Replacing Non-Grounded Electrical Receptacle Outlets

A very old style electrical outlet that can accommodate two types of plugs that were in use at the time.
A very old style electrical outlet that can accommodate two types of plugs that were in use at the time.

Dear Mr. Electrician: When I plug cords into my two-prong non-grounded electrical receptacle outlets the outlets are so loose that the plugs keep falling 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.

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 the outlet box which would allow you to replace the old outlet with a new grounding type receptacle.  You can easily check this with a voltage tester.  Put one lead of the voltage tester on the screw for the wall plate.  Put the other lead in each hole of the receptacle.  If it indicates that you have power, you probably have a ground connection to the box.  You can also use a pigtail light bulb socket to do this simple test.

If the test indicates that you do not have a ground at the electrical receptacle outlet’s location, see about using GFCI’s further down below.

To replace the receptacle outlet, turn off the power to this circuit at the circuit breaker panel.  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 of the wall plate 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 and slowly turn them out.  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 are suppose to 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.

An old style electrical receptacle pulled slightly away from the wall box so that it can be replaced.
You can see how the insulation has frayed off the wire where it is attached to the receptacle.

If you need to make changes or splices you should use a sharp knife to cut back any old electrical 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 white wires.  Use red for switch legs.  Blue for one of the travelers on a three-way switch.  Use black tape for the hot wires.

After all of the taped-on 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 existing two prong 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 pigtails to connect them to the receptacle.  Pig-tailing is a good wiring method to use when wiring electrical outlets because the receptacle will never carry the full load of the circuit this way.

A very old metal receptacle box with the receptacle removed. We can see that the existing wiring is BX cable and is clamped tightly into the box. This provides an adequate ground for the new receptacle.
A very old metal receptacle box with the receptacle removed. We can see that the existing wiring is BX cable and is clamped tightly into the box. This provides an adequate ground for the new receptacle.  I was able to tape the wires with white and black electrical tape and reuse them on a new receptacle.

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 metal armored cable or even rigid metal electrical conduit with wires pulled inside.  Homes built after World War 2 could have BX or non-metallic cable wiring.  Look closely inside the metal electrical outlet box (Does not apply to plastic electrical boxes) to see if you have BX cable, conduit, individual conductors, or something else feeding power to the box.  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 existing two wire electrical receptacles with a new two wire receptacle.  This is not always acceptable in a modern household.  Consequently the National Electrical Code has made an allowance for using grounded receptacles on an ungrounded circuit.  You must use GFCI tamper-resistant receptacles and label them as not having a ground.  Read article 406.4(D)(2) in the National Electrical Code.

It would be best if the GFCI receptacle is installed at the beginning of the circuit, which would be the first receptacle on that circuit.  After that all electrical receptacles downstream will be GFCI protected.  They must all be labeled that they are GFCI protected and that no ground exists.

It is also approved in the National Electrical Code to install 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.  Read article 250.130(C) in the NEC for the allowances to install a grounding conductor to an ungrounded electrical receptacle.

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.  For GFCI receptacles, take note of the line and load terminals.  The hot and neutral wires connect on the line side.  The wires that go to the downstream outlets connect on the load side of the GFCI.

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.

Install a new wall plate and the job is done.  Turn the power back on and test.  Note that the GFCI receptacle will need to be reset when it is first energized.  Push the reset button.