Loose/recessed boxes behind switches/receptacles

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  #1  
Old 06-26-07, 01:37 AM
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Question Loose/recessed boxes behind switches/receptacles

This weekend, I replaced all of the wall plates in my house.

While doing this, I discovered a handful of openings that seemed to be nonstandard.

1) In four places, the box is loose and kind of free-floating in the wall. As a result, the switches/receptacles are a little bit loose and move back and forth when you push on them. In all cases, I tried tightening the screw that appeared to be attached to the box but it was just loose and wouldn't "catch."

2) In one case, the box was loose in the wall, and that causes it to recess into the wall. The screw holding the wall plate to the switch was really the thing keeping the box from recessing almost an inch into the wall. (I had to use a longer screw to "catch" the switch when mounting the wall plate.)

3) In one case, the box was not loose but protrudes a lot out of the wall (maybe 1/2 inch.) It's almost as if the box was too deep for the opening.

My question is: are any of these situations dangerous? If so, can any of them be repaired by someone with limited skills (me), or should I pay a pro to address them? I know from experience that hiring an electrician can be expensive, so I'm trying to evaluate what I should do.

I tried to find information/diagrams about how things are supposed to work (as well as reading previous posts here) but I can't seem to find a definitive answer for these situations.

Thanks for your patience with these newbie questions.
 
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  #2  
Old 06-26-07, 05:00 AM
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I don't know if I'd classify it as an emergency "fix it now!!!" situation, but it should be fixed.

Is the wall intact around the box, or has it been messed up? As in, is there no wall for the boxes to grab, or are the boxes messed up?

It would be a real bummer for one of the devices to vanish inside the wall someday and land at the bottom of the inside of the wall, where you couldn't get to it. That's when you'll have wished you'd fixed it today.
 
  #3  
Old 06-26-07, 06:32 AM
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Here's some questions: Are these metal or plastic boxes? Are the receptacles grounded?

Can you tell if the boxes are old work boxes or new work boxes? In other word, do they attach to studs, in which case you probably can't see anything attaching them, or do they clamp to the drywall?

What is the condition of the drywall around them? Can you tell if they are next to studs? (you could try a stud finder to check, but you might be able to just knock on the wall until it changes from a hollow sound to something that sounds more solid)

Actually replacing the boxes isn't that hard of a thing to do. Here's the scenario where the entire job is not too big of a deal: If you can get them out without disturbing drywall, the drywall is sound, and the current boxes aren't acting as a ground, then you could replace the boxes with "old work" boxes without too much trouble.

The biggest trouble might be if you need to open up the wall to get at the area around the box, then you need to repair the drywall openning. That's the part of that kind of job I dislike most and that I'm not that good at.

And if these boxes are attached to studs, but loose, this might be saying something about the condition of the studs, but that's just speculative.
 
  #4  
Old 06-26-07, 10:02 AM
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Originally Posted by WillK View Post
Here's some questions: Are these metal or plastic boxes? Are the receptacles grounded?

Can you tell if the boxes are old work boxes or new work boxes? In other word, do they attach to studs, in which case you probably can't see anything attaching them, or do they clamp to the drywall?
The receptacles are grounded, and the boxes are all plastic. It's a newish house (1999) so I think the electrical work is by-and-large original.

The drywall is in good shape around the openings, although there are places the hole was cut sloppily and a bit too big.

I can't tell through visual inspection if the boxes are attached to studs or not, but they do have screws attached which appear to go straight back and are supposed to attach to something behind the box. These screws being stripped appear to be what's causing the looseness with the boxes.
 
  #5  
Old 06-26-07, 11:35 AM
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I see... I'm going to speculate that what you're describing are "old work" boxes that were installed after the home was built. A home builder would have boxes that attach to studs, and you wouldn't see the nails because they're on the outside of the box where it would be concealed by the drywall, which would probably be pretty tight to the box.

How long ago did you buy the house? I'd wonder if this work was done under permit and inspected.

If you're having trouble with the box being loose, the problem might be that the openning was cut too large, and replacing the box wouldn't fix it - it would require either replacing a section of drywall and cutting the hole to fit or cutting away more and installing a larger box.

You'll probably see if you compare these boxes that are loose with other boxes that aren't loose that there is a flange around the edge on the loose old work boxes that isn't present on the ones that are not loose, which are nailed to the studs.
 
  #6  
Old 06-26-07, 11:42 AM
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And also let me add that if I'm diagnosing what you're describing correctly, there probably isn't something unsafe going on strictly because the boxes are loose. I'd still have concerns, but it's for other reasons - namely that loose boxes give the impression of sub-par work, and I'd be suspicious of whether things like was the proper wire gauge used or the connections made properly?

If the work was done by permit and inspections done and passed, at least someone has signed off on the fact that they say that it has. Wherever permits are issued from, they should be able to find any permits that were pulled for your address.
 
  #7  
Old 06-26-07, 02:38 PM
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Thanks for the reply, Will. Maybe I'll check with the city and see if they keep permits for new construction electrical work around. I honestly have no idea if permits were done or an inspection, but like I said it's a newer house (1999) so I certainly hope so!

It's not overtly against code as far as I can tell... meaning there are GFCIs in bathrooms, kitchen, outside... I know there's 12 AWG going into bathroom receptacles, 14 in living areas.

Several different kinds of receptacles and switches are used in different levels of the house, leading me to believe that maybe some of the work was done by different people. I know the original people building the house ran out of money halfway through the building process.

Are permits generally kept on record, and would they detail what was checked (how many rooms, etc.?)
 
  #8  
Old 06-27-07, 08:15 AM
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Typically, a home builder would have to have permits for the home's structure, electrical, plumbing, heating and probably more before construction begins. These permits have to include drawings, and specifically the electrical permit application and drawings will show where receptacles and switches are located, and the application will list the number of circuts, outlets and switches - that is the kind of stuff that the permit fees are based on.

What you'll want to do is compare what is actually installed with what is in the plans attached to your permits, and find out if any permits are filed after the original construction.

You might not have much information from an inspection, at best you might have notes about what corrections were required, if any, from any inspection before a clear inspection resulted in approval.

It is unlikely that old work boxes would have been installed by a home builder. Typically, inspections for electrical permits are done in two steps: a rough inspection is done, usually with wires routed through the walls and ceilings from the service box (circuit breaker) to the wall boxes with extra wire left sticking out. No receptacles and no drywall covering it. The boxes will be attached to studs. Drywall can't go up until the rough inspection is approved, or at least it can't go up on both sides of a wall blocking access to the wiring.

The permit application step should be the stage where everything is determined meets code as far as number and type of outlets and gauge of wire to be used.
 
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