Electrical outlets are points in your home’s wiring system where current can be run to power electrical devices like appliances and electronics. The most common outlets are 15-amp duplex receptacles—the outlets designed to accept standard plugs for most small appliances and lamps. Specialty outlets like ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI) and tamper-resistant outlets (TRO) are required by code in most areas. Other special outlets include receptacles with unique configurations for large appliances and power tools. You can save money by replacing an electrical outlet yourself using our Installing or Replacing a Receptacle Project Guide and Installing a GFCI Receptacle Project Guide.
If you simply want to replace an outlet, turn off the power to the outlet you want to replace and remove it. Get the amp rating off the outlet and pick up a replacement with that rating and the same configuration and number of holes.
This buying guide will explain standard residential wiring requirements and appropriate outlets for each, so you can feel confident you’re choosing the right receptacles for your needs.
Factors to Consider
• Circuit requirements – 15 amp vs. 20 amp
• Receptacle types – Standard household electrical receptacles, specialty outlets
15-amp Versus 20-amp Wiring
Before choosing outlets, it’s important to understand a few basics about the electrical wiring in your home. Most homes in the U.S. are wired with a combination of 15-amp and 20-amp, 120-volt circuits.
• A 15-amp circuit is usually served by 14-gauge wire and is protected by a 15-amp circuit breaker or fuse.
• A 20-amp circuit, protected by a 20-amp breaker or fuse, must be served by 12-gauge or 10-gauge wire.
The thicker wire ensures the wires do not overheat under a 20-amp load. The easiest way to determine
whether the circuit is 15 or 20 amps is to look at the corresponding breaker or fuse in the breaker panel.
Because 15-amp receptacles can be used with 20-amp circuits, most of the receptacles you see in homes are the standard 15-amp variety, with two slots and a u-shaped grounding hole.
• Twenty-amp receptacles have a horizontal slot branching off one of the vertical slots. Appliances, such as
microwaves, often have 20-amp plugs and must be plugged into a 20-amp outlet.
• Fifteen-amp plugs can be safely plugged into 20-amp outlets, but 20-amp plugs will not fit into 15-amp
Standard Household Electrical Receptacles
Electrical receptacles have changed along with upgrades in electrical needs. Today you have a variety of outlet options designed to match the requirements of your appliances, power tools and electronics, whether you are renovating an existing home or building a new home.
15-amp duplex receptacles – The duplex receptacle has been the standard electrical outlet in American homes since the 1960s. Each of the two outlets has a long (neutral) slot, a shorter (hot) slot, and a half-round grounding hole.
Combination Outlets – Combination outlets are space-saving designs that provide two features in one device, such as an outlet with a guide light, a GFCI outlet with a switch or a switch with an outlet.
GFCI – A ground fault circuit interrupter receptacle protects from hazardous ground faults, which occur when electrical current travels through any abnormal path to ground, and can be dangerous if the current travels through a person. One way a ground fault can occur is if an appliance plugged into an outlet becomes damaged. The GFCI works by monitoring the current flowing through the hot and neutral conductors in order to determine if any current is leaking from the circuit. The GFCI will trip and quickly turn off power if the leakage reaches a potentially hazardous level. Code requires GFCI receptacles be installed in bathrooms, wet areas of kitchens, basements and outdoors.
Tamper resistant receptacles – These receptacles, which can be used in place of conventional 15-amp and 20-amp outlets, are required by the 2008 National Electrical Code for use in new construction or renovation. Designed to help protect children from electrical injury, they have a built-in shutter mechanism that blocks insertion of most small objects. The shutters only open when a properly rated plug is inserted. Once installed, they are permanent, offering continuous protection unlike plastic outlet caps that can be removed.
Weather-resistant receptacles – These outlets are required by the 2008 National Electrical Code in damp or wet locations, such as patios, decks and pool areas, or any other residential outdoor location. The 15-amp and 20-amp weather-resistant outlets are built with UV stabilized thermoplastic and corrosion-resistant metals for superior performance outdoors, including cold impact resistance. You can choose from combined weather/tamper-resistant outlets or weather-resistant GFCIs with or without tamper-resistance. Note: Outlets in damp or wet locations should always be installed with weather-resistant covers.
|Rotating outlets – These outlets can be positioned to accommodate more than one of the large transformer-type plugs from cell phone chargers, hairdryers, cordless appliances, MP3 players, night lights and more, eliminating the need for power strips.|
Many appliances, tools and electronics require specific types of electrical outlets in order to operate safely and at peak efficiency.
|20-amp outlets – If you are installing a receptacle where you will have high-current devices, such as small appliances in a kitchen, 20-amp receptacles are essential. Use 20-amp outlets only on 20-amp circuits, which can be identified by looking at your circuit breakers. Twenty-amp outlets have a horizontal slot connected to one of the vertical slots in the outlet.|
|Surge suppression outlets – Surge suppression receptacles, like surge protectors, are designed to protect sensitive electronic equipment from power spikes without the need for power strips.|
|Split circuit receptacles – A split receptacle has two outlets with each wired on a different circuit or with one outlet live and the other switched. With a split receptacle you can have a wall switch to turn a light on or off or remotely control one plug-in location but not the other.|
|30-amp or 50-amp 125V/250V receptacles —Some heavy-duty appliances, like a clothes dryer or cooking range, or power tools require a 125V/250V receptacle, which has a special prong configuration.|
Ungrounded or ungrounded/unpolarized outlets – Homes built before the mid-1960s may have ungrounded outlets. These outlets are similar to standard duplex receptacles, in that they accommodate two-prong plugs, but they are missing the u-shaped grounding hole. These outlets are polarized, with one long (neutral) slot and a shorter (hot) slot, which allows them to accept many contemporary household plugs.
Ungrounded/unpolarized outlets went out of use in the early 20th century. These outlets have two slots of the same length. It is recommended that you upgrade the wiring before replacing an ungrounded or ungrounded polarized outlet with a grounded one. A GFCI outlet will provide some protection, but it is recommended that you upgrade the wiring as well.
|Other receptacles – Other specialty outlets are used in RVs, with some power tools and to meet other unique needs. To prevent the wrong appliance from being plugged into the wrong receptacle, major appliance and tool manufacturers tailor the plugs to special receptacles. If you have a cord with an unfamiliar plug configuration, refer to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association guide. Identify the plug type of your device and match the plug to the correct outlet type|
Packages of 10 – Most standard receptacles are available in packages of 10, making it convenient and cost-effective to replace all the outlets in your home.
Decorative options – Outlets and outlet covers are available in a variety of decorative options, including colors, wood finishes, and metals such as brass and nickel. Coordinated sets of wall switches and matching switch plates are also available.