Dead Electrical Outlet? Here’s How to Troubleshoot It

2016 Jun 21
Posted in: Electrical

Have a dead electrical outlet in your home that you just can’t figure out? 

You might be able to take care of it without hiring an electrician. We’ll walk you through an easy, step-by-step guide to fixing some of the most common reasons for a dead electrical outlet.

Here’s all you’ll need:

  • A small, working lamp from somewhere else in your home (make sure the switch is in the “on” position before you unplug it)
  • A screwdriver
  • Wirestrippers

Step 1: Make sure the problem isn’t with the appliance

Sometimes what you think is a dead outlet is actually a dead lamp or electrical appliance. To make sure that’s not the problem, take your working lamp and plug it into the problem outlet. 

If it lights up, the problem is with whatever outlet you had plugged in before. If not, go to the next step.

Step 2: Check for a switch to the outlet

Sometimes we get called to check out a dead outlet only to find that it’s connected to a flipped off switch. (It happens more than you’d think.)

With the lamp still plugged into the dead outlet, try flipping the switches in the room. Even if a switch controls another light, it might also control the outlet. 

If you find that the switch does control the outlet, and you don’t want it to, an electrician can rewire the outlet for you.

If the outlet still isn’t working, move to the next step.

Step 3: Look for a tripped GFCI breaker

Electrical outlets that are in damp areas of your home are protected with ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs). They protect you from being electrocuted should water come in contact with them. 

GFCI outlets have 2 buttons in the middle of them, one labeled RESET and the other TEST. You’ll find GFCI outlets in your:

  • Bathrooms
  • Kitchen
  • Garage
  • Patio
  • Other exterior locations

Kitchen GFCI Outlet
A GFCI electrical outlet in a kitchen.

If the GFCI outlet has tripped, the RESET button will be protruding more. Push it in to reset the outlet. 

Even if the problem outlet does not have the TEST/RESET buttons, it might be connected to another GFCI outlet in your home. Check all of them. In one case, an outlet on the outside of the home by the front door stopped working. The homeowner had to push RESET on the GFCI outlet in the kitchen. 

Did that work? If not, continue on.

Step 4: Check the breaker panel

The circuit that the outlet is on my have been tripped. Go open your circuit breaker panel and look for a breaker that is tripped.

Tripped breakers will be in between the ON and OFF position.

[Picture of tripped breaker?]

Related: Electrical Panels 101: A Homeowner’s Guide to Breaker Boxes

To reset the breaker, flip it all the way off and then back to ON. If your lamp is now on, you’ve solved the problem. If not, go to the next step.

Step 5: Tighten the outlet electrical connections

The next thing we’re going to check are the electrical connections in the outlet itself. Here’s how to do that:

1. Turn off the electricity to your home
You can do this inside of your electrical panel by flipping the service disconnect to the OFF position. The service disconnect is at least a double-pole breaker that should be labeled as “service disconnect” or “main”.

There are lots of different kinds of panels, but here are a couple with the disconnect labeled.

Home Electrical Panel
T
wo example electrical panels with their service disconnects labeled

Note: If you are unsure of how to do this or uncomfortable working with electricity, call a licensed electrician. Electrical current is nothing to mess around with. 

2. Unscrew the outlet from the junction box
You’ll need to remove the plastic faceplate from the electrical outlet first. That will reveal another set of screws. Remove those and the outlet should come out easily. 

3. Check the electrical connections
There are 2 ways that wires can be connected to the outlet: 

  • In the slots in the back (called backstabbing)
  • On the terminal screws on the side of the outlet

You can check these connections by lightly tugging on them. If any come loose, you may have found your problem. It’s best to cut and restrip the wire and then connect it to the screws on the side of the outlet.

Again, if you don’t know what you’re doing, contact an electrician. An improperly wired outlet can electrocute you and/or cause electrical arcs, which can start fires.

If your outlet still isn’t working...

Step 7: Call an electrician

At this point, you’ve exhausted all of the easy DIY fixes for your dead outlet. It’s most likely something more complicated. For example, wiring may be crossed somewhere. An electrician has tools to help them find the problem more easily.

Schedule an appointment with a George Brazil electrician.

George Brazil’s licensed and trained electricians have been serving Phoenix-area homes since 1955. Contact us online for more information about any of our services.