Electrical Outlet Problems

The electrical outlet not only provides vital access to the electrical current that makes your house hum, but it also warrants deeper consideration for reasons of comfort and safety. I have seen it all when it comes to incorrect outlet wiring, a safety hazard if left unattended. But before we discuss safety measures, let’s start with a quick tour of this component and its mate, the plug.

Have you ever wondered why your electrical outlets have holes of different sizes and shape? To accommodate the plug is the obvious answer. But there is more to this relationship than meets the eye. Hidden behind the outlet is a series of wires that must be properly connected for the outlet’s safe functioning. On a modern electrical outlet that accommodates a three-pronged plug, each hole serves a specific purpose: the round hole is for the ground pin on the plug; the small slot takes the small blade on the plug and connects to the “hot” wire in the outlet (the wire that can cause a shock); the large slot takes the large blade and connects to the “neutral” wire in the outlet.

Specific wires have to be connected to the proper terminals for an outlet’s safe function. Correct installation is so important that I will spot-check outlets with an outlet tester during every inspection.

Reverse Polarity

The large slot and small slot on an electrical outlet, and the different-sized blades on a plug, designate their respective polarity, and ensure that the plug goes in the outlet only one way, a safety feature that reduces the chances of shock. For instance, a light-bulb socket has exposed electrical connections, the threads where the bulb screws in being the most exposed part. Polarized electrical outlet and plugs make sure the exposed socket is attached to the neutral wire to prevent someone from getting a shock when changing a light bulb.

If the electrical outlet itself is improperly wired with reverse polarity, the lamp socket threads described above will become “hot”. If you touch the threads in the socket, or on the bulb as you screw it into the socket, you may get a shock.

Outlet Not Grounded

It is quite common to discover outlets with the circular ground holes but with no ground wire connected. In older homes, sometimes the cable leading to the outlet does not have a ground wire, yet the outlet has nonetheless been upgraded to a modern grounded type. Some plug-in electrical devices need this ground connection for their built-in safety features. If the outlet appears to be grounded but is not, the device’s safety features will not work.

Old Outlets

In older homes some outlets may have no ground slot at all. This does not represent a defect or safety concern, but you will not be able to plug in an electrical appliance that has a ground pin on the plug. Today, most plug-in appliances are not the grounded style and, therefore, do not use or have a ground pin on the plug because they have a double insulated design. In these cases, the old 2 slot outlet will work fine as long as they have different sized slots for correct polarization of the plugged in device.

If you think it might be a good idea to simply cut off the ground pin to accommodate an outlet without a ground hole, think again. This procedure is doubly unsafe because it not only bypasses the grounding safety feature, but also it bypasses the polarizing feature since a de-pinned plug can be inserted into the outlet either way.

Not Enough Outlets

In many older homes a common scenario is too few outlets.  This often leads to power strips and adapters of all kinds which allow many devices to be plugged in at the same time.  This is the incorrect solution to the problem.  Electrical outlets have two plugs for a reason, that is what they are safely designed to have plugged in to them.  If there is a need for more devices to be plugged in an electrician should come and install additional outlets as needed.

Easy to Fix

Electricity is not something to be abused, it is one of he few things in your home that can kill you.  An electrician can fix these and other outlet problems. Though your outlets may appear as minor considerations in the grand scheme of your home, your understanding and the safe installation of your outlets can prevent serious safety hazards.