The other day we went to unplug a lamp so we could plug a vacuum cleaner in. But something didn’t quite feel right. When we looked at the plug, we could see why. One of the prongs was missing. When we looked at the outlet, the prong was still there. There’s some bad, or at least time-wasting, advice out there on how to fix a prong stuck in an outlet or socket. Here’s how we fixed it.
Let’s get the bad advice out of the way
Don’t try to use a potato. The potato trick helps you get a broken light bulb end out of a light socket if the bulb broke off. A potato won’t help you extract a prong stuck in an outlet.
What you do need is a pair of needle-nose pliers, and something you can plug into the other outlet to see if it’s working. And that should be it.
If you have both smooth jawed and serrated jawed pliers, try the one with serrated jaws. They get a better grip than pliers with smooth jaws. Smooth-jaw pliers have their uses, but this isn’t their place. You need the gripping action of the serrations.
Step by step to fix a prong stuck in an outlet
The first step is to turn the power off to the outlet. If you don’t know which breaker at your breaker box controls the outlet, plug something into it and flip breakers until it goes out. For this, it helps to either have a helper, or use something like a radio or a small TV. Turn it up so you can hear it when the power is on. Flip breakers one at a time until the sound stops.
Extracting the prong can be tricky. Sometimes they pop right out, but sometimes you have to go step by step because there may not be much material to grip. Work slowly and at different angles until you get a good grip on it. Pull straight out, just like you would if you were pulling a plug. As long as you have a good grip on it, the prong will come right out. Discard the prong when you’re done.
If the prong just won’t come out, we’ll cover that in the section after next. But with enough patience, the right pair of pliers, and a hard enough pull, it should come out.
What about the lamp?
Fixing the lamp afterward so we could use it again isn’t a difficult project either. You can do this repair on any appliance. An electrical plug is an electrical plug is an electrical plug.
To replace it, all you need is a set of wire strippers/cutters, a screwdriver, and a replacement power plug. The replacement plug should cost two or three dollars.
Cut off the damaged plug with a pair of wire cutters. Strip off about a half-inch of insulation from both wires, then twist the copper strands together nice and tight.
Disassemble the replacement plug, then thread the two wires through the hole in the plug. There are two screws inside. Bend each wire into a U shape, and loop one wire over one of the screws and the other wire over the other. Cinch the U shape closed, then tighten the screws. Slide the protective plate over the end of the plug. And that’s it. The lamp is good for years of further service.
What to do if the prong won’t come out
If the prong is stuck and you just can’t get it out, replace the outlet. It’s between 3-5 wires and three screws. If you’ve never changed an outlet before, give yourself an hour. If you’ve changed several before, you can probably do it in a few minutes.
The black wire(s) go on the brass screws on one side of the outlet. The white wire(s) go on the steel screws on the opposite side. You may have one of each or you may have two. If you have a bare wire or a green wire, it goes on the green screw on the bottom of the outlet. See the wiring diagram to the right.
If you only have one of each wire, it doesn’t matter which screw terminal you use. They are interchangeable.
Remove the cover plate by removing the single screw in the middle. Then remove the two screws holding the outlet in place.
A wiring trick
The trick when wiring an outlet is to bend each of your wires into a nice loop like the one on the right. Hook the loop onto the terminal and the wire stays in place easily. Many people skip this step and run into trouble.
Loosen the screws on the new outlet, loop the wires into place, then cinch the screws down onto each wire. The loop holds the wires firmly in place so they don’t come off when you tighten the screws or when you push the outlet back into the wall. An electrician told me about this trick when I was about 35. Learning it earlier in life would have saved me a lot of anguish.
Replacing the outlet
Push the new outlet into place. It helps to tilt the outlet about 45 degrees to the left and push up to the wall, then tilt 45 degrees to the right and push up to the wall, then push the outlet into the wall. The tilt-push-tilt-push maneuver helps fold the wires in to make room.
With the outlet in place, tighten the two screws on the upper and lower part of the outlet to hold it.
While you’re working with the electrical outlet, here’s a cheap way to remove paint from the cover plate if someone painted it. Also, I recommend you insulate outlets and consider putting a child safety cover on them to save energy and money. Doing a few little things like this saved me $171 in 2011.