Receptacle and Switch Repair

If you live in a new home this is not a common problem, but in older homes devices tend to get worn out or broken. Receptacles often lose their ability to hold a plug, usually caused by improper plug removal. That’s right yanking it out by the cord. This also causes stress on the cord that could lead to it’s failure. So when removing a plug DO NOT pull the cord, pull the plug. Switches, on the other hand, wear out simply because they are used a lot.

Fixing a broken switch is a relatively simple task. You must first find out what type of switch you have. If you are in a bedroom or bathroom, you are probably dealing with a simple single pole switch. They are easily identified in that they have ON and OFF printed on them, and there is only 1 switch controlling your light. If you are in larger rooms with two or more doorways, it could be a 3-way or 4-way switch. If you are able to control your light from only 2 places, you are dealing with a 3-way. 3-way switches are always installed in pairs, and it may be necessary to replace one or both. If you can control your light from 3 or more places your dealing with 3-way and 4-way switches. Also the switches will not have ON and OFF printed on them.

Loose devices are a common problem even in new homes. Sometimes when drywallers cut out around boxes, they remove a little too much material. This combined with a box not being mounted flush with the drywall, causes the device to be set back too far in the wall to allow a cover to be installed. Even if you try to install the cover anyway, it may break or become distorted. There are a couple of excellent fixes for these devices. One is a metal bracket that slides in behind the outlet. This works well if there is not too much missing wall material. The other is a plastic shim. These are my personal favorite. They are designed to be installed around the mounting screws of the device, so they do not rely on the wall material to secure them. They are also packaged accordion style with interlocking tabs so you can break off what you need for an exact fit. To install these, first locate the circuit you are working on and shut that breaker off. Remove the device cover, and loosen the mounting screws for the device. Slide your metal bracket in behind your outlet, or shims around mounting screws, and re-tighten mounting screws. If you used the bracket you can re-install your cover. If you used the shims, you may need to add or remove them to get the device flush with the wall. Once the device is flush you can re-install your cover, turn your breaker on, and check your device. If your device is broken or defective let’s go ahead and replace it.

A broken receptacle can be a little difficult depending on how many wires are in the box. The first thing we will do is shut off the circuit we are going to be working on at the panel. An accurate panel schedule will make this step a lot easier. Test your receptacle to insure it is off then remove it. If more than 1 set of wires are attached to the receptacle, you will need to twist the wires together before re-installing the device. If there is only 1 set of wires you can attach them to the device and re-install it. The black wire goes on the brass screw, and the white wire goes on the silver screw. If you can’t tell if the screws are brass or silver, look at the front of the receptacle. The short slot is the black, and the long slot is the white. If there is more than 1 set of wires you will need to twist the wires together. Twist all the black wires together adding an additional wire to attach to the receptacle. Secure them with the appropriate wire nut. Repeat this procedure for the white and ground wires. Install your new device, shim if necessary,turn the breaker back on and test your device. Switches are a little different.

When working on switches it is important to know that the white wire, always used as the neutral, can be used as a hot wire at the switch. This is only permitted in a house, using 2-wire romex as its wiring method. This is not important for attaching wires to the switch, but more for testing live circuits before you begin. Be sure to test all wires at the switch before removing them. A single-pole switch will only have 2 wires attached to it. After shutting off the breaker, check for voltage, then remove the switch. Install the new switch. It does not matter which wire goes on which screw. I prefer to put the hot wire on top. If for some reason there are more than two wires attached to the switch, you will need to twist like wires together as described above. Be very careful here, due to the white wire rule. The hot wire is allowed to be hot at the switch, but cannot leave the switch white. So it is possible to have white and black twisted together. If you are completely confused at this point don’t panic. Just stop and call a qualified electrician. He or she will know what to do. Do not attempt to wire your switch unless you are 100 percent sure you know what you are doing. If you are.1 percent unsure, get qualified help. If you only had the 2 wires, then go ahead and install your new switch, turn on your breaker and test your switch. If that was difficult then 3 and 4 way switches will really make your head spin.

I don’t recommend replacing your own 3 and 4-way switches because it can be a very involved process and a troubleshooting nightmare if you lose track of the wiring. With this in mind if you want to try it, you will need 2 things. Something to mark your wires with, and your electricians phone number. First shut your breaker off and remove your switch from the wall. Do not remove any wires yet. The 3-way will have 3 wires attached to it, and the 4-way will have 4. You will first need to identify the travellers, that is the 2 wires that run between both 3-way switches. If you look at the switch the travellers should be attached to the screws that are the same color. Mark both of them and remove the switch. You can now install your new switch. 4-way switches have 2 sets of travellers, and it is very important that you don’t cross them. Mark all wires before you remove them and replace them EXACTLY like you found them. When you restore power to test, make sure you test all switches involved. As you can see this is an extremely involved process, so if you are confused or unsure do not attempt this repair.

These device replacements can be simple repairs or very complicated troubleshooting projects. 3 and 4-way switches confuse even seasoned electricians, that is why it is best left to well trained professionals. If at any time you feel the least bit unsure of what you are dealing with stop and call a qualified electrician. Mistakes on this project could get very expensive.

!!!!!Always Be Safe!!!!!