When you did the initial walk-through of your home, what did you first notice about it? Was it high, vaulted ceilings featuring recessed lighting or maybe a chandelier that illuminated the entryway or dining room? Either way, you might not have stopped to consider the little things in the house that make it shine. Put simply, electrical outlets or sockets help put your home on display all while keeping your appliances and lamps running.
Your outlets might look simple from the outside, but inside they contain a system of wires delivering power to any electrical item you plug into them.
Let's take a look at the varieties of electrical outlets, as well as some maintenance and safety tips.
Standard Electrical Outlets
Familiarizing yourself with the electrical components and systems of your home can be helpful, especially when you need to diagnose a problem so you can either fix it yourself or find a professional to do so.
While people use alternating current sockets all over the world, the shape of the slits in of an outlet and the voltage differ.
Besides 220 volt outlets, another very common electrical outlet found in U.S. homes and office buildings is the 120 volt variety, which sends power to a whole host of items, from laptops to lamps. You most likely use these wall plates every day. They're easily identified by their two parallel pins, which are approximately an inch apart from each other. Behind the wall plates of these 120 volt sockets are 15 or 20-amp circuits. Many buildings constructed after 1960 sport 15-amp duplex receptacles, meaning that each socket has a long or neutral slot and a short or hot slot to properly direct the electrical current.
If you have a hair dryer or electric shaver in your bathroom or a blender and coffee pot in the kitchen, then you most likely have outlets in these rooms that feature a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI).
GFCIs ensure electrical safety near damp and wet spaces.
GFCI receptacles are easily identifiable by their two push buttons, which allow you to reset and test the socket. The majority of GFCIs are 120 volts, meaning you can use kitchen or bathroom accessories with them. However, the buttons add to the security of the outlets, which is especially needed in rooms where water is usually present. Sinks, showers and bathtubs add to the danger of potential shock, but the GFCI acts much like a circuit breaker by shutting the flow of electricity off if it detects the currents aren't equal.
If you plug a device into the wall but you notice the socket isn't working, push in the reset button and the electricity will flow.
AFCI Electrical Outlets
Do you regularly use an electric space heater or an iron? Appliances that convert electrical power into heat have the potential to be dangerous if not plugged into the right outlet. This is where arc-fault circuit interrupters (AFCI) come in handy. You can find this type of wall plate in the living, dining and bedrooms of most homes.
An AFCI-style socket acts as a circuit breaker much like a GFCI does. However, while GFCIs ensure electrical safety near damp and wet spaces, an AFCI protects against the arcing of a circuit. Arcing occurs when you quickly unplug an iron or other electric-powered heat source from the socket and a few sparks fly out of the outlet.
ARCIs counter this by shutting off the flow of power. It's now required under the National Electrical Code that sockets in any room where people sleep or lay down come with AFCI capabilities. Having a residence where wall outlets can turn off in case of an arc is vital since they can prevent house fires.
Many homes today feature grounded sockets. Search for outlets that have three-pronged holes. If the wall plates have two parallel slits about an inch apart and a cylindrical hole below, then you'll know that the outlet is grounded. The rounded prong and hole adds protection by preventing the electricity from escaping and causing possible shock.
If you have an older home, you might consider replacing your two-pronged outlets with grounded ones for better protection.
A combination socket can power your devices and provide even more convenience for the rooms in your home. Some outlets include a three-prong plug opening paired with a night light or GFCI reset-style buttons.
New building codes require greater electrical safety both inside and outside residences. Whether it's to protect children from electrocution or keep rainwater from corroding the insides of your outdoor outlets, safety sockets are a must for every house.
Homes built after 2008 require tamper-resistant receptacles.
Homes built after 2008 require tamper-resistant receptacles. If you possess these sockets, you won't need to childproof your outlets with coverings. Tamper-resistant wall plates include springs that only turn on the surge of electricity when properly sized pins enter the outlet. Therefore, children who stick their fingers or a metal utensil into the socket won't be shocked.
If your home has a front or backyard, a patio or a deck, then you probably have a few weather-resistant outlets installed outdoors. National electric standard codes require this type of socket for any outdoor locations around water. This variety of socket protects the inner circuits from getting damp during rain and inclement weather. Therefore, not only does it add an extra layer of security, it also extends the life of the outlet so you don't have to replace it so often.
Older homes typically don't feature weather-resistant receptacles. However, it's a smart investment to replace your outdoor electrical sockets with safer, more durable faceplates and circuitry.
Surge Protector Outlets
An unexpected rush of electricity can fry some items, such as laptops. This can cause you to lose crucial data or damage the circuitry in your kitchen appliances, leading you to either pay to fix them or have them replaced.
To ensure this doesn't happen to you, plug these devices into surge protector outlets. Installing these sockets around your house eliminates the need to use power strips and keeps the circuitry from possible damage.
Heavy Duty Receptacles
Many of the major appliances in a home or office require a lot of electricity to manage tasks like keeping food fresh or clothes clean.
If appliances like refrigerators, microwaves, dishwashers and clothes dryers aren't hardwired, they should have large three-pronged plugs to fit into their respective, higher-voltage sockets.
Most modern homes feature wall outlets that can run 220 volts of electrical current. These hardwired sockets feature three-pronged openings that allow you to power large appliances that use a lot of electricity.
Many European sockets and electrical items use 220 volts. However, newer American homes use two 110 volt wires to drive all the power. A power outlet that can run 220 volts through it is also known as a dryer receptacle since clothes dryers need a lot of electricity to operate.
Trying to identify if a wall plate is 220 volts? Look for three-prong openings. The cylindrical-shaped one on the bottom grounds the device. Meanwhile, one hole is rectangular while the other is the shape of two rectangles perpendicular to each other.
Take a look around your kitchen and you should notice a 20-amp receptacle. This style of outlet includes one standard slit, an opening to ground it and a larger opening to accommodate smaller kitchen appliances that need a stronger current of power to operate. Your microwave usually needs a dedicated 20-amp outlet to run smoothly.
Clothes dryers, power tools and devices such as electric generators consume a lot of electricity.
30-Amp and 50-Amp Receptacles
Clothes dryers, power tools and devices such as electric generators consume a lot of electricity. If you have a recreational vehicle, you'll also notice it must be plugged into a larger amp socket.
These heavy duty outlets are usually black with five-pronged holes to send enough electrical current so you can power the big items around your home.
Plan to fix up your house? If so, you need to plug your table saw and wet dry vacuum into a 30-amp or 50-amp outlet to get the power you need. Meanwhile, a family trip with the RV will likely require you to power up at a 50-amp outlet first.
Residences with electric ovens and stovetops require range receptacles to power these devices. A range socket is relatively heavy duty, displaying four plug holes since an electric stovetop requires a large amount of electricity to run.
Now that you know the variety of outlets either around your home or available to you, it's time to learn a few steps to help keep your electricity safely flowing.
It's wise to routinely check the outlets both inside and outside your residence to make sure the wall plates aren't cracked and that debris or water hasn't damaged the circuits.
Discolored Wall Plates
Take a walk around your home and examine each of the wall plates on your sockets. Are any cracked, loose or discolored? Most outlet plates are either white or ivory in color, making it easy to tell if they're damaged in any way.
To ensure safety, check for any burn marks or yellowed socket coverings. This is a sign that there's definitely a problem with the wiring inside, causing the circuits to burn.
A discolored receptacle usually means the outlet wasn't installed properly or that it's damaged. If you see this issue, contact an electrician right away to examine the outlet and fix the wires behind the wall plate.
Test Every Outlet
It doesn't take long for an outlet to develop a short or some other wiring issue. That's why it's important to make sure you're testing every outlet in your home at least once per month. This includes outlets that are outdoors and in any areas that aren't accessed frequently.
To be sure you're checking each outlet thoroughly, you'll want to invest in a proper testing device.
To be sure you're checking each outlet thoroughly, you'll want to invest in a proper testing device. These resemble a three-pronged plug, and have handy indicator lights at the end.
When testing an outlet, make sure you don't check just one of the sockets. Even if there isn't an issue in the top, the bottom socket could still have frayed or damaged wires.
You should also check your ground fault circuit interrupters every month. GFCIs are located in areas with high moisture - think kitchens, bathrooms and utility areas - and will shut down power in case of a current surge. Checking the state of any GFCI is quite easy, as most come already equipped with a red test button.
Understand Your Circuit Box
In many ways, the circuit box is the heart of any home's electrical system. As important as it is to understand the state of individual outlets, it's just as vital to trace any issues or concerns back to the circuit box.
Perhaps the most important step is to understand what each circuit in the panel is tied to in your home. Working in a team - one person in the house, the other at the box - flip and label each circuit so you know what it controls. Not only will this make any emergency shutdowns much easier to accomplish, but it should also streamline any subsequent maintenance efforts.
Depending on your home, your circuit box may include fuses. It's a good idea to keep a few spare fuses inside the box in case of an emergency.
Whenever you decide to perform any kind of maintenance, there are certain safety guidelines you should keep in mind. Safety is important not only to prevent any personal injury, but to reduce damage to any outlets or wiring.
The most important safety tips include:
- Always cut the power: No matter what kind of maintenance you're performing, you want to make sure the power has been cut to that section of your house.
- Watch out for warm outlets: If the faceplate of any outlet is especially warm to the touch, this is usually indicative of a bad connection that can lead to fire or other damage. Similarly, if an outlet continually flips a circuit, that can also mean it's damaged.
- Avoid overuse of extension cords: As a general rule, extension cords are meant only for temporary jobs or other maintenance. Leaving them plugged in for too long can increase the risk of accidents with frayed wires or short circuits.
Watch Out For Wiring
When it comes to maintaining any outlet, most of the issues you might encounter have to do with wiring. There are several considerations to keep in mind to prevent issues with your house's wiring.
If your house is at least 40 years old, you may be dealing with aluminum wiring. This differs greatly from today's copper wiring, and is far more prone to damage because the individual wires often move apart over time.
If your house is at least 40 years old, you may be dealing with aluminum wiring.
Aside from the outlet being warm to the touch, damaged wires may manifest themselves in other ways. That includes a burning smell emanating from the outlet or appliance, or if you experience a tingling sensation upon touching the outlet.
The issue may be that the outlet is ungrounded. Many older two-pronged outlets lack the ground wire to ensure proper safety and functionality. Even if your house does have three-pronged outlets, they may still lack this vital ground wire.
When in Doubt, Seek Help
If you're ultimately unsure how to maintain an outlet, it's best to call a licensed electrician. These individuals understand the delicate nature of your house's electrical system, and know how to best treat each home's outlets.
As with any contracted position, be sure to do your homework before hiring anyone. The best electricians have proper licenses and are part of professional organizations, like the National Electrical Contractors Association or the American Lighting Association.