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How to Protect Outdoor Outlets

Jun 23, 2017 | Helpful Tips, Electrical Safety Tips, Electrical Services

Protecting your outdoor outlets. 

Though most outdoor receptacles include weatherproof covers to keep moisture and dirt from compromising outlets, once you plug in a device – all bets are off. Luckily, you can ensure safety with the help of a few simple, common-sense measures…

Select the right kind of outdoor outlet.

National Electrical Code REQUIRES the use of ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets for safety. You can identify these outlets by their ‘TEST’ and ‘RESET’ buttons – and by the ‘WR’ embossed on the outlet, indicating it as ‘weather resistant.’ Only this type of outlet is safe for outdoor use.

Ensure proper installation.

Be sure to install the outlet with a gasket and a cover plate, sealing the connection to the wall, or attaching a weatherproof cover (see below). Always use the proper, external mounting brackets provided with the outlet – otherwise moisture could get into the box, causing tripped breakers, melted outlets – or worse. To protect against shock as well as safeguard the lifespan of valuable tools and electronic equipment, ensure adequate ground. (Surge protectors do NOT supply grounding.) A 3-bulb receptacle tester can help you determine this – IF you know what you’re doing. If you’re not sure what you’re doing – NEVER toy with electrical yourself – enlist the help of a qualified electrician.

Add a weatherproof cover. 

The little flip up tabs that cover your outdoor electrical outlets are only enough to protect the outlet when it’s NOT in use. Luckily, the addition of a properly connected weatherproof cover can allow you use of the plug while safeguarding it against moisture – even allowing for use in the rain. Sometimes referred to as ‘flip up’ or ‘bubble covers,’ these outlet additions are now mandatory as per the National Electrical code. Typically clear or smoke-colored, they come in a variety of configurations. Designed with a deep lid and grooves allowing for device and extension cords to run out of the bottom while protecting the outlet from inclement weather, for proper fit it is essential to be sure to select one with the same configuration as your outdoor outlet type (GFCI) and outlet design (single gang/2 outlet, double gang/4 outlet, etc.).

Don’t assume safety.

Outlets already installed prior to the purchase of your home? Don’t assume they are the right kind – check them for type and proper installation!

Tips for protecting your outdoor outlets. 

Install Outdoor-Rated Fixtures

If you're installing a lighting fixture outdoors, it must be designed and built to be there. For two quick examples, a light that's under your porch roof and never gets wet needs to be rated for damp locations, or say "outdoor" on it, because it will still get damp, cold and hot, and it needs to be able to take that.

A wall fixture that goes next to your door but doesn't have a roof over it needs a higher rating -- weatherproof, weather resistant and "suitable for wet locations" are the words you're looking for.

Use Outdoor-Rated Light Bulbs

In an exposed fixture such as an outdoor flood light, most of us think of this. But it'll pay you in terms of the life of the bulb and the ease of replacing it to do the same with your porch light. If you're having trouble finding a standard bulb that's rated for outdoor use, check the fine print on some appliance bulbs. If it can survive in a freezer or an oven, it can probably survive outdoors.

Don't Overlamp a Fixture

Most fixtures, indoor or outdoor, will have a sticker or label that says "Maximum Wattage: 60W", or 75W or 100W. Whatever it says, respect that. It's there to keep you from putting in a light bulb that will overheat the wiring in the fixture, which will damage the insulation on the wires. What does matter, BTW, is the actual wattage of the bulb -- not the "incandescent equivalent." If you're putting a CFL bulb in a fixture with a 60W rating, for example, you can use one that draws any amount of power up to 60W (which would put out more light than a 200W incandescent bulb).

Use Outdoor-Rated Extension Cords

The extension cords we use indoors are made for that. They're usually light and flexible, so they're easy to keep out of the way. And they're definitely not made to stand up to getting wet. Buy and use only outdoor-rated extension cords for any temporary lighting you're connecting outside your house.

Use Decorative Lights Made for Outdoor Use

If you want to hang some lighted pumpkins or skulls or candy canes or icicles on youy eaves or porch railing, only use ones that are made to go there. The labeling should say "indoor" or "indoor/outdoor" or "outdoor." Keep the ones that say "indoor" inside. Either of the other two is built to take outside.

Watch Out for Flammable Materials

I wasn't really thinking of the materials the product is made from when I put this in my notes, but that applies too. What I was really thinking of, though, was being careful to keep lighting materials that generate heat, like many light bulbs, away from other materials that can ignite and burn easily.

An accent light under a manger to give it a glow may be just the effect you're looking for in your nativity scene, for example. But if you've also scattered a lot of hay, or straw, around the stable, the effect you get might be  a little bit different.

Install Weather-Resistant Receptacles

You should always plug temporary outdoor loads into outdoor receptacles, rather than running a cord out through a doorway or window from one of the receptacles inside your house, and those receptacles need to be weather-resistant. Even though they'll have special outdoor covers over them, the receptacles themselves need to be able to take dampness, freezing and heat without being damaged. They need to be rated as weather-resistant.

Install GFCI Protection

GFCI, or Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter, protection is one of the most important electrical safety improvements of the last forty years. We have it installed in our kitchens, our bathrooms, our garages, even our attics, crawl spaces and unfinished basements. It's required anywhere we might be plugging something in while we're grounded. And that certainly includes when we're standing out in the yard.

If the wiring that feeds your outdoor receptacle has GFCI protection from a circuit breaker or some other GFCI device upstream, you can install a standard weather-resistant receptacle in the outside box. But if it doesn't, then you need to install a GFCI receptacle there. Weather-resistant, of course.

Install a Cover for Damp Locations Under a Roof

If you have an outdoor receptacle that's on your porch or your screened-in patio or in some other location that's protected from direct protection, then you can cover it with a "trap door" cover that will close, and keep it protected, when nothing id plugged into it -- and it's OK, then, to plug something into that receptacle and leave it there for a few days. These covers will be marked "Suitable For Damp Locations."

Install a Cover for Wet Locations in the Open

If your outdoor receptacle isn't under a roof or some other protective cover. it needs to have a special cover, known as as "in -use" cover, over it. As the name implies, these covers will keep the receptacle, and the plug that's in it, dry -- even in the rain.

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