How to Test an Outlet

When electrical issues arise, these quick receptacle power tests will come in handy. We'll show you how to measure voltage, conduct a polarity test, and more.

Ever wonder if power is actually reaching an outlet? The voltage reading on a multitester or multimeter can tell you. Properly used, your multimeter also can tell you whether the white and black wires are reversed, whether the receptacle is properly grounded, and which cable entering the box feeds power to the outlet. If you don't have a multimeter, you can use a voltage detector in place of the voltmeter and a continuity tester in place of the ohmmeter. If a problem arises, usually you can diagnose it by running only one or two of the following tests.

Editor's Tip: You conduct most of these tests with the power on, so work carefully. To be safe, hold both meter probes in the same hand so that a shock doesn't pass through your body.

How to Measure Voltage

Set a multimeter to measure voltage. Insert a probe into each slot to measure the line voltage. A properly working outlet gives a reading of 110 to 120 volts. If there is no reading, check the wiring and the outlet.

How to Check for a Properly Grounded Outlet

A properly grounded outlet registers voltage when one probe of a voltage detector is inserted into the small outlet slot and the other probe is placed on the receptacle's center screw. If the light fails to light, the outlet is not properly grounded. Conduct a polarity test.

How to Test the Outlet

Before you begin, turn off the power. Then disconnect the outlet from the wiring. Set your multimeter to ohms and put a probe into one of the outlet slots and the other probe on the nearest terminal screw. The meter should indicate continuity. Test the remaining slot and terminal. Test the ground slot to the grounding terminal.

How to Determine the Hot Cable

When two cables enter a box, one leads to the breaker or fuse box; the other carries power to other devices on the circuit. To determine which is the hot cable, turn off the power, disconnect the outlet, and place caps on all the wires except one black one. Turn the power back on, and touch a probe to the ground wire or the box and the other probe to the black wire. If you get a reading, it is the hot wire. If not, it is the wire leading to the other devices. To double-check, turn off the power, move the cap from one black wire to the other, turn the power back on, and test the uncapped wire.

How to Conduct a Polarity Test

Insert one probe into the large slot and the other against the screw (scrape off any paint to insure a good contact). If the voltage detector lights, the hot and neutral wires are reversed. If the light doesn't light with the probe placed in either slot, the wiring should be checked further.


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