What’s In An Outlet?
7 Common Receptacles And How They Work
Outlets—Our homes would not function without them, but when do we ever give them a second thought while they’re working? Knowing how they work and the difference between them can be crucial to your home’s overall safety and make it more convenient.
By knowing which type is useful for which application and understanding some of the fundamental issues to look for, you will be well on your way to knowing when and how to upgrade the outlets in your home.
Outlet? Receptacle? What is What?
It’s good to know some of the basic terminology surrounding your outlets. For example, “outlet” refers to the entire box mounted into the wall or floor; In contrast, “receptacle” refers to each individual contact device that a plug fits into. Outlets generally house one to four receptacles. Most homes in the United States use duplex outlets; or two receptacle outlets. We will be using both terms in this article. Most receptacles have two slots and a u-shaped hole. The long slot is the neutral, the short slot is the “hot,” and the u-shaped hole is for grounding.
When replacing your average receptacle, you may also run into ones that are rated for two different amperages. 15-amp receptacles are much more common, with the standard two-slot vertical slots and pin connection. 20-amp receptacles look very similar, but they include a horizontal slot that branches off one of the vertical slots. All of the receptacles we will list in this article other than the two-prong variety can come in 15 and 20 amp styles. Other than the plug shape, the main difference between them is the load that they can handle. 20-amp receptacles can handle a larger load and are often used for heavy-duty appliances such as a microwave, fridge, or power tools.
In general, we recommend upgrading to 20-amp receptacles due to their larger capacity because you are less likely to overload them. The main downside to this is that you may have to upgrade your breaker and wires leading to the outlet as they require a 20-amp breaker and a thicker gauge wire than 15-amp receptacles.
How Do I Know When I Need to Replace Receptacles?
By knowing the trouble signs to look out for in receptacles, you will be better able to protect your home and electronics. Some examples include:
- Plugs are falling out of the receptacle—This means that the receptacle is worn out and no longer able to grip the prongs. These should be replaced right away as there is a high risk of a fire.
- Outlet cover is broken—These should be replaced as soon as possible because they can pose both a shock and fire risk.
- Receptacle wires are backstabbed—We have mentioned this before in our post about voltage drop. This means that instead of having the wires wrapped around the screw terminals, the wires are pushed or “stabbed” into the back of the receptacle. This is problematic because these wires often become loose over time, which causes them to heat up and become a potential fire hazard.
You may be wondering about upgrading your receptacles. While there are dozens of different 15 and 20-amp receptacle styles used just within the United States, we will be looking at seven of the more common receptacles you may see around the home.
These receptacles are generally seen in older homes (pre-1960s) and only have two wires running to them, the hot wire and a neutral wire. We recommend you upgrade these types of receptacles ASAP if you find them in your home, as they are a safety hazard. Unlike the rest of the receptacles on this list, they are not grounded, which means they are far less safe for both you and your electronics. If a stray current were to happen, it could cause electrocution or fry electronics plugged into them. The type of receptacles you replace it with will depend on location so read on to find the best option. The wiring behind these receptacles is often older two-wire that does not include a ground wire. When replacing these receptacles, it’s essential to get the wiring behind them replaced with modern grounded cabling.
These receptacles include a third wire called the grounding wire and allows for an additional path for electrical currents. These became standard in electrical installations in the 1960s and are important because they reduce electrical shock risk. We recommend installing grounded receptacles with the ground pin oriented up whenever possible. The reason for this is in case the plug becomes slightly loose. If a metal object were to hit the “hot” prong, it could cause an arc that could trip the breaker, destroy the receptacles, or even cause a fire. For reference, all the remaining receptacles mentioned in this list will be grounded.
Tamper-resistant receptacles work in much the same way as a standard grounded receptacle. However, it adds a built-in tool that keeps anything stuck into the outlet that should not be from becoming energized. They do this by way of spring-loaded shutters that close off the outlet’s opening when not in use and only open when a plug compresses both springs. These receptacles are great for homes with small children, as they keep them from inserting random objects into them. These types of receptacles have been recommended in all new construction by the NEC since 2008, with a few exceptions. Outlets that are more than five and a half feet off the ground, are part of an appliance, or are located within the dedicated space of an appliance are such exceptions.
Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter Receptacles (GFCI)
Ground fault circuit interrupter receptacles or GFCIs work by monitoring the electrical current running through the receptacle and shutting it off if it detects any change in the current in the event of a ground fault. They work like mini circuit breakers that are built directly into the receptacles. Thus, they are required in areas with a risk of electrical shocks, such as around water. Areas of your home that they are required in include but are not limited to:
- Laundry/utility Rooms
- Crawlspaces/unfinished Basements
- Wet Bars
- Outlets on the exterior of your home/garage/business etc.
However, do not use GFCI receptacles for your large appliances like refrigerators or freezers. This is because they could trip without your knowledge, leaving you with spoiled food and a large grocery bill to replace it.
Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter Receptacles (AFCI)
Just as it sounds, arc fault circuit interrupter receptacles, or AFCIs for short, help protect you from electrical arcs. If an outlet is loose or the power cable is damaged, an arc can be caused by two split wires coming close to each other. These arcs also generate a large amount of heat, resulting in a fire if it comes into contact with any wood framing or insulation. AFCIs combat this by detecting the arc and shutting down the receptacle before severe damage can occur. A few examples of this could include accidentally hammering a nail through the wire, an appliance overheating when it is plugged in, or a rodent chewing on the wire. Unlike the other receptacles on this list that are essentially self-contained, AFCIs are integrated into the main electrical panel by way of a circuit breaker that works with it.
Surge Suppression Receptacles
These receptacles are less common than the rest of the receptacles in this list as they have more specific use cases. Like a surge suppressor power strip, surge suppression receptacles protect your appliances and electronics from voltage spikes with the bonus of being a lot less bulky. Voltage spikes can be extremely detrimental to your appliances and sensitive electronics, causing them to have shorter life spans or outright destroying them under the right circumstances. Some types of surge suppression outlets even include a signal to let you know when they need to be replaced as they do eventually wear out.
One of the newest receptacles types to come out is USB outlets. These receptacles include the standard outlet plugs and USB type A, USB type C, or a combination of both. Given that most of us lose the power brick for our chargers long before we lose the cable, these can be lifesavers. With these, you can plug your phone charging cord directly into the wall. These receptacles are convenient for offices, living rooms, and bedrooms, freeing up your standard receptacles for your larger appliances such as a computer or tv while still allowing you to quickly charge your phone or tablet.
We recommend that you have a licensed electrician do the work when you’re looking to upgrade your receptacles for your safety. As always, for all your electrical needs, give our friendly office team a call today at 618.993.HELP  or book online using the handy button above and schedule your whole home electrical evaluation with our expert electricians.
Remember, we care more because your family is our family too!