There are a number of reasons for replacing an electrical receptacle or more commonly referred to as an outlet and with proper care most home owners can accomplish this job in about 20 minutes with just a few simple tools.
The first thing you must do when working with any wall mount electrical box whether it is a switch or outlet is making sure that the power to the box has been turned off. Since you will most likely be visiting your local hardware supplier to purchase a new outlet you should pick up a non contact electrical presence tester.
Non contact electrical testers work as their name might suggest. They allow you to come within a few inches of a hot wire or box and a warning light or buzzer will announce that the circuit is still hot. Since they only cost about $10 they are well worth the investment and will even be handy when trying to trouble shoot Christmas lights.
If the reason for replacing the outlet is simply for decorative reasons then all you will need to do to select the correct outlet is to read the description off of the back of the old one you are replacing. If the outlet is more then 20 years old and not properly marked then you may be able to match your replacement with a similar one found on the same circuit. If you can not match the outlet then bring it to the store with you and ask for help.
There are only a few different types of wall outlets that you are likely to come across in residential construction. Standard outlets are 15 amps at 110/115 volts and have two straight prongs and a center ground prong.
If your outlet has a different shaped prong then it most likely is used for a dedicated appliance circuit. These outlets may look like a standard outlet but also have a top prong that has a L shaped opening. Most outlets of this type are also 20 amp or higher circuits but this is not always the case. If you can not properly id this type of outlet you should ask an electrician for help.
Outlets That Are Damaged
Replacing an outlet of the same type which is not damaged should not be a problem but if your outlet has either physical damage from an impact or damaged due to overloading or a fire then you really should ask for the help of an electrician.
Outlets that burn out can also have wiring that is damaged inside the wall where you can not visually inspect it. If this is the case then your whole circuit could be a fire hazard and should be properly inspected, repaired or replaced.
Replacing the Outlet
To replace your outlet you will want to turn the power off at your circuit breaker and then test the receptacle with a non contact voltage tester to make sure there is no electricity entering the box.
Remove the wall plate with a screwdriver and then remove the screws that hold the outlet to the box.
Pull the outlet out of the box far enough that you can remove the wires from the side terminals and then inspect each wire for damage as you remove it.
If the wires were attached on the back of the receptacle then you will need a small eye glass repair sized screwdriver to force into the hole near the wire to release the gripping mechanism.
Make sure that the wire ends are in good condition and do not look chewed up from improper use of pliers. If the ends are damaged then you will need to nip off the ends of the wire and strip back the wire to expose fresh wire. Be careful when making this decision. Most electricians will provide enough wire within the box to allow the wire to be stripped one or two times. If the wire can not easily be stripped and attached to the outlet you may need to pull wire from the wall into the box or sometimes even replace a length of wire that is too short.
Attach the ground wire to the outlet green screw by making a small loop on the end of it with needle nosed pliers and tightening the screw firmly.
The black wire should be attached to the brass side screw and the white wire to the silver side screw. If you are attaching the wires from the back of the outlet then you will need to use the small gauge on the back of the outlet to measure the exact amount of bare wire to strip away then force it into the hole until the wire grips tightly and can not be removed.
Every home is wired differently and making repairs to an electrical circuit takes both practice and knowledge. If you have never performed this job before you must consult a professional electrician. If you feel that you can perform the work yourself you will most likely still need a inspection of your work especially if you are replacing an outlet that has been damaged physically or from overload.
This howto is only an overview and should not be used as your only resource to perform this work. Always consult a professional.