Some of the most common electrical safety hazards include power outlets that are:
- Have visible burn marks or smell like smoke
- Making buzzing or popping sounds
- Are hot to the touch
- Have attracted ants and pests
- Are outdated and require replacement
- Are not weatherproofed
- Are exposed and accessible to children
In these circumstances, it’s critical to address the risk of electrical shock and fire and to have the outlet repaired or replaced safely by a licensed electrician.
Jump To Page Contents
- Can an Electrical Outlet Go Bad?
- Electrical Shock from Outlets
- Childproof Electrical Outlet
- Electrical Outlet Sparking – What To Do
- GFCI Electrical Outlet Replacements
- Burnt Electrical Outlets
- Buzzing Noises from Outlets
- Hot Electrical Outlets
- Electrical Outlet Popping Sound
- Painting Electrical Outlets
- Ants in Electrical Outlet
- Outdoor Electrical Outlets – Covers and Weatherproofing
The risk of electrical fire and electrical shock from outlets that have gone bad or are not working properly is real and cannot be ignored. According to the US Fire Administration, approximately 24,000 electrical fires were reported in the two years leading up to 2016, causing an estimated 310 deaths, 850 injuries and $871 million in property loss. Approximately 12 percent of those fires were caused by electrical outlets and receptacles.1
Electrical Outlets Not Working? It Might Be Much More Serious
Do you have one or multiple electrical outlets not working in your home that concern you or might be an electrical hazard to you and your loved ones? Delaying the inspection and replacement of electrical outlets, using them incorrectly, or ignoring the problem can and does lead to unintended and horrendous consequences. Protect your home and your family by taking electrical outlets seriously. Below you will find warning signs and actions to take in order to remedy damaged, bad or unsafe electrical outlets in your home.
Extension cords are a great tool for several applications, however, they are designed for temporary use. Be careful not to overload an extension cord or wall outlet. Check your electrical cords, if they are cracked or damaged, replace them. Do not try to repair them.” – Ronald Cottrell, Assistant Fire Chief, Brentwood, MO
Can Electrical Outlets Go Bad?
Electrical outlets can and do go bad and fail. Age and type of outlet may be a big factor, especially in older homes that need to upgrade by changing electrical outlets from two prong to three prong or make the jump to GFCI outlets. Faulty wiring can play a part when outlets go bad, especially when backstabbed wiring (a shortcut for securing wires) causes loose connections, outlet failures and additional hazards. Call upon an experienced electrician when you are unsure about the reason for the outlet failure.
Electrical Shock from Outlets
Electrical outlets are a high-voltage source of electricity. Because electricity moves at a very fast rate, sometimes the initial connection can cause a very small spark until all electrons are moving freely to provide power. That is typically considered normal when it happens on occasion when plugging or unplugging a device.
The body, made largely of water, is of course a strong conductor of electricity. When the body comes into direct contact with electricity, electrocution leading to a fatality can occur. Even non-fatal shocks, many which lead to injury and visits to the emergency room, occur approximately 30,000 times each year.2
Most at risk for electrical shock from an outlet: Children sticking their fingers or a metal object such as a paper clip, fork, or spoon into the socket. Keep outlets covered when not in use!
How to Childproof Electrical Outlets – Steps To Take
The most effective safety steps your family can take to baby proof electrical outlets and reduce the threat of electrical shock come from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC):3
- Purchase safety covers for all outlets not in use
- Have an electrician check outlets and switches not functioning properly to avoid unsafe wiring condition exists and shock hazards If outlets are hot, check that appliances are not overloading the outlet
- If you don’t have a snug fit for all electrical plugs into the outlets, replace the outlet
- Install faceplates on all outlets to cover all wiring and reduce shock hazards
Electrical Outlets Sparking
The US Fire Administration notes that sparks, embers or flames from operating equipment account for roughly 2 percent of electrical fires.4 The main reasons an electrical outlets sparks include:
- Water Damage – Can water in an electrical outlet cause a fire? Absolutely. Water in an electrical outlet is very dangerous. Keep water away from your outlets.
- Short Circuits – When an abnormal connection occurs in your outlet, it may spark.
- Overloading an Outlet – Pay attention to circuits available for your outlet. Most residential circuits that have been updated have a max load of 15 or 20 amps (1800 or 2400 watts). Plugging in more may cause electricity shut off, sparking and even electrical fire.
- Outdated Outlets – Some older home have not upgraded from older outlets. If this is the case, you run the risk of units becoming loose, wiring splitting or other failures that can lead to sparking. It’s also probably time to consider changing electrical outlets from 2 prong to 3 or GFCI outlets if you have not already made the update.
- Improper Repairs – Quick fixes and DIY repairs are not recommended for electrical outlet issues where the risk of sparking could increase with fault outlet repairs.
When any of the above occur, it’s time to call an experienced electrician who can safely assess the next steps for your outlets and wiring. It may be a simple outlet replacement, or sometimes will involve additional rewiring in order to bring the property up to safe electrical outlet standards.
Any electrical outlet which may be sparking, is making a popping sound, has burn marks on it, or is hot to the touch should be checked by your local fire department to ensure the safety of all occupants and the building itself. These outlets should then be replaced… all electrical work should only be done by a qualified electrician.” – Ronald Cottrell, Assistant Fire Chief, Brentwood, MO
What To Do When An Electrical Outlet Sparks
If you do find yourself in a situation where your electrical outlet sparks, it’s best to play it safe. The recommended steps to take when this happens: move in order to prevent further hazards and damage
- Shut off the breaker assigned to the affected outlet
- Unplug any devices connected to the sparking outlet
- Call a licensed electrician to perform an inspection on the outlet
Replace Electrical Outlets With a GFCI
A top recommendation to avoid electrical outlet sparking, electric shocks or deadly electrocutions requires an update your outlets to a Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI). Simply put, GFCI outlets were created to protect adults and kids from electric shock. How do they accomplish this? By a continual monitoring of the amount of electricity flowing through the circuit. If at any time there is an interruption of current (like when a curling iron or hair dryer gets dropped into a sink or bathtub filled with water), the GFCI is designed to cut the power to the outlet, potentially eliminating the risk of shock or electrocution.
If a home has older outlets which have only two-slot outlets, only cords with two prongs should be used in this outlet. Never force a three-prong cord into a two-slot outlet. These outlets can become overloaded easily with the use of an extension cord or adapter, which can fail quickly. Consideration of replacing these outlets should be a priority.” – Ronald Cottrell, Assistant Fire Chief, Brentwood, MO
Addressing a Burnt Electrical Outlet and Plug
Brown or black marks on electrical outlets are typically a sign of a burnt outlet. If you see black or charred marks on your outlet, smell any type of burning odor near your outlets, immediately shut off your power at the circuit breaker and call certified and licensed electrician who will know how to fix a burnt electrical outlet with safety in mind.
What Causes a Burnt Electrical Outlet?
Black charred marks resulting from a burnt electrical outlet can most commonly be attributed to arcing. Arcing is the when the parts of your outlet overheat and it happens when a metal part in the outlet becomes damages or to loose. It’s a very serious issue and can happen even when a simple screw holding wiring loosens. It will in turn cause the plastic all around the electrical outlet to heat, melt and possible lead to an electrical fire. You’ll need to call an electrician immediately.
Electrical Outlet Buzzing – What’s Going On?
If you hear an electrical outlet buzzing noise, it nearly always indicates that a connection has come loose or you have a bad outlet. The buzzing sound itself is actually the alternating current you are hearing. If you’re a skilled electrician, you’ll often attempt to tighten the outlet connections behind the wall plate. It’s usually a sign you need an outlet repair or replacement.
What Does a Hot Electrical Outlet Mean
A warm or hot to the touch electrical outlet means something is not functioning correctly. It may not warrant an immediate call to a licensed electrician, but it should be investigated and remedied. Some commons causes for a hot electrical outlet include:
- AC / DC Transformer Use – Laptops and other devices that use transformers to plug in convert electric power for use, and the process can sometimes warm the outlet. When this happens, give a test by unplugging the device. If your outlet is still hot after an hour or so, it’s often a sign of a bigger issue and you should call an electrician.
- Excessive Device Use in Outlets – More devices require more electricity, and more electricity mean more heat. Try relocating devices to other available outlets.
- Damaged Outlets – Outlets do wear out and go bad, and when a hot outlet may mean the outlet is struggling to control the flow of electricity, causing it to heat up.
- Power Strip & Extension Cord Overload – Each device you plug into an outlet requires a certain amount of electricity to power it. When you utilize extension cords, you may be demanding more energy than the circuit can safely deliver.
- Space Heating Units & Other High Power Devices – The CSPC advises the following – “Use special, heavy duty extension cords for high wattage appliances such as air conditioners, portable electric heaters and freezers.”4 Most space heaters come with warnings to never plug the unit into a power strip and instead to plug the unit directly into the wall outlet. Not following this hazard warning can contribute to overheating and melting of some units, and in some cases, electrical fire.
Electrical Outlet Popping Sound – What Causes That Crackle?
When you hear your electrical outlet making a popping or crackling sound, take immediate action by turning off the power to the affected outlet at the circuit board and calling a qualified electrician to come inspect the outlet. That popping sound is nearly always the sound of an electrical spark and may lead to an outlet blowing out and causing a house fire. Keep in mind that the popping sound may not be continual. It might start up for a bit, then go away. Nonetheless, the situation should be taken seriously any time you hear your electrical outlet popping or crackling.
Can You Paint Over Electrical Outlets?
As long as the electrical outlet plate covers have been installed correctly, you can often paint over the electrical outlet. However, it’s not really recommended. Instead, tape off the outlet and avoid painting over it. You’ll want to avoid clumps of paint which can possibly clog the outlet opening. This can tempt some to force the blades of a plug into the outlet which can lead to damage, chipped paint entering into the wiring area where it can heat up, and create loose wiring scenarios which can become hazardous.
Bugs or Ants in Electrical Outlets
Ants and other insects sometimes do congregate inside an electrical outlet. When they chew through electrical wiring, it can cause a short. They also commonly build nests in tight and hidden spaces like these. When you notice an accumulation of bugs or ants in your electrical outlets, shut off the power at your circuit board. Most likely you’ll need to call an insect or pest control to handle the ants, and you’ll want to follow up with an electrician to inspect any and all damage to the wiring and outlet.
Never use an extension cord with a space heater or appliance, plug them directly into a wall outlet. Have an electrician install additional wall outlets where you need them. If you are ever unsure about the safety of an electrical outlet, contact a qualified electrician for inspection and/or repair.” – Ronald Cottrell, Assistant Fire Chief, Brentwood, MO
Caring for Outdoor Electrical Outlets with Covers & Weatherproofing
Rain, snow or excessive moisture even from morning dew can damage outdoor electrical outlets and cause fire hazards in some cases. You’ll want to use a “weatherproof while-in-use” cover and to make sure unused outlets are closed off. Your outdoor outlets should be plugged into a GFCI to prevent electric shock, electric fire hazard and electrocution.
Have more questions about electrical outlet safety or repairs? Reach out to our licensed and certified outlet electricians to get your important safety concerns addressed.
Other Related Electrical Fire Hazards
Outlets are not the only potential vulnerable fire hazard, if you have faulty wiring, damaged electrical panels, outdated lighting fixtures, or broken surge protectors you could be at a much higher risk for an electrical fire. Make sure to perform regular maintenance and inspections to stay ahead of potential problems. Many trust worthy electricians offer protection plans and regular maintenance packages to help prevent major problems. Don’t think your electrical systems are safe, ensure it by having a professional inspect it!
FAQ’s About Electrical Outlets
Electrical outlets channel immense amouts of energy for on demand use. They carry a very real risk of harm when not used correctly or are not properly maintained, repaired and replaced when issues arise. To safely tend to your outlets, call on a licensed electrician.
Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) outlets are designed with safety in mind. A GFCI outlet aim to protect people from electric shock through a process of monitoring the electricity flowing through the circuit and shutting it down when it comes in contact with water or other detectable hazards. Click here to learn more here.
Yes, older outlets or those with faulty wiring do have the potential to spark and lead to an electrical fire. It’s also important not to remove the grounding portion of a 3-prong cord in order to allow it to fit into a 2-prong outlet. This can quickly cause overheating and lead to a fire.
1. [www.usfa.fema.gov – Statistics]↩
2. [https://safeelectricity.org – Avoid Electrical Fires at Home]↩
3. [https://www.cpsc.gov – Home Electrical Safety Checklist]↩
4. [https://www.cpsc.gov – Faulty Power Strips & Surge Protectors]↩
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