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Why is my electrical outlet not working?

There may be times when you plug something in an outlet– and nothing happens. Almost all of your electronic appliances and light fixtures only work when plugged in. So what do you do when it appears that your outlet is on the way out? Read on for some common causes, handy ideas for how to assess the situation, and ultimately, how to decide if the repair can be a DIY job or if it’s time to call in a professional.

Testing your outlet

Before you dive into removing and replacing the outlet, it’s best to test some of the simpler reasons why your outlet may not be working. You could save yourself time in the long run.

  1. Try plugging something else into the outlet (if your hair dryer doesn’t work but your toaster does, you know it’s time to replace your hair dryer and not the outlet.) Occasionally an outlet could be controlled by a wall switch. If there’s a switch in the same room that you don’t know what it does, flip it on and check your outlet again.
  2. Try plugging something else into the outlet (if your hair dryer doesn’t work but your toaster does, you know it’s time to replace your hair dryer and not the outlet.) Occasionally an outlet could be controlled by a wall switch. If there’s a switch in the same room that you don’t know what it does, flip it on and check your outlet again.
  3. Try plugging something else into the outlet (if your hair dryer doesn’t work but your toaster does, you know it’s time to replace your hair dryer and not the outlet.) Occasionally an outlet could be controlled by a wall switch. If there’s a switch in the same room that you don’t know what it does, flip it on and check your outlet again.
  4. Try plugging something else into the outlet (if your hair dryer doesn’t work but your toaster does, you know it’s time to replace your hair dryer and not the outlet.) Occasionally an outlet could be controlled by a wall switch. If there’s a switch in the same room that you don’t know what it does, flip it on and check your outlet again.
  5. Try plugging something else into the outlet (if your hair dryer doesn’t work but your toaster does, you know it’s time to replace your hair dryer and not the outlet.) Occasionally an outlet could be controlled by a wall switch. If there’s a switch in the same room that you don’t know what it does, flip it on and check your outlet again.

If plugs keep coming loose, the outlet works in an inconsistent manner, or shows signs of overheating these are all signs that your outlet needs replaced.

Common causes of an outlet not working

If you tested the outlet and it still isn’t working, the cause may be with the outlet itself. Besides the most common issue of a tripped circuit breaker, here are a few other things that may cause an outlet to fail:

  • A “burnout”: If your outlet has any blackened burn marks on its face, it is most likely “burned out.” This could be caused by something concerning like arcing, an overloaded circuit or improper wiring. The burn marks come from heat, and that excess heat is a fire hazard. If there are signs of a burnout, unplug anything with a connection to the outlet and turn off the breaker associated with the outlet. If you’re experienced, you may be able to replace the outlet, but if not this is a situation where it’s best to call in an electrician.
  • A simpler reason could just be that outlets in older homes fail because they’re past their prime. The age of the wire and home itself could lead to loose connections and even  dust and debris collecting over time.

If you’ve gone through the previous troubleshooting steps but you still don’t have power to the outlet, there’s a chance it’s due to loose wires.

Remove and replace

When it’s time to replace the outlet, you’ll need to gather some simple tools you may already have around the house:

  • A reliable voltage tester and/or a 3-prong plug-in tester (A voltage tester is used to determine the presence of electricity in a piece of equipment that you’re testing and is available at any home improvement store; a 3-prong plug-in tester, also found at any DIY store, also detects probable improper wiring conditions in standard 110-125 VAC outlets.)
  • a flathead screwdriver
  • a Phillips screwdriver
  • needle nose pliers with wire cutting capabilities
  • a wire stripper

Note: Before you begin investigating, take caution. Even when an outlet isn’t working properly, it can still have power and then pose a risk of electrical shock.  Always turn off the circuit breaker before attempting to repair an outlet.

  • First, turn off the circuit breaker feeding all outlets in the area.  If you open the door of your home’s service panel, you will see a “main” circuit breaker rated for 100, 150, or 200 amps (or possibly more, in a very large modern house.) The number printed on the breaker’s toggle switch is the amperage rating and indicates how much power the circuit can safely handle.  To turn off the power to all the branch circuits (aka, your entire house) switch the main breaker’s toggle switch to the OFF position.
  • Check to make sure there is no power to the outlet by testing it with your voltage tester and/or a 3-prong plug-in tester. To do this, set the device to AC voltage, insert one probe into each of the outlet’s two vertical slots, wait a few seconds and remove the prongs.  If you don’t have a reading, you know the power is off.
  • If you are using a non-contact tester, insert it into the smaller (narrower) plug slot. You’ll know there is no power if it doesn’t react. If it lights up and makes noise, you still have power. (Note: this type of tester is not 100% reliable.)
  • Once you make sure there is no power to the outlet, remove the cover and proceed to remove the outlet from the wall.
  • Take note of what color wire is connected to which side of the outlet. If the wires are looped around the screws, loosen the screws, open the loop and remove. If wires are connected to the back of the outlet, clip the wire right as it enters outlet and remove. (Please note: In some cases the outlet will have two sets of white wires and two sets of black wires.)
  • Get your brand new outlet (receptacle) ready by gently loosening the side screws that are going to be used for the wires, being careful not to pull them out of the outlet.
  • Remove about 5/8 of an inch of insulation from black and white conductors, make a loop and wrap the loop around the screws in a clockwise direction.
  • Tighten the screws, making sure the section of bare copper is securely held under the screw and that it’s not exposed beyond the body of the outlet.
  • Screw the outlet back into the box and install the cover plate.

A simple replacement could take a professional up to 1 hour if it’s a straightforward diagnosis and fix. Sometimes, it might take troubleshooting the entire line in the circuit to identify the origin of the problem, which could take two to four hours.

Remote diagnosis with Anew

If a power outlet continues to not work, it could be symptomatic of a more serious issue—and you may need a professional opinion. Anew offers an easy, efficient and affordable remote diagnosis service. For only $20 we will connect you (via video call) with a fully certified electrical expert with over fifteen years’ experience, who will walk you through the process of finding the issue and help determine the best way to solve the problem affordably. Contact an Anew representative for a remote diagnosis.

Get a remote diagnosis

Video chat with an expert to pinpoint your home’s issues, then get them repaired fast.

Start My Repair

Get a remote diagnosis

Video chat with an expert to pinpoint your home’s issues, then get them repaired fast.

Start My Repair

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