your old outlet or switch. If you think you might not remember how the wires were connected, mark or label them using tape or a marker. Sometimes wires are connected by pushing them through the small back holes, and they are disconnected by pushing a screwdriver into the square hold next to the wire and pulling the wire out. Once you have your new device ready and you know where each wire should go, you can put everything back together the right way. Before you screw the faceplate back on, flip the breaker on and make sure everything seems to be working correctly. If it does, then go ahead and replace the faceplate.

Remember, it is imperative to put safety first when you are working on electrical components in your home. If you are not careful, you could be electrocuted, or worse. If you do not think you can handle an electrical installation or repair task, hire a licensed, insured, and bonded professional electrician.

A Practical Guide To Electrical Outlets Know Your Panels, Switches, And Wiring,
part of our article series in the Electrical, Lighting, Telephone, Computers category.
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