Electricity is kind of scary when you think about it, and messing with electricity in a house made me a little nervous, but it had to be done. Okay, it didn’t have to be done, but I wanted it done. After we’d painted and painted again, I couldn’t just leave the ugly, old, almond-colored switches and plugs. They had to go, but that meant I had to mess with electricity. I’m glad to say I survived and I’m going to show you how I did.
Disclaimer: this is not a tutorial. I have no liability over any electrical work attempted.
The first thing I did was gather all the tools.
Included here are a electrical tester, wire stripper, philips head screwdriver, flathead screwdriver (mine has interchangeable bits), pliers, wire cutter, and gfci switch tester (optional, but you’ll see why I needed it as we go along). I also got all the new switches and plugs, including special plugs like GFCI for bathrooms, three-way switches for switches that link to the same light, and any special face plates. In total, I probably spent around $150 for the whole house, and my house has a LOT of plugs considering it’s not that big. There is a phone jack in every single room, including the laundry (??).
First things first is to find the electrical panel. Mine’s in the laundry room and most things weren’t labeled, and as I found out later, a lot of the circuits include varying rooms/switches depending on the wall. I have labeled most of them now, but some are too specific to cram into that tiny space. I’m going to re-label them at some point.
You can either turn off all electricity or you can do it room by room, but be sure to check every plug with your tester to make sure it’s off.
For me, the easiest way to replace was copy. Basically, put on just as you took off. Black wires (hot wires) go to the gold screws. White wires go to silver. Ground wires go to green screw.
What’s important is to get the screws tight over the wires, not just loosely wrapped. A loose wire can cause all sorts of problems, as I discovered.
Some of my switches were stabbed in the back of the old switches. These had to be cut off, stripped and wrapped around screws. Some of the switches had two black wires instead of a black and white. After some Googling, I discovered this is normal in older houses and it’s not particular which screw they go on.
Some plugs had only two wires instead of four. According to my father, this means it’s the end of that particular circuit. It shouldn’t affect power to the plug at all.
GFCI switches are pretty straight forward if you’re just changing them out. If you’re converting a regular plug, you most likely have extra wires. They go where the GFCI switch has tape over the screws (those screws are for this exact purpose).
Three-way switches can also be a little confusing. This house happens to have four rooms with these (hall, laundry, dining room, AND the garage). I just replaced them EXACTLY as they came out of the wall and it was okay. The dining room has something weird going on with its wiring that I haven’t quite figured out, but it works as it is now.
Here, we get to the problem areas. After I replaced all the other switches and plugs in the house, I went back to test a few. The guest room wasn’t working at all. Not even the light! I tested with my power tester. They had power. At this point, on the recommendation of my dad, I got a GFCI plug tester. It told me that apparently the problem was a loose neutral (white wire), somewhere.
Finding the somewhere proved to be harder than I thought. Since all plugs/switches are on a circuit, you have the find the break in the circuit. Basically, which one is screwing up the rest. I thought it would be simple. Look at the ones that didn’t work! Not the answer. The answer actually lay in the one plug in the room that WAS working. It had a loose wire and was messing up the rest. That took a couple weeks to figure out.
Now that that problem has been corrected, all the plugs are changed!
And I only shocked myself once. Pro-tip: don’t shock yourself.