simple question - replacing switches/receptacles


Old 08-15-05, 10:46 AM
Thread Starter
Join Date: Jul 2005
Posts: 29
simple question - replacing switches/receptacles

I'm remodeling my house and want to replace all of the old switches and receptacles, and switch plates, with new white ones.

I have NO experience with electricity. After I turn off the breaker box, is it as easy as unscrewing the wires from the old and screwing them onto the new? I would be careful to not cross any of the wires. I would just screw them exactly where they were on the old. Is it safe for me to do this? Anything else I should know? I know it's not rocket science, but since I've never done it before, I thought I better get advice on it. Thanks!
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Old 08-15-05, 11:05 AM
Join Date: Sep 2003
Location: Central New York State
Posts: 13,973
While what you are proposing is a fairly straight forward project, there are several gotchas that you need to watch out for. I recommend that you purchase the book Wiring Simplified and read it (or at least the relevant chapters) before you start this process.

Remember to turn the power off, and double check that it is off by using a radio or lamp in the receptacle before and after turning the breaker off. If you haven't already done so, now would be a good time to map out your electrical system. You should identify which breaker controls each and every switch, receptacle, light and appliance in your house. This information may save our life some day.

Replace device for device. Do not try to put a combination switch and receptacle in place of a switch, for example. Make sure that you install 2 way switches where 2 way switches were before, and three way switches where three way switches were before. If the existing receptacles are two prong, then make the new ones two prong as well, unless you can verify the circuits are properly grounded.

Go one device at a time and make sure that the new one works the same way the old one did before proceeding to the next one. Yes, it takes longer this way, but it's easier to find and correct a mistake if you only have one place to look for it.

Pay attention to the old receptacles. If the tab has been broken between the top and bottom half of the device on either side then break the tab on the new device in exactly the same manner. If the tab has not been broken then donít break it on the new one.

Not all three way switches are created equal. Just because the three wires connect in a certain way on the old device does not mean they will connect the same way on the new device. With three way switches you have to match the screw terminal connections, not the location of those terminals.

Do not use back stab connections. Back stab connection are small holes in the back of a device where you insert the wire and a small spring holds the wire right. These are prone to failure. Instead use back wire or side wire devices where you have to tighten a screw to make the connection secure. If using side wire devices, wrap the wire clockwise around the screw.

You may need to purchase a small quantity of wire and wire nuts to use for pigtails. Make sure the wire you buy is the right size. Use 14 gage on 15 amp circuits and 12 gage on 20 amp circuits.
Old 08-15-05, 11:11 AM
Join Date: Nov 2004
Location: USA
Posts: 973
You are on the right track. Here's some things to watch for:

Occasionally, you will possibly run into duplex recepticals that are "split", meaning that the top and bottom receptical are either on different circuits, or that one is powered by a switch while the other is not. In these cases, you need to carefully inspect the "tabs" on existing duplex receptical. The tabs are a small peice of metal that runs from one gold screw to the other gold screw, and from one silver screw to the other silver screw. In a normal installation, the tabs are left in place. In a "split" installation, the tab on the gold screw side will be removed, and, sometimes, so will the tab on the silver screw side. When you replace these recepticals, you must do the same thing.

Also, it is very common to find that the wires were installed using "backstabs", which are holes in the back of the receptical that the wires just poke into. These backstabs are highly failure prone, so if you find you have recepticals wired this way, just move those wires to the corresponding screw when you install the new receptical. BTW: to remove a wire from a backstab, push a small screwdriver tip into the slot beside the hole the wire is in. That should release the wire.

If you replace any GFCI recepticals, be ESPECIALLY careful to no mix up the LINE and LOAD wires.

Realize there are three different types of standard switches: two way (most common), three way (used when at least two switches control one light), and four way (used in conjuction with a pair of three way switches when there are three or more switches controlling one light). These must be replaced with the right switch. If you replace any three or four way switches you have to be careful. Three way switches have a "common" screw, and two travelers. The common screw will be identified in some way, usually by being a different color than the two travelers (but NOT to be confused with the green ground screw). On your new three way switches, the common and travelers may be arranged differently. Make sure you get the common wire on the common screw. The two travelers can be swapped. Four way switches have two pairs of screws...each corresponding to a pair of travelers. The two wires of each pair can be swapped, but make sure you keep them paired up correctly.

You would do well to pick up a book such as the $6 "Wiring Simplified" at your local home improvement store and read through it before beginning. This project needs to be done right, or you will be doing a lot of . I'm glad you asked questions before starting! Also, buy a plug in tester that has the lights so you can test before and after. Who knows, you may find some errors in the existing install. Let's hope not!
Old 08-15-05, 11:19 AM
Join Date: Nov 2004
Location: USA
Posts: 973
Originally Posted by racraft
Remember to turn the power off, and double check that it is off by using a radio or lamp in the receptacle before and after turning the breaker off. If you haven't already done so, now would be a good time to map out your electrical system. You should identify which breaker controls each and every switch, receptacle, light and appliance in your house. This information may save our life some day.

Bob always offers this advise, and for good reason. PLEASE do map things out before starting. It's tedious, but very important, and not as time consuming as you might think. I did my 1400 sq ft house in 2-3 hours by myself. I started by making a rough drawing of my floorplan. I drew in EVERY receptical, switch, appliance, light, etc. I shut off anything for which a power failure is bad (ie, computer, Tivo, etc). I then shut off a breaker and checked for dead recepticals, lights, etc. and marked the circuit number on the drawing. Check the top and bottom of duplex recepticals in case they are split. Turn that breaker on, and shut off the next. Repeat until all breakers have been done. Then review your drawing and make sure all devices are accounted for. Then make a few copies of your drawing and stash them where you can find them. One at the panel box would be good. Labeling the breakers at the panel box is a must!
Old 08-15-05, 11:43 AM
Join Date: Aug 2004
Location: NA
Posts: 1,065
Its a simple question but more to it than you might think.

EDIT: I see we have some redundant replies but maybe we have all covered a few things that are different.

1.) Go to a home center or technical library or bookstore and get yourself a good illustrated book on residential wiring.

2.) Identify if you have wiring with ground or without ground. If you dont have a ground wire (usually bare) in the electrical boxes then post back with that information. If you have metal conduit lets us know.
A house with two prong receptacles is the biggest tip off for wiring with no ground. The fact that you have 3 prong receptacles may or may not mean you have wiring with ground. Most houses built from the 70's till present will have grounded wiring. You need to check anyway.

3.) If this is an older it Knob and Tube wiring.

4.) Do you have aluminum wiring instead of copper?

5.) Identify all receptacles that are controlled from a wall switch. Determine if the whole receptacle is switched or if half the receptacle is switched. If it is half switched take special note of the wire connections and a brass tab between the brass screws of the new receptacle needs to be removed in order to have the receptacle half switched like the old one.

6.) Pay close attention to your switches. Identify those that are 3-way and 4-way. Take special notes or even a digital photo of the wiring as it exists before you change out the switch. Pay close attention to the wire that is connected to the dark colored screw of the 3-way switch. Make sure it gets connected to the new 3-way dark colored screw.

7.) If you change any gfci's make note of what cables wires were connected to the load terminals and which ones were connected to the line terminals.

8.) Dont let a white wire or red wire connected to a switch confuse you this is normal and will be explained in a good book.

9.) Make sure you purchsae a voltage tester and now how to use it on residential wiring. Do not rely on wall switches to turn power off when working in an electrical box.

10.) Test the circuit that you are working on when you finish replacing a device. Make sure it is working as expected. Then move to the next box.

11.) Try to avoid removing any wire nuts if possible.

12.) Do not use the backstab holes on the switches and receptacles if they have them....attach the wires to the screws. Your existing wiring may be using the backstabs...though it is not a code violation it is notorious for faulty connections over time. Release the wires from the back stab using a small screw driver. Bend loops in the wires and attach the loop to the screw of the new device with the bare end of the loop in the direction you would tighten the screw. Again a good book will show this procedure.

Ok thats some of it I'm sure others will posts some things I have left out.
Old 08-16-05, 05:15 AM
Thread Starter
Join Date: Jul 2005
Posts: 29
Thank you all for your help! It's not as easy as I was hoping for...I was afraid of that. I will purchase Wiring Simplified and do some reading before I begin. I definitely want to do it right. Don't be surprised if you see another post from me!
Old 08-16-05, 09:08 AM
Forum Topic Moderator
Join Date: Feb 2005
Location: Near Lansing, Michigan
Posts: 10,335
Congrats for doing your learning before starting the project! I can't count the number of times someone has posted to this board after installing hundreds of feet of the wrong wire or after they have disconnected the old device without drawing a picture of how the new one should be hooked up.

Good luck with your project, and please come back with any questions you might have.
Old 08-23-05, 10:23 AM
Thread Starter
Join Date: Jul 2005
Posts: 29
Just want to let you all know the project was a huge success! All of the switches and receptacles work and they look really nice. I was so well prepared before I went to the home improvement store I bought exactly the right number and types of switches, outlets, and switch plates I needed. I figured I would need to go back to buy something else, or return the unused, but I couldn't have been better prepared. I'm impressed with myself! Thank you very much for your help!

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