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The Inside of an Electrical Outlet

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You live amongst them, yet you may have never paid much attention to them. You may even be looking at one now, and yet you probably have no idea what’s going on behind your outlet cover plates. So long as your electrical outlets are working, you may have never given much thought to how the electricity pouring into your home from the grid is funneled through outlets to bring power to your electric appliances and electronics. However, without the lowly outlet, there would be no safe distribution of power, which would bring modern society to a grinding halt.

Unless you’re a do-it-yourself homeowner, you may have never had to change an outlet and don’t know what one looks like when you remove your electrical wall plates. Simply put, outlets are simple but require some knowledge when it comes to troubleshooting and replacing them. Keep reading to learn more about the inside of an electrical outlet before removing your electrical cover plates.

Safety First

When working with household electricity, safety is of critical importance to prevent shock, injury, or fire. Therefore, before removing the wall plate, it’s a good idea to shut off power to the affected outlet. This can be done easily at the breaker box by finding the appropriate breaker for the circuit containing the affected outlet. Flip it to the off position, and you’ll eliminate the risk of electrical mishaps. Always turn off power to the outlet before attempting to remove it.

Removing the Wall Plate: What You’ll See

When you first remove a wall plate on an electrical outlet, you’ll see a few key components. Understanding what you’re seeing and what role it plays is important to gaining an understanding of the outlet’s interior. Once the wall plate is removed, you’ll see the outlet, and it will be affixed to a metal or plastic outlet box in the wall with two retaining screws, one on top and one on bottom. The outlet box doubles as a support structure for the outlet and an organizational tool that helps keep the wiring to the outlet safely tucked away and the connections protected. You’ll see that at the extreme bottom and top of the outlet, there are support straps consisting of metal tabs that press against the wall surface when the retaining screws are attached to offer support for the outlet. You’ll also see nonmetallic wiring with white or gray insulation, sometimes called Romex in professional circles.

The Wiring

If you remove the two screws holding the outlet in the outlet box, the outlet should pull free, though it will remain attached to the nonmetallic wiring. The nonmetallic wiring should consist of three wires if the outlet is grounded. There will be a black, or hot, lead. In addition, you will see a white, or neutral, lead. If those two wires touch one another, the circuit will be completed, and electricity could arc. Also, if you complete the circuit with a body part, you could receive a shock, so be careful when working with those two leads. The third bare, or uninsulated, copper wire is a ground and contains no current.

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The Outlet Body

The outlet consists of two stacked receptacles which are visible even with the wall plate attached. Each receptacle has two contact openings, which are the slots into which an electrical plug is inserted. On the sides of the outlet body, you’ll see a series of screws. Those screws are known as terminals, and in many outlets, they vary in color to indicate their purposes. The top silver-colored terminals are connected to the neutral wire, the top brass terminals are connected to the hot wire, and the dark-colored single screw is for the ground. The wires must be connected to the proper terminals or else a short or shock could ensue. Some outlets also feature push points on the outlet back, which are essentially holes with contacts inside them that are used for conveniently inserting the appropriate lead wires. However, they aren’t as secure, so the screw terminals represent the safest and most reliable way of attaching the electrical wire.

Though the structure of an electrical outlet is quite simple, it is the workhorse of your household electrical system. Understanding what’s going on behind the wall plate is helpful when replacing an outlet or diagnosing an outlet that isn’t working properly. To learn more about the inside of an electrical outlet, contact Wallplate Warehouse at (888) 643-3744.

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