Replacing a GFCI Outlet

When I moved into my house, there was a GFCI outlet in the bathroom that was…ancient…and desperately needed replacing. It functioned just fine but the contacts were getting old and plugs would fall out of it. However, I am just now getting around to changing it four years later.

As you can see, the offending outlet was vintage, ancient, dated, etc. Not only did plugs fall out of it, but it just looked terrible at this point. Let’s start with its purpose though.

GFCI stands for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter and this type of outlet is a requirement near water sources. It’s purpose is to break the circuit, and shut off the electrical current, if it senses a change in the amount of electricity on one side of the circuit compared to the other. This change in electricity could indicate a fault in a piece of electrical equipment or electricity flowing through a body.

This function means that replacing it isn’t as simple as replacing a standard outlet however it is still fairly easy to do and I’ve got all of the steps laid out for you.

First, you need to gather the new outlet and the appropriate tools to do the work. I purchased a Legrand GFCI outlet because I like that brand’s reputation and they have simple instructions (more on that later!). Wire strippers and a flat head screwdriver are usually the final tools. Don’t use a drill on electrical!! Electrical equipment is delicate, from the boxes to the screws and doesn’t really tolerate drills. It’s time to bust out your hand held tools. Once you have the outlet free, turn off your breaker (which is why everything from here on out has terrible lighting), test the circuit with a tester like this one and pull the outlet gently out of the wall to expose the wiring…

I almost had a heart attack when I saw the wiring in the box behind this outlet. I mean really?! For starters, there’s really too many wires that are too large for this box to be used easily. Second, it was a rat’s nest of connections. But, back to replacing the annoying outlet.

If you looked closely at the old outlet, it said on the back of it which wires were the line and which wires were the load. Think of these as incoming and outgoing. It is the comparison of electricity through these two portions that makes a GFCI function. Also, the GFCI will protect outlets that are farther down the line on the outgoing circuit. You may notice that one wire is green. This is ALWAYS the ground wire. Green for ground. Okay?

Now, you may notice that these pesky instructions are not in English. I had instructions in Spanish and in French but not English. Fortunately, all you really need to know is how to read the picture. The striped line is the ground line, the solid line is the black wire or hot wire, the white line is the white wire or neutral wire. That’s it! The picture tells you exactly where to connect the wires.

The other major thing to know about replacing an outlet is how to connect the wires. Once you cut them off the old outlet, strip the insulation off using your wire strippers and twist the fresh wire in a clockwise loop. DON’T cut them all off yet!! You always twist your wire in a clockwise loop so that when you tighten the screw down on it, it only tightens the connection.

I always start with the ground connection because that one is simpler in my opinion. There’s always one ground and one place to stick it. Then I typically move on to connecting the line connections and finally, I move on to the load connections. This particular outlet, when it was done, had the green wire on the bottom, two black wires on one side, and two white wires on the other side.

After it’s wired, the outlet is gently pushed back into the box and attached with two small screws on the top and bottom. The cover is put back on and the outlet is replaced! It looks terrible with the old almond cover plate and white outlet but it is fully functional and eventually, the cover plate is simple to replace.

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