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Two Prong Non-Grounded Electrical Receptacle Outlets

Dear Mr. Electrician: When I plug things into my two-prong electrical receptacle outlets (non-grounded) they're so loose they keep falling out out with a slight touch.  What can I do to remedy this problem?  I know enough to turn off the power in that section of my house before I attempt anything, but that's about it.
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Answer: You need to replace the two-prong electrical receptacle outlets. The BIG question is whether or not you have an approved grounding conductor in each outlet box. You can easily check this with a voltage tester.  Put one lead of the volt meter on the screw for the wall plate.  Put the other lead in each hole of the receptacle. If it indicates that you have juice, you may have a ground attached to the box.  You can also use a pigtail light bulb socket to do this simple test.

Although the test above may indicate that a ground is available at the receptacle, it may not be an approved ground using approved wiring methods.  Some of the older armored cable (Type AC or BX) was not approved as a grounding conductor as the newer products that became available in the early 1960's.  To check on the type of wiring, you must look inside of the receptacle electrical box.

Turn off the power to this circuit.  Use a voltage tester to confirm that the power is off and double check at each step throughout the process.

 You must take apart the receptacle by removing the wall plate first.  Unscrew the center screw (Or upper and lower screws) counter-clockwise.  Pry away the wall plate from the receptacle.  The wall plate may be held onto the wall and/or the receptacle by many coats of paint.  Use a razor knife to score along the outer edges of the wall plate.  Score along the outer face of the receptacle.  If the wall plate does not loosen from the knife, try getting a small flat putty knife behind it.  In some cases you may just have to break off the wall plate, but the face of the receptacle may come off also.  Hopefully the power is off.

Some newer style wall plates have the screws hidden.  You must pry away the front using a small flat screwdriver.  Pry gently and evenly from all corners.

Remove the two screws securing the receptacle to the wall box and gently pull the receptacle away from the wall.  If the screws break off, you might be able to grab them with a pair of Vise-Grip Pliers.  If that doesn't work you may have to drill out the old screw and tap the hole and install a new screw.  The standard receptacle screw thread is 6/32.  It is a number 6 machine screw with 32 threads per inch.  The screw head is usually a flat head or a low profile round head.  If necessary you can re-tap the hole to 8/32 and use an 8/32 flat head machine screw.  Use my drill, tap and screw chart here.

Pull the receptacle away from the electrical box.  The wires should be long enough that you can easily work on the receptacle.  Quite often though, the wires are too short or the insulation is old and brittle, and sometimes you have both together.  Not to panic, but care must be taken so as to minimize damage to the insulation.  If the wiring is pre-World War 2 it may be soldered and taped.  If you need to make changes or splices you should use a sharp knife to cut back the old tape.  Do not cut the wires.  They are all that you have to work with.  Identify all of the wires before taking them apart.  Use white electrical tape for the the white wires.  Use red for switch legs.  Blue for one of the travelers on a three-way switch. 

After all of the taped insulation is removed you will see the soldered wires twisted together.  Using a pair of pliers, slowly untwist the wires.  The old solder has a very high lead content which makes it very soft.  Straighten them out a little and tape them with several layers of electrical tape using the appropriate colors.

If the wires attached to the receptacle are in good condition and the color coding is easily seen, then you can remove them from the receptacle.  Do not cut them.  Loosen the screw or insert a paper clip or small screwdriver into the rear quick-stab clips to release the wire from the receptacle.

If the wires are short, you can splice them together and use pigtails to connect them to the receptacle.  This is a good wiring method to use because the receptacle will never carry the full load of the circuit this way.

Take notice of the grounding conductor connected to the green screw.  Although a two prong outlet will not have a green screw or grounding conductor attached to it.  Look inside of the electrical box to see the type of wiring.  There are several choices depending on geography and age that were used as part of general construction techniques.  A Pre-World War 2 house could have knob and tube wiring, or old style BX or even rigid electrical conduit with wires pulled inside.  BX cable with an approved grounding bond wire inside started showing up in the 1960's as did non-metallic cable (Type NM) with a grounding conductor built in.  Look closely inside the metal box (Does not apply to plastic electrical boxes) if you have BX cable to see if there is a bond wire coming out of the armor.  It is a very small strand of aluminum wire suitable for making the BX armor an approved grounding conductor.  If so you can replace your two prong outlet with a tamper resistant self-grounding receptacle.  By doing this you will have a grounded three prong electrical receptacle outlet and be code compliant.

If there isn't any effective and approved ground, then you must replace the two wire receptacles with GFCI tamper-resistant receptacles and label them as not having a ground.  You can also install a new two prong receptacle, though that is not always desirable.  It is also approved to run a single conductor wire to a grounded water pipe or bonded ground rod to get the necessary ground path.  However for the amount of work and effort required to install a single conductor ground, you may as well install brand new circuit wiring with a built-in grounding conductor.

Install the new tamper resistant receptacle (or tamper resistant GFCI receptacle) by attaching the white wires to the white screws which are usually on the same side as the green ground screw.  Attach the black wires and then attach the bare or green grounding conductor.

Fold the wires back into the box as you push the receptacle back in.  Screw the 6/32 screws into the box.  Sometimes they can be short and you will need to buy longer 6/32 screws.

2014 National Electrical Code Pocket Guide

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Created July 6, 2013              Updated December 15, 2015

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