How to Understand Different Types of Outlets

An electrical outlet is the receptacle for the plug of an electrical device or appliance [source: Merriam-Webster]. Outlets can come with one, two, or three receptacles where one, two, or three appliances can be plugged in. There are various types of outlets available, so it’s important to know the differences between them before you attempt to rewire your house.

Fortunately, we will explain the different types of outlets you’ll encounter in your home’s electrical system. We’ll also discuss tamper resistant outlets and smart outlets, while making you aware of electrical hazards you can avoid.

Standard receptacles are the regular outlets that are found throughout the rooms in your house. You can plug nearly all small household appliances, such as TVs, radios and computers into a standard outlet. These outlets supply 120 volts of electricity and will usually contain holes to accommodate two- or three-pin plugs.

GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupt) receptacles are standard in kitchens and bathrooms, or any place where the area can get wet. They are recognizable because they have two narrow slots and a semi-circular hole. GFCI outlets have a built in circuit breaker, so if water does get into the outlet, the outlet will be shut down without shorting the rest of the house.

GFCI outlets have a black button and a red button. The black button can be used to test the outlet and the red one is used to reset the outlet should it go down.

Dryer receptacles are outlets that are specifically designed for dryers. This is because dryer outlets have pins for both 120 volts and 240 volts. These outlets have either three pronged outlets or four pronged outlets.

If the dryer requires 120 volts its plug will have three pins and if it requires 240 volts the plug will have four pins. Building codes now require that all new homes be built with four-hole dryer receptacles.

Electric cooking ranges require more electricity than other appliances. These receptacles are designed to provide enough electricity for electric range cookers, and should always be attached to its own a circuit breaker [source: Do It Yourself].

Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter (AFCI) outlets are advanced electrical devices designed to enhance safety by detecting and protecting against arc faults, a type of electrical discharge that can occur in damaged or deteriorating wires and connections.

Unlike standard circuit breakers that protect against short circuits and overloads, AFCI outlets are specifically designed to sense a wide range of arcing electrical faults, which are potential fire hazards.

When AFCI outlets detect an arc fault, it immediately interrupts the power, thus preventing the arc from causing a fire. These outlets are particularly important in older homes where wiring insulation might be compromised.

These are electrical outlets that include one or more USB ports in addition to the standard AC power sockets. Their primary function is to provide a convenient way to charge devices that use USB charging, like smartphones, tablets, and certain cameras, without needing a separate adapter.

Smart outlets represent a significant advancement in home automation technology, integrating the convenience of modern living with the efficiency of energy management. These devices plug into traditional wall outlets, transforming them into smart, controllable points via a smartphone app or voice command through smart home assistants.

With features like remote control, scheduling, and energy monitoring, smart outlets allow users to manage their home appliances and electronics more effectively. For instance, you can set a schedule for lights to turn on or off at specific times, or remotely turn off an appliance you accidentally left on.

Monitoring power usage is another key feature. It enables users to track power consumption, identify energy-hungry devices, and potentially reduce electricity bills. Additionally, smart outlets enhance home safety by offering a way to turn off devices that might be hazardous if left on unattended.

A tamper resistant receptacle is an innovative and crucial safety advancement in electrical fittings, designed specifically to prevent electric shock and injuries, especially in households with small children. These outlets are engineered with spring-loaded shutters that close off the contact points or slots of the outlet. The shutters only open when equal pressure is applied simultaneously to both shutters, as occurs when plugging in a standard plug.

This design effectively deters common household items like keys, paperclips, or curious little fingers from being inserted into one slot, significantly reducing the risk of electric shock. Beyond their safety benefits, tamper-resistant outlets are also simple to install, requiring no additional wiring or complex procedures, making them a straightforward upgrade from standard outlets.

Dealing with electrical outlets can pose several hazards if not approached with caution and proper knowledge. They include:

One of the most common risks is electrical shock, which can occur when a person comes into contact with an energized part of the outlet or a connected appliance, especially if the outlet is damaged or improperly wired.

A grounded plug or ground pin plays a crucial role in preventing electrical shocks by providing a safe pathway for stray electrical current.

Another potential danger is electrical fires, which can be caused by overloaded circuits, short circuits, or using appliances with frayed or damaged cords. An electrical outlet that is old, has loose connections, or is not fitted with appropriate safety features like GFCIs, can also increase the risk of accidents.

Water exposure near electrical outlets heightens the risk of shock or fire, hence the critical need for GFCIs in damp or wet areas. DIY electrical work without adequate expertise can lead to improper installations, creating latent hazards.

Therefore, it’s vital to ensure that electrical outlets are regularly inspected, maintained by qualified professionals, and used with care to minimize the risk of these hazards. You can also seek out weather resistant outlets to reduce your risk.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

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