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What Is a Wall Outlet?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A wall outlet is a wall-mounted electrical receptacle that provides a point for consumers to plug in various electronic items. Wall outlets provide flexible access to electricity for use with a wide variety of components. Some come with special features designed for specific applications, like devices used in wet environments. It is typically easy to relocate wall outlets as well as to add more to meet household needs, although homeowners may prefer to hire an electrician to do this work.

The design includes one or more electrical sockets designed to accommodate plugs of the most common type used in a region, with a cover to limit exposure to the interior wiring. Older outlets may lack a ground, while newer ones should be grounded in accordance with the electrical code. Some include ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) technology, which cuts power to the outlet in the event of a ground fault. This type of outlet is most commonly used in wet areas where there is an increased risk of electrocution.

It is possible to connect a wall outlet to a switch, to allow people to power the outlet on and off. Outlets can also be placed on timers to limit electrical use, and may include features like separate ports for devices that use nonstandard plugs. Universal serial bus (USB) outlets, for example, allow people to connect USB devices to a standard wall outlet to charge, rather than requiring the use of a converter.

The voltage delivered to a wall outlet can vary. Some are designed for equipment like stoves and dryers, which require a higher voltage to function, and may contain a notice alerting people to the different voltage. In other cases, such equipment is hardwired directly into the wall. A standard outlet typically uses the standardized voltage common to a region, such as 110 in the United States versus 220 for circuits used to power devices like stoves. When using wall outlets in other regions of the world with devices from home, a plug converter and voltage transformer may be necessary.

Wall outlets present some safety risks. It is possible for people to electrocute themselves by sticking fingers into a wall outlet, or coming into contact with exposed plugs that do not fit outlets securely. When an outlet is not in use, it can be advisable to cap it with a plastic plug to limit the risk of electrocution. Outlets that are routinely left unused can be unpowered to reduce the chances of an electric shock.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a About Mechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By OeKc05 — On Jan 11, 2012

I have never worried too much about using an outlet with the wrong voltage. I never travel overseas, and I think the ones in hotels in this country all use the same voltage.

The label on my hair dryer says something about only plugging it into outlets with a certain voltage. I have always heard that travelers going to other countries have to be careful about this.

Every outlet I have seen for a washer, dryer, or stove has had much larger openings for bigger plugs. I would never mistake one of these for a regular old outlet.

By Oceana — On Jan 11, 2012

I would just like to say that it is very important for you to cover your wall outlets with wall plates. I had an experience lately with an uncovered outlet that left me wishing I had put the plate on sooner.

I came home from work, and the kitchen smelled like fried seafood that had been left out for too long. I sniffed the garbage, but it wasn't in there.

The smell seemed to be coming from behind the microwave. I pulled it out and found a fried mouse inside the electrical outlet! He had electrocuted himself, and that is why he smelled like fried food rather than just a plain dead mouse.

My dad told me that I am lucky the house didn't catch fire. After I cleaned up the mess, I installed a receptacle plate, so this will not happen again.

By wavy58 — On Jan 10, 2012

@Perdido – I worried about my outdoor outlet for a different reason. My new, expensive, high-efficiency washing machine is plugged into it inside the utility room, and if lightning should cause a power surge, it could destroy the appliance.

So, I bought a surge protector. It is pretty much a long, rectangular extension that goes on the outlet. It has eight extra receptacles in it, so I can plug multiple things into it.

We have a lot of severe thunderstorms in my area, so I feel much safer with the surge protector. I got another one for my home computer, because I would hate for it to get zapped. I have a lot of irreplaceable photos on there, as well as files for work.

By Perdido — On Jan 10, 2012

I have a couple of outdoor wall outlets. One is in my carport, and the other is in the parking shed next to the brick wall of the carport's exterior.

I use these outlets when I plug in my shop vac to clean out my car. I also plug in a radio so I can listen to music as I clean.

I have dogs, and I use to worry that one of them would jump up and stick his toenails in the outlet. So, I got some plastic covers for the receptacle. They stay down until you pull them up, and a hinge keeps them in place so that they can snap back in position.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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