How To Update Your Outlets (Step By Step Pics)

While our sunroom mojo was still running on high from accomplishing our most daring painting task to date, I quickly followed up with two small electrical updates to the room. The first is seemingly minor, but to us makes a world of difference in making a room feel new: updating outlets. It’s something that was especially helpful in a room like our sunroom where the off-white outlets just look dirty against the white trim.

A basic new outlet and cover plate can run you as little as $2-3 so it’s not a pricey update – even for an outlet-riddled room like ours (there were nine in here). And the task of replacing them is pretty straightforward too. Maybe a bit tedious, but certainly not backbreaking. So I actually put together a little graphic tutorial for easy reference if anyone else wanted to update some outlets in their home. I’m not a trained electrician so I can’t say this is an expert how-to or that it’ll work for every home out there, but so far it has served us quite well.

Switching out all 9 outlets – plus two switches – took me a little over an hour. But it made the room feel a couple decades newer to our eyes (we’ve heard of folks who spray paint their outlet covers but you can’t spray the actual outlets so in our world it was worth the $25 that we spent to update all of the covers and the outlets themselves in one long-lasting fell swoop). Oh and for anyone looking to sell, this is one of those things that’s pretty straightforward and inexpensive but is actually good for resale (it makes the whole room feel updated and even more crisp when it’s combined with fresh paint on the walls).

Now on to my less successful electrical project in the room: adding a light to the ceiling fan.

This room has no lights in it. So just as it’s sun-filled during the day, it’s pitch dark at night. So when my mom enlightened me that they sell kits to add lights to existing ceiling fans we immediately had our game plan in mind (which included this vintage-ish Ceiling Fan Light Kit found at Home Depot).

I was pretty stoked about the price of the add-on light fixture ($20) and the schoolhouse style was pretty decent too. So in my excitement I kinda sorta might’ve skipped over the directions and started taking the fan apart to see how it connected (after turning the power off to the room). It was quickly apparent that this colorful mess of wires didn’t match up with the simple black and white wires that the light kit came with.

Convinced I had purchased the wrong kind of light kit, I returned it to the store and brought a picture of my wire situation to show the lighting lady at the store in hopes that she could point me in the direction of a kit that worked for my fan.

Well, after a short discussion (that uncomfortably involved the word “nipple” a lot) she informed that I did in fact have the right kit, I just wasn’t following instructions correctly (oops). Apparently I was supposed to pop out the small cover on the bottom of the fan (see below)…

…and connect the black and white wires on the kit to the two corresponding wires in the fan. I just had missed them because they were wrapped up in a plastic bag which, had I looked more closely, was labeled “for light.” Duh.

With renewed confidence I started piecing the light and fan together. I started by screwing the light fixture’s, um, nipple into the fan cover…

…and securing it in place with a nut.

Then – in what promised to be the easiest electrical connection I’d ever done – I simply plugged the wires from the light into the ones on the fan (blue into black was correct according to the instruction I had finally cracked open).

Certain I had done things right this time, I twisted the fan cover back into place and flipped the power back on.

And nothing happened. The fan would turn on, but not the light. I pulled the chain a few times to make sure it had switched on. I flipped the switch at the wall back and forth. I disconnected and reconnected the wires a couple of times.


After some Googling I found a few other things to try. First was buying another kit from the store, just in case the one I had gotten was a bum one. Nope, still didn’t work. Then I saw somewhere that I should try hardwiring it by exposing the wires (i.e. cutting off the provided plugs) but that didn’t make it any better.

So after all those attempts (and a couple of extra trips to the home improvement store) I’ve determined that the issue is not with my light or with my fan – it’s at my ceiling. I must be one of the lucky homeowners where the original fan installer opted not to connect the wires for the light up there, figuring they weren’t going to be used since he was just installing a fan without a light kit.

So this is where Sherry and I officially called the project a bust. Sure I could buy a taller ladder or rent a scaffold to help me access the wiring that’s 12 feet up in the air, but that seemed a bit extreme for what we assumed would be a quick and easy (and inexpensive) project. So for now, here’s our solution:

Yup, it’s a floor lamp stolen from the bedroom (since we noticed that we never turn it on in there thanks to an overhead light along with two bedside lamps). Not quite as elegant of a fix as true overhead light would have been – and who knows if we’ll properly wire things down the line – but for now it works.

What sort of electrical adventures have you guys been up to lately? Did anything go super easily (cough-outlets-cough)? Or did something turn out so hot (cough-stupidfan-cough)?


  1. says

    Our ceilings are all 12 foot tall. We’ve only lived here since March, but I’m already dreading the day we have to change the lightbulbs…. the set in the living room are directly above the sofa and console table so we’ll have to move ALL that and borrow a big ladder. Maybe we’ll just move….

    • sjaustin says

      Changing light bulbs shouldn’t be too bad. You can get a changer on an extension pole so there’s no need to rearrange your furntiture for that.

    • Kirstin says

      Tall ceilings are a good excuse to put in LED bulbs, since they take many, many years to burn out.

  2. Elizabeth says

    This may have been a blessing in disguise. I’d kill to get rid of the light part of my overhead fans. It just seems so “emergency light” to me — very functional but seriously unflattering. In fact, aside from hallways, I find overhead lighting in general a little harsh

    After you furnish the room, I think you’ll be relieved to be using lamps instead! So much more lovely!

    What’s the latest with painting the brick? Still on the fence?

    • Mary says

      This was my thoughts exactly about ceiling fan lights. I have them in all rooms and never use them, unless we need ’emergency’ bright (unflattering) light for some task.

      I notice on HGTV they rarely use ceiling lighting, beyond chandeliers, other pendants and recessed kitchen task lighting. An interior designer friend told me it’s usually considered a last resort. She says the same about CFLs and other flourescents, too.

    • Michelle says

      I agree!!! I too, HATE overhead lighting. I also hate AC, so when I moved into my house last year I replaced all the overhead light fixtures with low profile ceiling fans (withOUT lights!) to help with the hot NE summers and also help distribute the heat better in the winter when we reverse the flow. In rooms where the switch does not control a wall outlet, I’ve positioned my furniture to be sure there’s a fan withing arms reach instead! Much more flattering!

  3. karen little says

    Thanks for the info! Sorry it isn’t working for you yet but know that you’ll figure it out for later. Hey, have y’all thought of just painting those outlets to match the wall color? We have done that sometimes, especially if we don’t want them to “stand out”. (I realize it’s not everyone’s “jam” as it’s harder and maybe not important….just wondering.) Love your sunroom!

    • says

      Yeah, we tend to prefer not painting over them just because they scratch off. Once we have more furniture in there (and maybe even add built-ins under the window) it’ll obscure a lot of them!


  4. Emily says

    Other people’s shortcuts suck! We’ve been replacing our electric baseboard thermostats with programmable ones! Really simple, much like an outlet cover toughtest part was finding the right breakers for a couple heaters… Oh and my son’s humidifier makes his go all wonky so we’ll have to switch that one out.

    • Donna Jean says

      oh my gosh! you can do that?! i so need to get on that. the thermostats for our baseboard heaters are probably original to the house and are either a hideous harvest yellow or black with a harvest yellow turner. and there are no numbers except for 60 and 90 and the word “COMFORT” in between. you have no idea how happy i am to have just read your comment! and to hear that it is easy is even better!

      john and sherry, do you guys have child-proof outlets or do you put covers on them? we thought we had the whole plugs are danger, danger thing down, then last week my 2 1/2 year old son almost electrocuted himself on the one non-childproof no plug cover outlet in the house! off to get some more childproof outlets! (and boy, did this mama have a good cry after that!)

    • says

      So scary! Glad everything’s ok!

      We have covers on all of them (well, we have to do these now that they’re updated, but Clara’s never in this room alone since we have to fire up the heater, etc).


    • Melanie says

      For those considering thermostat replacement, my husband (a committed DIYer and tech geek) recently replaced our old ugly thermostats with Nest, nicknamed “the learning thermostat.” Among its many cool cost- and energy-saving features is an app that allows either of us to adjust the temperature in the house…from ANYWHERE! We’ve had it for about a month now and love it.

  5. Kate says

    That stinks about the light! I always dislike fan lights anyway, they give out so little light.

    As for the outlets, the change really looks amazing. I need to do my whole house. The previous owner spray painted and now they are all chipped and horrible looking. I wish I had your drive. :)

  6. says

    So sorry about the fan! What a frustrating project. Sounds like it was a major time suck too.

    As of 2 weeks ago, we have offically replaced every single outlet, light switch, and cover in our house over a 3 year period. I’m pretty sure all were original (1959) and all were grimy and gross. No more! I also prefer to look of unpainted covers. Makes a big difference!

  7. says

    Boo! That sucks that you can’t get the light working! That would have been so spiffy! I didn’t even know those things existed. We need to do EVERY outlet in our house. We have black outlets with wood covers. Yuck- so dated. I want crisp and clean, like yours!

  8. nancyo says

    Sherry & John – can this be like a write in article asking for electricial & love advice?

    Here’s the background . My fiance has a knack for being generally awesome. He built me a 8×12 shed … from scratch, Ana White style. I am still in love and in awe of it. Lately, I have been reading up DIY Bathroom Fan project. I saw it on other blogs and given the layout of my house, it looked pretty straight forward. I own a 1-level ranch.. how hard could it be?

    On Saturday, my fiance told me he’s working on a Christmas present and to say out of the house. So, I went 50% Goodwill shopping, a yoga class, Starbucks and a trip to Home Depot (my idea of a perfect Saturday afternoon). I was told that if I see anything different to not say anything as it will eventually be a surprise and come together.

    On Sunday, I went into the guest room – flipped on the switch and noticed the light in the guest bedroom (next to the bathroom) wasn’t work. Strange. Weird. No big deal. Maybe it was the lightbulb. I checked the box, switched the bulb and everything looked fine but the light still didn’t work.

    Later, I was cleaning the bathroom and noticed the fan (shh! I didn’t say anything). But … I’m pretty sure some wires got cross when he hooked up the new fan.

    I trust him to pieces in all fascets of life .. besides electricity. I told him that if we eventually do the projects on the light that I would like to hire an electrian for piece of mind. I trust him to pieces in all fascets of life .. besides electricity and don’t have the heart to tell him I’m worried about the quality of work/electricity aspect.

    When he’s out of town, I want to hire a licensed electrician to check the wiring. Is that awful?

    Worried with wiring, (hehe)

    • says

      Hmm, that’s a toughie. If I were you I’d casually mention “I know I’m not supposed to say anything, but the guest room light isn’t working so maybe you want to tell Santa?” – that way he can check it or have it checked without feeling like you’re going behind his back? Might give him the opportunity to fix it and make sure it’s all safe without having to bring someone else in without his knowledge, you know?


  9. NancyY says

    Just in case you did decide on buying a tall ladder, Amazon is running a great sale today on the kind you would need. – Little Giant 12022, $300 off. (I don’t work for Amazon or Little Giant, just saw the sale then your post within a few clicks of each other – feel free not to post if you think it too ‘buy now!’)

  10. says

    My husband switched out a few dingy light switches this weekend too – the white plates make such a big difference!

    Bummer about the new fan/light though! I’m sure you guys will come up with something great. We moved into our house a year and a half ago and still have 3 mystery switches that seem to control nothing. I wish every house came with a blue print showing how all wires and plumbing had been connected!

    • says

      Lizzy, your mystery switches might control certain electrical outlets. One thing I learned (through trial, error, and lots of googling) while replacing our outlets and covers is that there is an extra hot wire connected to the outlets that are controlled by light switches and that there is a tab between the two hot wires that must be torn off (using pliers) in order for the light switch to work. If the previous owners changed the switches and outlets, they may not have torn off the tab, which breaks the electrical current between the two outlets to allow the outlet to turn off. If you don’t have ceiling lights in some rooms, but those rooms do have light switches, that is a good indication of the light switches contolling an outlet in that room. I’m not as entertaining as John and Sherry, nor are my pictures as pretty as theirs, but my blog (linked above if you click on my name) does have a tutorial on those particular types of outlets. Good luck!

  11. says

    When we redid our den, my husband did a lot of outlet switcheroos, updated some dangerously out of code wiring (i.e. an outside light that was plugged into an extension cord, which was then STUCK THROUGH the wall and into a plug on the inside of the house… seriously? What crazy former homeowner thought THAT was a good idea…) He also rewired the den for surround sound!

  12. says

    Ergh! I really, really need to change out the outlets in our house too! I’ll do you one better though because we still have the dark brown, 70s era outlets with white covers. It’s not pretty. I mean look at the first picture here:

    And that’s all of the outlets and light switches. I’m putting it off until… I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just cover them all with furniture and pretend they’re not there? :)

    Or maybe this post will kick my butt in gear and I’ll try the room-by-room approach. And while I’m at it I’ll change out the 70s era light fixtures in the bedroom. Or maybe that’s just getting way too ambitious. lol

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