How to Clean Power Outlets and Light Switches For Fire Safety

an open light switch
What You'll Need
Vacuum with small nozzle

Seasonal cleaning is a time when closets and drawers get emptied and washed, furniture and storage boxes get moved around, and normally hidden surfaces are dusted and polished. While everything is out in the open, it's is a good time to do some inspection for hazards around your home. You may find some scary stuff!

Step 1 - Turn Off The Power

Safety Warning: To prevent serious risk of electrical shock, the breakers must be turned off for switches and plugs to be cleaned.

Step 2 - Clean Your Breaker Box

While you're turning off the power, check the electrical box itself for cobwebs, dust, and other dirt—these can all be easily removed using a vacuum cleaner with a small nozzle.

Step 3 - Remove and Soak Decorative Plates

Wall washing time is a good chance to remove the decorative plates covering light switches and power outlets. The switches by the doors are most likely to have dirt and grime from frequent handling, and are probably most noticeable at the main entrance of the house, the kitchen, the bathroom, and the living room.

Remove these covers with a screwdriver, and soak them in a bucket or a large bowl with a mixture of water and detergent. They can be scrubbed later with a sponge, then rinsed and dried.

Ceramic Heater damaged plug

Step 4 - Clean Plug and Switch Elements

Once the power is off, the exposed parts of switches and outlets can be wiped with a tightly wrung cloth so it is only “moistened” with a hot water/vinegar solution.

No liquid can be allowed to leak into the internal parts of the power receptacles and switches, because the lack of ventilation in those areas will keep the moisture from drying by itself, eventually causing corrosion of the internal connections and contacts. The resulting degradation could cause a heat build-up, frying, and sparking within the receptacle or the switch, further increasing both damage and danger.

Step 5 - Check Old Appliance Cords

If you’ve been living at the same place for many years, run a routine check on your appliances to see whether they're in good shape, or suffering from defective cords, degrading components, and incompatible electric current.

On a recent inspection, for example, I found that the plugs on both my ceramic heater (Fig. 1) and BluRay player (Fig. 2) had suffered bad overheating symptoms. In both cases, the wiring and breakers had been upgraded for 20 amps outlets while using the same receptacles rated at 15 amps!

Power Bar damaged plug

To catch potential problems like this, conduct an annual inspection of those cover plates. Look around and behind them for heat discoloration, burn marks, contorted receptacles, and other damage.

In general, stay alert every time you use a switch or go near a plug or switch—smell for burning plastic or frying contacts, listen for sparking or humming, and feel for warmth. Paying attention to small telltale signs can help you head off major damage down the road.

Step 6 - Close Back Up

Safety Warning: Make absolutely sure everything is dry before you close your outlets and switches back up.

With all the electrical boxes cleaned out, the switches and receptacles all rubbed clean, all the covers scrubbed with a sponge, and most importantly all of the parts good and dry, it’s time to put the covers back, and finally turn the breaker back on.

Keep this routine up a few times a year so you can always feel confident that your home is protected from accidental electrical fires.