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Replacing Electrical Switches and Outlets

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The major benefit to installing your own electrical switches and outlets is the money you save. Hiring an electrician can be very expensive. However, if you aren't sure of what you're doing, it's much better to hire one than to do it yourself. Working with electricity can be extremely dangerous, so it's best not to risk it unless you have experience or have done thorough research on the project.

Replacing Electrical Switches

Electrical work is always easier before you have walls in place, but you can still do the job if you are just adding an extra light or changing out the switch. Before you start doing any work, remember to shut power off to the circuit you'll be working on.
  • Once the power is off, remove the switch plate, and gently pull the switch out of the electrical box.

  • Remove the wires from the switch by detaching the screws that are holding them in place. In most cases, the ends of the wires sit inside holes in the back of the switch; you may need pliers to remove them.

  • If you're replacing a single-pole switch (the standard kind) that has only two wires, attach the grounding wire to the green screw and the other two wires can go to either of the other two screws.

  • For a three- or four-way switch (which are used when there are one or two other switches controlling the same light), connect the wires the way they were on the old switch.

  • On the three-way switch, there will be one wire for power (usually black). This goes to the black screw. The other two wires, which will be two different colors, go to the two brass screws.

  • On a four-way switch, there will be two screws and wires of one color (sometimes marked "in") and two screws and wires of another color (sometimes marked "out"). Attach the wires to the corresponding colored screws.

  • Make sure the switch works and replace the switch plate.

Dimmer Switches

Dimmer switches will have wire leads instead of screw terminals.
  • For a single switch, attach the wires from the switch box to the two black wires of the dimmer.

  • Twist the wires together and secure them with wire nuts.

  • For a three-way dimmer switch, attach the wires in the same way you would a regular three-way switch (as described above).

TIP: After securing wires with a wire nut, wrap some electrical tape around the nut and the wires. This will prevent them from coming loose.

Replacing Outlets

Installing new outlets is a complex job that requires choosing the right kind of power cable, installing a circuit breaker for that cable, running the cable through the wall, and correctly installing the outlet itself. It's involves dealing with an incredible amount of electricity, so you should confer with an expert before attempting to take on the job yourself.

If you just need to replace outlets, the job is relatively simple. It's extremely important to be sure that the power to the outlet in question is turned off. This can be done by shutting off the circuit it's connected to or by completely shutting off main power to the house. The latter is a particularly good idea if you're working with outlets on multiple circuits. Either way, you should use a circuit tester on each outlet you work on to be sure it's safe to do so.
  • Once power is off, remove the faceplate of the outlet using a screwdriver.

  • To remove the outlet itself, you'll need to unscrew the two screws holding it in place.

  • Gently remove the outlet from the outlet box.

  • Remove one wire at a time from the old outlet, installing it in the same place on the new outlet before moving on to the next one. This will keep you from getting the wires mixed up while you go.

  • Screw the new outlet into place, use the circuit tester to make sure it works, and replace the faceplate.

  • Once all the outlets are replaced, you can restore power.
Note: Some areas require you to have an electrician inspect your work after you've completed it. Someone from your town hall should be able to tell you about your town's regulations.

Adam Mandelbaum  Posted by Adam Mandelbaum on January 7, 2013

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