Tamper-resistant electrical receptacles provide built-in childproofing

Plug-in plastic safety covers have long been an essential part of reducing hazards in a home with young children. By covering up electrical outlets, the covers prevent children from sticking items into the receptacles and getting an electrical shock.

Unfortunately, these plastic plugs have several shortcomings as well. You'll need to take them out whenever you need to plug something in, at which point they can be misplaced or lost. The covers can also be a choking hazard.

Another option is sliding receptacle covers, which cover up an outlet until it's ready to be used. However, children can learn how to manipulate this device by watching their parents.

Tamper-resistant electrical receptacles have become a more permanent and standardized method of childproofing. The National Fire Protection Association says this device has been required starting with the 2008 edition of the National Electrical Code, both in newly built homes and renovations. Starting in 2017, tamper-resistant receptacles have been required in any properties where children are likely to be present, including any new houses and apartments.

The receptacle works by blocking the openings in the receptacle with plastic shutters until a plug is inserted. The Electrical Safety Foundation International says the shutters will only open for a two-bladed or grounded plug. If a child tries to insert an object into one of the openings, the shutters will stay closed.

The shutters can offer some resistance when they are first installed, but the receptacle will be easier to use over time. Christopher Maderazzo, writing for Angie's List, says the shutters are spring-loaded and must receive equal pressure from the prongs of the plug before they open.

A shutter may not open if you provide unequal pressure when plugging in an object. The National Fire Protection Association says the force required to insert a plug can vary depending on how new the receptacle is as well as the shape of the plug.

If a plug cannot be inserted into the receptacle, the problem likely stems from the plug instead of the outlet. The Electrical Safety Foundation International says this issue can occur if a prong is bent, uneven, or has developed a sharp edge.

Upgrading your home's outlets to tamper-proof receptacles isn't a costly job. Maderazzo says the receptacles add about 50 cents per receptacle to the cost of installation. The magazine Family Handyman says each receptacle costs about a dollar.

If you live in an older home and have small children, you may want to upgrade your outlets. Richard McGarry and Greg Madsen, a Florida home inspection team, say you can check to see if you already have tamper-resistant receptacles by looking at the slots where a plug is inserted. Tamper-resistant receptacles are typically stamped with the letters "TR," and the plastic shutter is visible behind the slots.

You can hire a licensed electrician to complete the upgrade, but you can also swap out the receptacles on your own if you are comfortable working with your home's electrical system. Family Handyman says you should first turn off power at the circuit breaker. You can use a voltage detector to make sure the flow of electricity has been shut off.

After removing the outlet cover, detach the old receptacle. Connect the wiring to the tamper-resistant outlet, connecting the black (hot) wire to the brass or gold colored screw, the white neutral wire to the silver screw, and the bare grounding wire to the green screw. You can then place the outlet back in the wall and reattach the plate.

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