Whether you’re cooking dinner, charging your phone, or drying your hair, electrical outlets power most parts of your day—but when is the last time you gave them much thought? If you’re anything like me, you take for granted that your outlets will just work when you need them to.

Most often, if you live in an older home, you may have already had to pay extra attention to your outlets. Personally, I recently became aware of some older electrical outlets when I realized that I couldn’t plug my computer cord in to charge it—the outlets were all two-pronged! Maybe you’ve had a couple shocking (pun intended) experiences yourself.

Electricity is vital to everyday life and can be extremely dangerous if something goes wrong, so it’s very important to leave electrical work to the pros. Keep your life running smoothly and your home and family protected by hiring an electrician for an outlet upgrade.

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When to Upgrade Your Electrical Outlets

If you are experiencing any of the following issues, it’s probably time to upgrade your outlets:

  • Not enough (or no) three-prong outlets
  • Outlet sparks when used
  • Smoke or burning around outlets
  • Black or brown discoloration on outlets
  • No GFCI outlets in rooms that use water
  • Outlets get warm
  • Loose sockets that plugs won’t stay in
  • Frequently tripping circuits
  • Flickering power or power that stops working for no apparent reason

Two-Prong vs Three-Prong Outlets

two-and-three-prong-plugsMany older homes have two-prong outlets, while three-prong outlets are standard in new construction homes. So what’s the difference between two prongs and three prongs?

Three-prong receptacles, when properly installed, have a ground wire that protects both devices and people from electrical faults. The ground wire channels errant electricity back into the service panel (instead of into things, or a person, near the outlet).

Two-prong receptacles do not have that protective ground wire. Ungrounded outlets can cause fires, shock people, and short out appliances. Protect your family, your home, and your devices by hiring an electrician to install grounded outlets.

If you spot both two-prong and three-prong receptacles in your home, ask your electrician to check your wiring for any additional issues and to ensure that all your outlets are grounded.

Types of Electrical Outlets

examples-of-electrical-outletsGFCI outlets

GFCI outlets, or ground fault circuit interrupters, reduce the risk of shock by immediately turning off an electrical circuit when the circuit becomes a shock hazard.

This type of outlet is required for areas with water. If you don’t have any GFCI outlets in your home, you’ll want them installed in at least your bathrooms, kitchen, and laundry room. Identify your GFCI receptacles by looking for outlets with the test and reset buttons on them.

AFCI outlets

AFCI outlets, or arc fault circuit interrupters, reduce the risk of electrical fires by constantly monitoring how much current is flowing through a circuit and shutting the circuit off if any accidental arcs occur. These outlets look a lot like GFCI outlets, with test and reset buttons on them, and they are labeled “AFCI” somewhere on the outlet.

AFCI protection comes in two forms: AFCI circuit breakers and AFCI outlets. Ask your electrician which option is best for your home and what areas in your home require AFCI protection, in accordance with local electrical code.

Tamper-resistant receptacles (TRR)

Tamper-resistant receptacles are made with a mechanism inside that prevents objects that are not plugs from being stuck into the outlet. Pressure must be applied equally to the top two slots of the receptacle in order to plug something in. So, for instance, a hairpin or a paper clip stuck into one of the outlet slots will not touch the appropriate contact points and will therefore not create an electrical charge.

TRRs are now required in new constructions by the National Electrical Code, although local requirements vary. If you have small children in an older home, call your electrician about installing these types of outlets to protect them from electric shock.

Other types of outlets

There are other types of outlets available that are designed for convenience, including:

  • USB outlets, which are handy for charging phones, iPads, and other devices without having to track down that pesky adapter plug. A strategically placed USB outlet in a bedroom or living space can make life a little easier.
  • LED night-light outlets have a built-in LED light in place of one of the receptacles, taking up less room and using less energy than a traditional night-light. These are great for kids’ rooms or hallways.
  • Recessed outlets are set back into the wall so that any plugs inserted do not stick out from the wall. These are useful behind an entertainment system or any other place you want furniture flush against the wall.
  • Pop-up outlets are often used in kitchens. A pop-up outlet installed in your countertop is tucked away until you need to use it. They can save your backsplash from being interrupted by wall outlets or bring much needed power to your kitchen island prep space.

How Electrical Outlets Are Updated

new-electrical-outlet-on-wallTo update an old two-prong outlet, your electrician will make sure the power is off to that outlet, remove the cover plate, pull out the old receptacle, and disconnect the wires from the outlet.

If the new outlet is a GFCI, then your electrician will check to see if the new receptacle will fit into the old outlet box before connecting the wires to the new receptacle. If the box is too small, they will have to install a newer, bigger box before installing the new GFCI receptacle.

Your electrician will determine if the old wires are long enough to connect to the new receptacle properly. If not, they will determine the appropriate wire gauge for the circuit and use that to add a pigtail wire for an extension. Then they’ll connect the wires to the proper terminals on the GFCI receptacle.

If the outlet box is grounded (which is something your electrician can test), then they will insert the necessary ground screw to the outlet box and attached a grounding wire from the screw to the receptacle’s grounding terminal.

Once everything is connected, the outlet and receptacle go back in the wall, the cover plate goes back on, and voila—you’ve got an updated outlet.

If the outlet box is not grounded, you can have your electrician do one of these things:

  • Install a GFCI outlet with a sticker label that says “no equipment ground.” This outlet, while protecting people from shocks, will not protect your electrical equipment from shorting.
  • Install an individual ground wire for this one outlet.
  • Have your electrician rewire your entire home. This will be expensive, but if you are having a lot of electrical issues and have safety concerns, it may be worth it.

It’s very important to properly install the new receptacle with the right wires connecting the right parts, and to label an ungrounded GFCI outlet clearly. Leave this work to the pros, who can also identify underlying outlet or wiring issues while they’re working.

Additional Electrical Upgrades

Service panel upgrades

Your home’s service panel is sized to handle a certain amperage (amount of electrical current). In modern homes, service panels allow 200 amps to flow through the main breaker without tripping. Older service panels were sized to handle 100 or 150, or sometimes less than 100 amps. This may not be enough amperage for today’s electrical needs.

If your breakers are tripping when you use more than one appliance at a time, your circuits are being overloaded. If you notice other issues, such as corroded breaker switches, crackling sounds in the panel, or the breaker panel is warm to the touch, call an electrician about getting a new electrical panel installed.

Whole-house surge protection

You may also want to consider whole-home surge protection. These are installed in the breaker panel and protect your home from external surges caused by downed power lines or lightning strikes. Those power strip surge protectors you have all your electronics plugged into won’t protect against large surges, so ask your electrician about whole-house solutions.

The Bottom Line

A well-functioning, properly protected electrical system helps keep your home, your family, and your devices safe. Although electrical repairs and upgrades can be expensive, they’re much less costly than damage from electrical fires.

It’s important for electrical work to be done correctly, or future hazards could develop. Hire a professional Best Pick electrician to inspect your electrical system and replace or upgrade any outlets that need it. An electrician will know local electrical code requirements and can identify any other issues with your system that need to be addressed.