You may already know about smart outlets, or outlets with integrated USB ports. But you might be surprised at how many “normal” outlets you can actually buy for your house. They’re all built for different situations, and you want to make sure that your house is equipped with the right outlet for the job. Here are the different kinds of electrical outlets you can buy.
In pretty much every house where an outlet is close to a water source, you’ll likely find a GFCI outlet. GFCI stands for ground fault circuit interrupter, and it’s meant to quickly shut off power at that outlet when it detects a short circuit or a ground fault.
Normal electrical flow happens when the current comes through the hot wire and returns back through the neutral wire, but if electricity flows beyond that, the GFCI outlet will trip.
In other words, if you happen to be using a faulty hair dryer and your feet are wet, a short circuit from the hair dryer can cause the current to pass through you, to your wet feet, and into the ground, effectively electrocuting you. A GFCI outlet will kill power before the current can even remotely escape the hair dryer.
GFCI outlets are a bit more expensive than regular outlets, but they’re required to be installed in locations like the kitchen and bathroom. You can install a GFCI circuit breaker on your circuit breaker box (all houses built after 2014 should already have these), which will protect that entire circuit from ground faults, but they’re much more expensive than a few GFCI outlets. Plus, if you install a single GFCI outlet at the beginning of a circuit, all outlets following in that circuit will be protected anyway.
Another protective type of outlet that looks almost identical to a GFCI outlet is called an AFCI outlet, but it’s not quite as well known. AFCI stands for arc fault circuit interrupter, and it protects from “arcs”. Arcs happen when electricity jumps from one wire to another,. which can quickly cause a fire. Wire insulation can also prevent arcs from happening, but that old lamp of yours may have cracked insulation that exposes the wires, leaving you at risk.
Pretty much any modern house built after 1999 will already have AFCI circuit breakers installed at the circuit breaker box (or at least they should’ve been installed), but if you have an older house, you can install AFCI outlets at the beginning of every circuit, so that all outlets following in that circuit will be protected. Of course, in-ceiling light fixtures and other electrical devices not controlled by outlets won’t be protected, but that’s why you’d install an AFCI circuit breaker.
You aren’t required to add AFCI protection to existing circuits in your older house, but if you were building an addition onto your house and needed to add more circuits, those new circuits would need to be AFCI protected and up to code.
Aside from protected outlets, the different kinds of outlets don’t stop there. Most regular outlets in your house are rated for 15 amps (15A). This means that the circuit that the outlet is connected to can handle up to 15 amps of electricity. Every electronic device has an amperage rating. Most smartphones charge at around 1 amp, and tablets are around 2-2.5 amps. Microwaves use about 5 amps and larger appliances obviously use more.
However, thanks to 20A circuits and 20A outlets, you can use more power-thirsty devices without the breaker tripping, since they can support 25% more load. You’ll usually find 20A circuits and breakers in kitchens, laundry rooms, and garages, which is where most of the power-thirsty appliances are located.
If you’re not sure if an outlet or circuit is rated at 20A, a good way to tell is if the outlet has a little notch added into the left-side prong opening. This means that it’s a 20A outlet and the circuit that it’s on is rated at 20A.
A word of warning, though: You can’t simply replace a 15A circuit and outlet with 20A versions. 20A circuits use thicker wiring inside the walls, allowing it to carry more electrical current, whereas 15A circuits use thinner wiring. However, you can use a 15A outlet on a 20A circuit–just make sure that your power-hungry appliance isn’t plugged into that specific outlet, and instead is plugged into a proper 20A receptacle. Anything else can be plugged into the 15A outlet without a problem.
Do you want to be able to control the power of an outlet and turn on and off whenever you want? Some houses already have light switches hooked up to some outlets, but if not, you can get a switched outlet, which is a receptacle that includes one outlet, and a switch that turns it on and off.
Something like this can be great if you have something plugged into an outlet, but you don’t want it on the whole time. You can simply flip the switch on the receptacle to turn it on or off.
You can also use this sort of outlet to create your own switched extension cord of sorts, where the extension cord itself will always have power, but you’re adding on a second outlet that is controlled with the switch. I have something like this for my shop vac so that I don’t have to bend down underneath the workbench to turn it on and off every time. Instead, I have the shop vac plugged into the switched outlet, while other tools are always ready to go and plugged into the extension cord.
We wish outlets with integrated USB ports would just come standard in houses. However, they’re still hard to find and are rarely installed by default in new homes. Thankfully, you can easily install them yourself in your own home.
There are all different kinds of USB-equipped outlets. Perhaps the best option are ones that still come with two regular outlet receptacles, but squeeze in two USB ports for charging your mobile devices. You can also get one that replaces both receptacles with four USB ports. Both of these outlets can charge your devices up to 4 amps, so your tablets will charge at full speed.
Of course, you might be better off with just a USB wall charger, that way you don’t have to do any electrical work and you’ll still have the regular outlet there when you need it. But if you like things to be clean and streamlined, a big blocky USB charger might not appeal to you, which is where these special USB outlets come in handy.
If you want to take things to a new level in your house, you can get smart outlets, which are regular outlets, but can be controlled from your smartphone. This means that you can turn the outlet on and off from anywhere in the world using your phone.
We’ve covered a couple of different options in the past, including the Belkin WeMo Switch and the ConnectSense, but these are merely adapters that you plug into a regular outlet. Instead, you can get smart-enabled receptacles that replace any traditional outlet. You’ll need some kind of smarthome hub, since it communicates over Z-Wave, but you likely already have one if you’re even considering getting these kinds of outlets.
If you’re thinking about making some electrical upgrades in your house, even if it’s as basic as just getting some adapters, it’s a good idea to get to know what types of outlets you have around your house and what they can do and can’t do. Plus, it’s good to know whether or not a new large appliance will actually work in your house, or if it will simply put too much load on your circuit breaker. As always, you can install these yourself, but if you’re the least bit uncomfortable, it’s probably a good idea to hire a professional.