Why Backstabbed Outlets Are Bad (Are They Safe Or Unsafe?!)

You may have heard the term ‘backstabbed’ used when referring to an electrical outlet, but please don’t think someone is trying to be funny or that the wires had a fight and went behind each other’s back to betray the other, it’s not that kind of back-stabbing. Backstabbing wires in an electrical outlet is serious and is a shortcut taken by some when securing the wires on an outlet or switch.

Backstabbed outlets are unsafe. An outlet has been backstabbed when the white neutral wires and other hot wires (e.g. black, red, blue or yellow) are not screwed down but rather pushed into the small holes at the back of an outlet. This is a potential fire hazard and can cause other damage.

The practice of backstabbing outlets needs to be identified in homes, especially older homes, and corrected. To fully understand backstabbing and the dangers of it, and how to make your home safe again, arm yourself with knowledge and information. Knowing about and correcting backstabbed outlets may even save your life!

What Are Backstabbed Outlets?

Backstabbed outlets are ones where the wires on the back of the outlet have been stripped and pushed into a connector on the back. This connector only loosely holds the wire in place and is done as a shortcut, or to save time, rather than removing the whole outlet from its casing and screwing the wires to the terminals on the side.

Because the wires are ‘stabbed’ in rather than screwed down they are not as secure as they could be. The wires will not generally move, but they are not as secure as those that are screwed down. In most cases this is okay as the outlet should never be moved, but in some cases these wires can move or even fall out, especially when the wires move for some other reason.

When Were Backstabbed Outlets Commonly Used?

Backstabbing outlets was common and popular in the 1970s and 1980s, but it is still a common enough practice today. As backstabbing outlets was approved by many governing bodies as well as being an easier and more convenient way of installing the outlets it was a common practice at that time. As more and more problems arose with backstabbing outlets, however, this was revised and outlets with 12-gauge wire were no longer allowed to be backstabbed, but outlets that use 14-gauge wire are still allowed to be backstabbed.

Why Backstabbed Outlets Are Bad

An electrician working on an outlet
An electrician working on an outlet

For safety, when wiring an electrical outlet, all the wires need to be securely in place. With backstabbing, however, it cannot be guaranteed that the wires will remain secure. Because of this, problems may occur.

The holes for backstabbing contain a small piece of metal called a “blade”, this blade connects the wire inside the hole to the rest of the receptacle, connecting the wire and the device.  Compared to wrapping the electrical wire with a fastened screw, the connection between the blade and the wire is minimal.

The pressure inside the hole between the blade and the wire is the only connection the wire has. When the device is used, it warms and cools and is jostled slightly. Given enough time, these activities may loosen the connection with the blade and the wire may even fall out.

Should those wires come loose they can cause:

  • An electrical fire because of shorting and sparks if they connect or come too close to other wires.
  • Complete loss of power or interrupted power in the outlet. Other outlets in the circuit may also be affected because of shorting or tripping.
  • Physical damage to the outlet is caused by increased heat that can melt or singe wires and other parts of the outlet.

Are Backstabbed Outlets Safe Or Unsafe?

Backstabbed outlets are generally considered unsafe by professionals. There is no guarantee that a backstabbed outlet will cause a fire or damage, but there is a higher chance that it will do so compared to an outlet where the wires are screwed in securely.

Backstabbed outlets are less safe because the longer the wires are left backstabbed the higher the chance of a loose wire causing a fault.

So, if an outlet has been fine for several years is it okay to leave the backstabbed outlets, or should the wires be pulled out and screwed down? When it comes to taking shortcuts with electrical equipment it is always better to take the safest route and correct any known problems.

Because backstabbing outletsis now commonly considered a shortcut and hazardous rather than the best way to wire an outlet it is best not to leave it as it is. Because these outlets will already have the screws on the receptacle there is no cost implication for the equipment, although you may need to call an electrician to change them over. As soon as you are aware that outlets have been backstabbed it is best to have the wires screwed down for safety and peace of mind.

How To Convert From Backstabbed Outlets To Better Alternatives

Someone installing multiple wall outlets
Someone installing multiple wall outlets

If your outlets have screws that the wires can be attached to and are in good repair, you may not need to convert them, you may prefer to simply have the wires moved.

First, you will need to check your outlets to confirm if they have been backstabbed.

To do this, follow these instructions:

Step 1: Switch off or cut the power to the outlet at the electrical panel.

Step 2: At the outlet remove the screws on the cover plate. Unscrew the receptacle from the receptacle box.

Step 3: Check the back of the receptacle to see if any of the wires connected are inserted into any of the small holes in the back of the receptacle. If they are, these wires have been backstabbed.

Second, you will need to remove the wires from the backstab holes and screw them down in the correct place on the receptacle.

If you know how to do this, make sure there is no electric current going to the outlet and do so. You may prefer to have an electrician do it as many outlets are wired in a more complicated way and could need a professional.

If, however, the outlet is old or in bad repair or does not already have screws, the better alternative is to completely replace all the receptacles with back-wire only receptacles. These often have screw clamps that will hold wires securely in place and are guaranteed not to come loose or fall out.

Before purchasing a home, make sure the home inspector has checked for electrical wiring issues in the home such as backstabbed wires, and corrected these.

Conclusion

Backstabbing wires in an electrical outlet is a shortcut taken by some when securing the wires on an outlet or switch. Because the wires are ‘stabbed’ in rather than screwed down they are not as secure as they could be, posing a hazard or risk. The wires do not always move, but they are not as secure as those that are screwed down making backstabbed outlets far less safe than screwed down wires in outlets.

Backstabbed outlets are generally considered unsafe by professionals. The practice of backstabbing outlets needs to be identified in homes, especially older homes, and corrected as soon as possible to keep peace of mind. When it comes to taking shortcuts with electrical equipment it is always better to take the safest route and correct any known problems.