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How To Transform A Traditional Electrical Outlet Into A New USB-Ready Outlet

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Within the last decade the use of USB-powered charging cords has become nearly-universal for cellular phones and tablet computers. Formerly, you would need to attach your device to a battery charger, then plug it into a USB cord to gain charging access. Now, however, you can easily replace your current home's outlets with "hybrid" outlets that combine both traditional 120 volt power and USB voltage for your use. This helps you eliminate the need for a "wall wart" transformer and creates a cleaner, less-clunky interface. Below is how you can remove an old receptacle and replace it with a new USB model:

Tools and materials needed

  • Receptacle with USB  – receptacles come with either one or two 120-volt outlets and one or more 5-volt USB outlets. Some USB outlets produce 2.1 amps of electrical current while others produce 0.5 to 1.0 amps. Note that you can always use a high amp outlet with a lower amp-drawing device, but the reverse is not true. For example, a tablet computer that requires 2.0 amps of power can function while attached to an outlet that draws 2.1 amps, but it will not be powered by one that is rated for 0.7 amps. That's why you should always purchase a USB outlet with a higher-rated amp capacity, even if you don't think you need it initially. Your device will only draw the power it needs.
  • Receptacle cover
  • Cross-slotted screwdriver
  • Phillips-head screwdriver
  • Circuit tester – these can be purchased for about five dollars at many hardware and general retail stores.
  • Masking tape

Procedure for removing and replacing receptacles

1. Turn off power to the receptacle – before doing anything else, you must turn off the flow of current to the electrical circuit in question. Never attempt to perform any work on a live electrical outlet, even if you have insulated tools.

Shutting off power to a given receptacle is simple in most cases; locate the circuit breaker that governs the flow of current for the receptacle that is to be replaced. Most circuit breaker panels will contain a diagram indicating which specific breaker switch protects the receptacle. However, you should always verify that a given circuit breaker does shut-off power to the receptacle by testing it with a circuit tester. Once you have verified the receptacle is de-energized, apply a strip of masking tape over the breaker to alert others you are working on that circuit.

2. Remove the receptacle cover – most receptacle covers are held in place by one or two cross-slotted screws. Simply unscrew them with your screwdriver, and the cover should be easily removed at that point. If it doesn't come free, check for dried paint around the edges and gently pry it away from the wall with your screwdriver. Be careful not to damage the surrounding drywall.

3. Unscrew the receptacle – electrical receptacles use two to four screws that fasten them to the underlying electrical box. In most cases, these screws will be of the Phillips-head type, and can be removed with an appropriate screwdriver. Be careful that you don't lose the screws inside the box or drop them into the space between the drywall and box.

4. Carefully remove the receptacle – after unscrewing the receptacle from the electrical box, gently pull the receptacle free from the wall. It should be attached to three wires, depending on its age and when it was installed. Some older receptacles may have just two wires.

These wires will usually be colored black, white and either be green or bare copper. Regardless of color, make a note that shows where each wire is attached. The electrical code specifies that the black wire, which is "hot" and carries current, is attached to a positive (+) terminal, and the white wire is neutral and is attached to a negative (-) terminal. The positive terminal is usually colored gold or bronze while the neutral is silver in appearance.

If the receptacle contains a ground connection, a bare, non-insulated wire or green insulated wire will be attached to a separate terminal marked as ground. The grounding terminal is often painted green to differentiate between the hot and neutral connections.

To remove the wires, partially unscrew the terminal screws and pull the wires free. Be careful not to pull the wires too hard and bend them as little as possible to prevent short-circuits and wire breaks.

5. Attach wires to the new receptacle – the new receptacle should contain the same colored terminals, so reattach the wires so that polarity is matched between the receptacle and wires. Be sure not to omit the ground wire.

Loop the wires around the terminal screws in a counter-clockwise fashion; when you screw the wires down, the rotation of the screws will pull the wires toward the center and provide a firm grip. Make sure your connections are tight in order to prevent short circuits.

6. Install the new receptacle – carefully push the new  receptacle into the electrical wall box. Don't push or bend wires too harshly or you may damage a wire or pull a connection loose.  If you don't have room for the new receptacle, you may need to contact a licensed electrician about upgrading the size of your wall box. Secure the receptacle in place with either two or four screws; they should match your electrical box standards.

7. Replace the receptacle cover – holding the wall plate against the new receptacle, reinsert the screws holding it in place. Tighten the wall plate, but don't apply too much pressure, or you risk cracking it.

 8.Restore power and test your outlet – your new electrical outlet should operate the same as the one it replaced except for the new USB functionality. Restore power at the circuit breaker panel and test it for proper functioning.