How to Upgrade Your Outlets for USB Charging

When you have more than one or two gadgets, the outlets near that kitchen counter can get very cluttered. If you want to clean things up, you can upgrade your outlets to support not just standard 120-volt power cords but 5v USB charging too.

Warning: This is a project for a confident DIYer. There’s no shame in getting someone else to do the actual wiring for you if you lack the skill or knowledge to do so. If you read the beginning of this article and immediately visualized how to do it based on past experience wiring switches and outlets, you’re probably good. If you opened the article not sure how exactly we were going to pull this trick off, it’s time to call in that wiring-savvy friend or electrician. Also note that it may be against the law, code, or regulations to do this without a permit, or it might void your insurance or warranty. Check your local regulations before continuing.

If you like the idea of streamlining your USB charging but you can’t perform the upgrade yourself, don’t want to pay an electrician to do it, or you’re a renter or apartment dweller who can’t change the wiring of your home, you should definitely check out our guide to USB charging stations–it’s all the USB charging goodness without any risk of electrocution.

How to Select An Outlet Upgrade

Although combination 120v/USB outlets were a complete curiosity even a few years ago, you can now find them everywhere from online retailers to big box home improvement stores in a wide variety of styles, shapes, and configurations.

There are so many on the market, in fact, that it can be a bit bewildering to pick through them all and decide which to select. Let’s take a look at some basic considerations to ensure you get not only the right outlet for your needs, but one that will keep you and your gadgets safe.

Safety First: Buy Name Brand UL-Rated Products

We’re going to echo a sentiment we’ve emphasized in other articles, including our recent USB charging station guide: safety matters. When it comes to buying something like an iPhone case, a cheap $10 knock-off may be fine. When it comes to equipment that connects directly to the electrical mains of your home, however, cheap knock-off equipment can, at best, damage your gadgets and, at worst, kill you.

With that in mind, we cannot encourage you enough to look at safety certifications. You should expect to pay anywhere from around $20-$40 for an outlet upgrade, and and we recommend you either purchase the outlets in person at a local retailer or purchase UL-rated and favorably-reviewed outlets from reputable online retailers like Amazon. This Top Greener dual outlet/dual USB outlet ($20) is a perfect example: it’s UL-rated, very well reviewed, and has high-amp charging on both ports.

Amps Matter: Get Enough Juice for Your Gadgets

We mention amps a lot when talking about USB-related topic, and with good reason. Whether you’re talking about battery packs or wall chargers, the amount of amperage a charger can put out determines how quickly you can charge your devices. A lightweight 1A connection might be fine for topping off your Kindle, but it’ll take much longer than a 2A connection to charge your iPad (and in some cases certain high-demand devices just don’t charge correctly with low-amp chargers).

When shopping for a USB charging outlet, look for the amperage rating for the USB outlets. The outlet itself will have a 15 amp rating, but this is for the 120v AC side of things, not the 5v DC system that charges the USB devices. If the company does not specify the individual amperage per port (e.g. “2A per USB port”)  then divide the total listed amperage across all the ports (e.g. the amperage listing is 4A and there are 2 ports therefore each port can draw 2A).

Port Numbers: Dual Use vs. Dedicated Outlet

USB charging outlets come in two flavors: 120v outlets + USB ports, and all USB ports. In the former, you can use both standard plugs and USB plugs, and in the latter the entire outlet becomes dedicated to USB charging. We recommend against going with a totally dedicated USB outlet unless you have a compelling reason to do so.

The typical configuration for dual use dual is to squeeze the USB ports into the empty space between the two 120v outlets as seen above on the left. Rarely, outlets are configured with two USB ports on the top and a single power outlet on the bottom, seen in the middle above. Finally, dedicated USB outlets devote the entire face of the outlet to USB charging and offer 4 ports, seen above right.

Unless you happen to have a situation with abundant outlets (like a modern kitchen with outlets spaced all over the counter back splash) it doesn’t make a lot of sense to convert an outlet to a purely USB charging station.

Physical Size: The DC Transformer Goes Somewhere

Our final consideration is the size of the replacement outlet. Standard outlets are very skinny (only about as deep as your thumb is wide). Upgraded outlets with integrated USB charging are much thicker.

In the photo above you can see how the USB-enabled outlet on the left is roughly twice as thick as the standard outlet on the right. What you lose on the outside of the outlet (all those clutter-creating USB chargers), you essentially shift to the guts of the outlet by packing the AC-to-DC transformer into the outlet box.

In newer homes (or older homes with upgraded electrical systems) this shouldn’t be any issues at all as modern outlet boxes are deep enough–it’s a tight but not unmanageable fit. In older homes with shallower outlet boxes, you’ll need to replace the old in-wall box with new one to accommodate the bulky upgrade.

How to Install Your USB Outlet

Again, before proceeding, we want to emphasize that this is a project for a confident DIYer.If you don’t know what you’re doing, contact a licensed electrician (or at least a very DIY-savvy friend) before continuing.

For the purposes of this article we constructed a mock (but operational) electrical wiring setup using some scrap wood and basic electrical components, seen above. This setup is identical to what you’d find in a modern home (sans the drywall of course).

Step One: Turn the Circuit Off for Safety

The very first order of business is to disable the electrical circuit you are working on by turning off the circuit at the electrical breaker box. If you don’t know which circuit a particular outlet is on because the labeling in your breaker box is missing or ambiguous, you can always turn off the whole-house circuit breaker.

Confirm, at the outlet level by plugging in a lamp or outlet tester, that the electricity is off before proceeding and instruct everyone in your residence that you are working on the outlet and the electrical panel is not to be touched.

Step Two: Remove the Old Outlet

Now that we know everything is safe, the next step is removing the old outlet. The most important part of this step is paying close attention to how the wiring was attached to the old outlet. Digital cameras are your friend: grab your camera or smartphone to snap pictures of the process in case you need to jog your memory.

Remove the faceplate with a screwdriver, and then unscrew the longer screws holding the actual outlet into the box. At this point your setup should look more or less like the photo below.

The way your wiring is attached to your outlet can vary based on the outlet design. Some outlets have side screws, some have side screws with little clamping plates, and some outlets even have a peg-style system in the back where the wiring is inserted straight into the outlet. Using a screwdriver, carefully release the pressure on the wiring and remove the outlet from the box.

At this point you should have a setup similar to the one see above. At minimum you should have a hot wire (black), a neutral wire (white), and ground wire (green or bare) but you may have two sets of wires if the outlet is in the middle of a series.

Depending on the style of box, the ground wire will either be part of the wire bundle (for plastic boxes) or a small separate wire grounded directly to the box (for metal boxed/cabled outlets where the box itself is part of the ground). As a side note, if you do not have a ground wire in your box (either as part of the wiring bundle in a plastic box or wired directly to a metal box) please consult with a qualified electrician to get your outlets properly grounded.

Step Three: Install the New Outlet

If you’ve made it this far, the final step is the easiest: you just reverse the whole process, but with the new outlet.

Reattach all the wires to your new outlet. The black wires attach to the brass screws, the white wires attach to the silver screws, and the ground wire attaches to the green ground screw. In the photo below, taken midway during the installation process, you can see that we have attached the black-to-brass, the white-to-silver, and are about to attach the ground wires to the green screw located on the bottom of the outlet box.

Once you have properly attached the wires and there is no cross connection between any bare wires of mismatched colors (e.g. bare white can touch bare white but the bare ground wire should not be touching the white or black exposed wire or terminals), gently push the outlet back into the outlet box and snug it down using the outlet screws.

Reattach an appropriately sized outlet face plate (you’ll note that we had to replace our two-hole outlet plate for a large single-hole rectangular plate to match the new outlet) and you’re in business. Plug in your USB cable, attach your device, and wall-wart free charging is at your fingertips.

Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.