Loose electrical outlets are annoying. They make it hard to plug stuff in and unplug it again. They cause cover plates to break, and can even cause the outlets themselves to break. In some cases, they are even a safety issue. Here’s how to fix loose outlets.
Sometimes you get lucky and this is a five-minute fix with no supplies. Even when it isn’t, you can fix this in less than 30 minutes using less than $5 worth of supplies in most cases. Sometimes you can fix it with junk you have laying around. And it’s worth doing, as loose outlets can lead to broken cover plates or, worse yet, arcs and burns.
First things first: Turn off the power to the outlet at the electrical panel before you attempt to fix a loose electrical outlet. You’ll probably have to take the outlet out from the wall, which means bare screws and wires carrying 115 volts will be exposed. Turning off the power is a smart safety precaution.
Tool-wise, you’ll need a standard, flat bladed screwdriver at the very least. You can expect to need additional tools and supplies once you get into the box and see what’s going on. You might also consider insulating the outlets while you’re working on them.
How to fix loose outlets
Now that we have safety out of the way, let’s get on with how to fix loose outlets. You may not need much more than a screwdriver and an old gift card. MacGyver lives.
Tighten the electrical outlet first
Sometimes a loose electrical outlet happens just because someone didn’t tighten the screws enough. So once you remove the cover plate, see if you can fix the problem just by tightening the screws and adjusting the speed nut that holds the outlet in place.
Shim the electrical outlet
Sometimes the box is too far back in the wall, so the electrical outlet sits too far back. The quickest way to fix this is to shim the electrical outlet. You can get special electrical outlet shims, but I just cut an old credit card or gift card into strips about 3/16 of an inch tall and drill holes about 1/8 inch in the middle. Stack up enough of these to close the gap, then put the stack on the screws and screw the outlet in. This will support the outlet against the box once you screw the outlet all the way in.
I always keep my expired gift cards after I spend them, because I end up using them to fix things like loose outlets.
If the outlet is really far back, you may need to replace the screws in the outlet with longer ones. 6-32 machine screws are the correct type to use. Standard ones are about 7/8 of an inch long, so look for screws that are around 1.25 inches long to give yourself some slack to work with. Here are some tips regarding common screw sizes for outlets.
A fix for an outlet box that’s loose or way too far back
Here’s how to fix loose outlets even when the outlet is too far back to shim with credit card pieces. It’s even National Electric Code-compliant. Get an electrical box extender. Remove the outlet, then thread the outlet and wires through the extender. Push the electrical box extender into the existing box until the whole assembly fits flush against the wall. I like to fasten it to the wall with a dab of construction adhesive just before pushing the extender all the way in. Let it set up, then screw the outlet in and replace the cover plate.
These boxes are really intended to extend outlets when you tile a wall or do something else that increases its thickness, but it will help when an outlet box comes loose, too. This is the quickest fix, by far, that doesn’t involve tearing into walls.