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How to Test and Troubleshoot Outlets

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Outlet vs Receptacle

Electrical outlet is a very common name for a receptacle. Many home improvement stores use the term “electrical outlet” when referring to a receptacle. Outlets are the points at which the electrical system are accessed (receptacle outlet or lighting outlet). A lighting outlet is an electrical box where a light fixture is mounted and gets power. A receptacle outlet is an electrical box where a receptacle is mounted and gets power.

Plug is Loose or Falls Out of Receptacle

A plug should always fit tightly into a receptacle. A receptacle uses tension on the plug’s prongs to maintain a tight connection. If a plug is loose or falls out of a receptacle, the receptacle needs to be replaced.  A loose plug can cause excessive heat and possibly damage whatever is plugged in to the receptacle.

20 Amp Receptacle Voltage Detector on Receptacle Receptacle Tester




What Causes a Receptacle to Fail?

The most common ways a receptacle fails is a tripped circuit breaker or tripped GFCI. If a standard receptacle is connected to the load of a GFCI and the GFCI trips, power will be shut off to the standard receptacle. Standard receptacles in kitchens, bathrooms, and outside, are likely to be connected to the load of a GFCI.

Less common ways a receptacle fails is loose wire(s) to the receptacle terminals, or the receptacle fails internally (power is present at the receptacle terminals but not at the plug end).

How to Test a Switched Receptacle

A switch operates one half of a switched receptacle. The best way to test a switched receptacle is with a receptacle tester, or a voltage detector. Turn the switch on and off to see if the receptacle has power (tester lights up with power). For more information, see split receptacles.

Voltage Detector

Receptacle Tester

Receptacle tester shows normal or voltage detector light is on

The light fixture at left has power through the electrical cord. If a switch operates this receptacle, then it is OK. If the fixture does not light up with a known good bulb installed:

Receptacle tester shows power off or voltage detector light is off

No power to receptacle:

Voltage Detector on Lamp Cord

How to Test a Receptacle

There are several ways to test a receptacle. First, check the circuit breakers and GFCI receptacles to see if any of them are tripped (see GFCI Wiring Configurations).

The best way to test a receptacle, including a GFCI, is with a receptacle tester. A test may be done to determine if power is present at the receptacle or if it is wired properly. This tester will show the status of the hot, neutral, and ground. A receptacle tester does not have a battery.

Other ways of testing a receptacle include a voltage detector, multimeter, solenoid tester, night light, and hair dryer.