Electrical Switches and Outlets

September 17, 2011

light-bulbLight Switches and outlets are taken for granted by providing endless amount of light and electricity at a moments notice. With proper care, these electrical elements will serve you and your house for 20 years or better. 

For the most part, we do not consider these items a problem until they are broken or when failure occurs. However, recognizing conditions than can be resolved today will allow you to fix the issue on your own schedule and ensure adequate safety to you and your home. We all know that failure typically won’t occur until you really need it. So take a look at your electrical outlets and switches today, you may be surprised to find that some of them are starting to show indications of wear that will eventually result in failure.  Replacement or repairing them now will ensure uninterrupted service.

Light Switches: This inspection involves visiting every light switch in the house. Go through each room, one at a time.

  1. Standard Light Switches: Operate every light switch in every room. It should operate smoothly. If it is warm, makes noise, won’t stay in the on or off position or feels mushy, it should be replaced.
  2. Dimmer Switches: There are different styles of dimmer switches,  they include standards/with secondary sliders, full sliders and rotary switches. Compared to standard light switches, it is not uncommon to find dimmer switches warmer than ambient. This is normal. Operate the switch through its full range. It should transition from off to 100% (on) smoothly. Some switches may have clicks or notches in the transition from 0% to 100%. If the light interrupts  or flickers during transition from off to 100% the switch should be replaced. TIPDimmer switches and CFL (compact florescent lights) don’t mix unless the switch and bulb is rated for it. This improper switch/bulb combination may act like a bad bulb or switch. 
  3. 3-way Switches: Are defined as two switches with one light circuit. Either switch on this light circuit should be able to turn the light on or off no matter the position of the other switch.
  4.  4-way Switches: Are three switches with one light circuit. Any one of the three switches should work the same as the 3-way switch and should operate the lights regardless the position of the other two switches.

TIP: If the 3&4 way switches do not operate as described, they could be bad or wired incorrectly. It is not unusual to find a 3 or 4 way switch to be previously replaced and not re-wired correctly. See Wiring a 3-Way switch or Wiring a 4-Way electrical switch

Electric Outlets: This inspection involves visiting every electrical outlet in the house.  Electrical outlets are very durable and can last a life time, however the excessive wear and abuse can cause damage to them.c140_product1

  1. Testing: Test each and every outlet to validate voltage and polarity. Purchase a low cost outlet tester much like the one pictured to the right for this inspection. They are self explanatory in their use. Generally you plug them in the outlet and they will provide a self check set of lights that will provide a go-no-go indication. TIP: Make sure you check both outlets on the receptacle as they can be wired separately.  An outlet can fail a test and appear to work properly. The three most common failures are, 1) reversed polarity, 2) open ground, 3) open neutral, 4) Hot open.
  2. Reversed Polarity: Hot and neutral are terminated on the wrong connectors. The outlet may still appear to work correctly. 
  3. Open Ground: The ground circuit is not complete. This usually happens when a grounded type (3 holes) outlet was used to replace a faulty 2-wire receptacle. TIP: Even though this outlet will appear to be working properly and will not cause an issue when using a lamp, this open condition can create issues with electronic devices such as computers, TV’s or stereo receivers.
  4. Open Neutral: Similar to Open ground.  TIP: Even though this outlet will appear to be working properly and will not cause an issue when using a lamp, this open condition can create issues with electronic devices such as computers, TV’s or stereo receivers.
  5. Hot Open: The outlet will be dead.
  6. Receptacles: 2 prong vs. 3-prong outlets were prevalent in houses built prior to 1965 and without an adaptor, you will not be able to properly use a plug cord with 3-prongs. The NEC code changed around 1965 requiring grounded outlets be part of new construction. If your house was built around 1965 and you find 3 prong outlets or a mix of both and the wiring was not upgraded, the tests performed in item 1 will reveal those problems for you (typically open ground). Even though the receptacles may appear to work properly, ghost problems may occur. If your electrical system is based on a a 2-wire system, 2 wire outlets and adapters yellowstone-0111are still considered acceptable. However, proper grounding for today’s electronics may not be compatible and rewiring your house may be considered.   
  7. Physical Damage: Inspect each outlet for physical damage. If the outlet or the face plate is damaged, they should be replaced.
  8. Warm Outlets: If the outlet feels warm to the touch, the outlet or the wire connection may be faulty. Replacing the outlet should resolve the problem. Purchase a higher quality version of the same receptacle (about 3 bucks) and used the screw down terminations. For more detail testing of this condition, see the article on Warm Outlets
  9. Overloaded Outlet: Most residential outlets are rated for 15 Amps maximum. Installing an excessive amount of electrical devices can cause problems. TIP: In these occasions where you need more outlets from the same receptacle, use a fused power strip. The power strip will include a fused breaker on the device. If an overload occurs, it will trip and protect the wall plug and the circuit from damage.
  10. GFI (Ground Fault Interruption) Outlets: GFI outlets are found in newer (or remodeled) houses. Typically GFI outlets will be found in the kitchen, bathrooms, garage, outside outlets or areas where the homeowner may be exposed to water while using the outlet. GFI outlets look a littleoutlet different and should be labeled as such and will have a self test button. The test button should disable the outlet and expose a reset light or button. Press the reset button and power should be restored. If the outlet does not disable and reset during the test, it should be replaced. In some cases, GFI outlets may be wired together and will cause multiple outlets to be disabled at the same time. TIP: These additional outlets may look like regular outlets but SHOULD be labeled as GFI, but don’t be surprised if they are not. Additionally the controlling GFI outlet may or may not be located in the same room.

Key Inspection Points and Action Items:

  1. Inspect and operate all electrical switches to ensure they operate properly
  2. Inspect and test all outlet using an outlet tester.
  3. Replace or repair the outlets and switches as necessary.
  4. Read my article on Warm Outlets.