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Should You Upgrade To USB Electrical Outlets?

Not Your Parent’s Electrical Outlet

The last time your home’s electrical outlets had a significant redesign was 50 years ago, when, for safety reasons, the three-prong outlet became standard for use with all major appliances. That surprised look on three-prong’s face that we’ve all grown accustomed to has been transforming, as USB ports are built into more electrical socket designs to accommodate the multiple devices we need to charge every day.

When USB wall outlets first started showing up, they were mainly in airport terminals and hospitals. Now you often find them in hotels and even your favorite coffee bar. Chances are, you’ve plugged a device into one somewhere in recent years. They’re so easy and convenient when your phone or tablet’s battery runs low. So why haven’t you upgraded any of the electrical outlets in your home with them?

Why Haven’t You Made the Switch?

Maybe you haven’t upgraded any outlets to USB yet because you think it involves getting an electrician to your house and that’s always costly! Maybe you wonder if you really need to install USB outlets because you’ve already invested in a charging station that you placed in the most useful spot in your home. Maybe you heard USB outlets constantly draw power even when they’re not in use. Or maybe wall warts, power strips, adapters, and a bunch of dangling charging cords just don’t bother you.

Whatever your reason, here’s why it’s time to upgrade to USB outlets in certain places in your home:

You don’t need an electrician–if you’re the DIY type. You can change an outlet to a new USB receptacle in under an hour. The cost to upgrade will only be your time and about $25 per receptacle. You don’t need that charging station anymore. A USB wall outlet is a better long-term solution and aesthetically, these slim and sleek new outlets just look better. You can be expect a USB outlet to be more energy efficient than a charging station. Although USB outlets do draw a very small amount of current when not in use, you can buy one with a switch and easily turn off power to the outlet until you need to plug in a device.

Check This Before You Make the Switch

USB receptacles have a bit more to their backsides than do the standard three-prong receptacles. Follow these steps* to check that the outlet you plan to switch has a junction box that can accommodate the larger size:

  1. Use a voltage tester to check that electricity is present in the outlet. A red light on the voltage tester indicates “hot” to show the outlet has an electrical current. Watch a few how-to videos if this is your first time using a voltage tester.

  2. Next, cut off power to the room where you’d be replacing a socket via the main circuit breaker panel. To be extra safe, or if you are not sure which breaker controls which room, always turn off the power to your whole home.

  3. After turning off the power, use the voltage tester on the outlet again to ensure the current is off. The voltage tester green indicator lights up if the power is off. Then remove the outlet’s faceplate and unscrew the receptacle from the junction box.

  4. Check that the junction box for the outlet you are upgrading has about 3 inches of depth to it to fit the bulkier USB outlet. If you have an older home you may have slimmer junction boxes. Repeat steps for every outlet you want to switch. If any of the junction boxes are too small, you can either not upgrade that outlet, or call an electrician.

*If you have doubts about your electrical DIY skills, stop now and call an electrician. Better to stay safe, and keep in mind that USB wall outlets are safe when installed correctly as well.

Pro tip: You cannot switch a GFCI outlet for a USB one. USB outlets do not have built-in GFCI capability.

The Best Places for USB Outlets

Now that you know these new USB receptacles can fit in at your house, it’s time to consider all of the places where switching an outlet makes the most sense. Here are rooms where upgrading to USB works best:

  1. Bedrooms on nightstands where sleeping gadgets lie.

  2. Kitchens next to countertops but not for switching GFCIs.

  3. Living rooms by entertainment areas or near tables by a chair.

  4. Guest rooms by nightstands or nearest to the sleeping area.

  5. Home offices near to desks, or see “Gadgets” section at end of article for another idea.

  6. Garages by tool benches or sturdy shelves, but only buy USB outlets with port covers here.

Unfortunately, for now, you can’t add USB outlets outside on a porch or patio, even if your outdoor outlet has an insulated metal cover. That’s because the National Electrical Code (NEC) requires outdoor electricity outlets to use GFCI. If you have an enclosed porch, where the outlet is high off ground level, you could consult an electrician. But it may be better to simply wait for the next innovation to come along.


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