Having an electrical outlet that doesn't work can be extremely frustrating. As I've discovered in my own home, there are a few common reasons why an outlet may stop functioning properly. Thankfully, many of these issues can be resolved without calling an electrician.
In this article, I'll walk through the top 5 reasons your electrical outlets aren't working and provide step-by-step instructions on how you can safely troubleshoot and fix the problems yourself.
Reason #1: The Outlet is Not Getting Power
The most obvious reason an electrical outlet stops working is because it's no longer receiving electricity. There are a couple things that could cause this:
The most likely culprit is a tripped breaker. Every electrical circuit in your home has a circuit breaker that will "trip" and cut power to the circuit if it becomes overloaded.
- Locate the breaker box and open the door to access the breakers.
- Identify the breaker controlling the dead outlet. The breakers are usually labeled to indicate which rooms or appliances they correspond to.
- Flip the tripped breaker all the way to the OFF position first, then flip it back ON. This will reset it.
- Check the outlet to see if power is restored.
Faulty GFCI Outlet
If the outlet is connected to a GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) outlet, it could also cause a loss of power.
- Locate the GFCI outlet, which may be in a nearby bathroom or kitchen.
- Press the "RESET" button on the GFCI outlet to reset it.
- Check to see if power to the dead outlet is restored.
Burnt Wire Connection
In rare cases, you may have a burnt wire connection in the outlet box causing loss of power. This usually happens from overheated wires due to a loose connection.
- Unplug any cords from the dead outlet.
- Shut off the power to the outlet at the breaker box for safety.
- Remove the outlet cover plate.
- Visually inspect the wiring connections for any sign of burns or melted plastic.
- If you see evidence of a burnt connection, I'd recommend calling an electrician to properly diagnose and repair the issue.
Reason #2: Faulty Outlet
If power is getting to the outlet but it still doesn't work, the outlet itself could be faulty.
- Unplug all cords from the outlet.
- Plug a small lamp into the outlet that you can easily turn on/off.
- Turn the lamp on. If it doesn't turn on, the outlet is likely defective.
- Shut off power to the outlet at the breaker box.
- Remove the cover plate screws.
- Pull the outlet out from the box without disconnecting any wires.
- Disconnect the wires one at a time and connect them to the same terminals on the new outlet. Important: Take photos before disconnecting any wires to remember where they were originally connected.
- Secure the new outlet and cover plate.
- Restore power and test with your lamp.
Replacing a standard duplex outlet is an easy, affordable DIY project. Make sure to get an outlet rated for the correct voltage. Consult an electrician if dealing with anything more complex.
Reason #3: Worn Out Plug Connection
If an outlet is only partially working (i.e. only one receptacle works), the cause may be a loose wire connection at a plug.
- Unplug any cords from the outlet and shut off the power at the breaker.
- Remove the cover plate and unscrew the receptacle.
- Look for any loose or burnt wires on the hot terminals (brass colored screws).
- If needed, remove each wire one at a time and reconnect them securely to the hot terminal, making sure they are making tight contact with no insulation showing beneath the screw.
Old vibrating appliances like vacuums can cause wires to loosen over time. Re-securing these connections should get both receptacles fully functional again.
Reason #4: Needs GFCI Protection
For outlets near water sources like kitchens, bathrooms and basements, the outlets should be connected to a GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter). This safety device detects electric current leakage and shuts off power to prevent shocks.
If you have any dead outlets in these areas, it likely means:
- The outlet is connected to a standard breaker and needs to be upgraded to a GFCI outlet.
- Purchase a GFCI outlet and compatible cover plate.
- Shut off power and change out the outlet following the same process described in Reason #2 above.
- Press the "Test" button after installation to confirm protection is working.
Any standard outlets downstream from the new GFCI outlet will also have shock protection without needing to be replaced.
Reason #5: Wrong Bulb or Plug
Before assuming an outlet is broken, make sure you don't just have the wrong light bulb or plug.
To rule these out:
- Try plugging a different lamp or device into the outlet to see if it works.
- If you're trying to use a light fixture, ensure the bulb is good and screwed in properly. Test with a known good bulb.
- Avoid plugging small devices into outlets using electrical adapters, as these often result in loose connections.
If a different bulb or device works in the outlet, the issue was likely just an incompatible bulb or plug. The outlet itself is functioning normally.
While a dead electrical outlet can seem daunting, in most cases the repair is straightforward. Start by resetting any tripped breakers or GFCIs. If the outlet still isn't working, replace it if faulty or re-secure any loose wire connections. For safety near water sources, upgrade to a GFCI outlet when needed.
Doing a little electrical troubleshooting and DIY repairs can solve the problem without waiting and paying for an electrician. However, I always recommend caution when working with electrical wiring to avoid getting shocked.
I hope these tips help you get your electrical outlets back up and running! Let me know in the comments if you have any other outlet issues I didn't cover.