It is pretty common knowledge that water and electricity together create a very unsafe environment that can cause serious harm to you and others. That’s why it’s imperative to handle the situation correctly and safely when water comes into contact with a wall outlet.
When an outlet gets wet, it can cause severe problems, including short circuits, fires, and an increased risk of electrocution. You can often receive a powerful and potentially fatal electric shock if you touch a wet outlet. When you see a damp outlet, the first thing to do is turn off the circuit breaker.
There are wall receptacles in nearly every room in most modern homes. Water from bathrooms, leaks, and spills can easily get onto a wall outlet, which can be scary if you do not know the proper procedure. Below we’ll take a more in-depth look at what happens when an outlet gets wet, how water can get onto an outlet, and what to do about it if it happens to you.
What Happens When a Wall Outlet Gets Wet?
Water getting onto or in an electrical outlet is never a good thing, but the reaction when it does occur is slightly different depending on the type of receptacle. There are three main types of wall outlets used in modern homes today:
- Standard outlets
- GFCI outlets
- AFCI outlets
Standard outdoor and indoor outlets are plain wall receptacles without added protection or interrupters. Most current electrical codes do not allow the new installation of these outlets, but you’ll often still find them in older constructions. Standard outlets are typically three-pronged and come in 120V or 250V configurations.
Water getting onto a standard outlet can be extremely hazardous. There are no safety measures on a standard outlet, which increases the risk of electrocution if you touch the area.
Plugging an item into the wet outlet can also cause a short circuit. Water conducts electricity very well, often causing the circuit to short out because of excessive electrical current flow. A standard outlet short circuit can melt electrical wiring, cause an electrical fire, and harm the device you’re plugging into the outlet.
All of that to say, a wet standard receptacle outlet can be extremely dangerous, and you should always handle the situation with extreme caution. There are no safety measures on a standard outlet, making the situation more hazardous than when other receptacles with safety measures in place get wet.
Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) wall receptacles work just like standard outlets but with an extra layer of protection to help protect people from getting electrocuted.
Almost all outlets installed in the last few years are GFCI thanks to most electrical codes requiring them over standard outlets. You can usually identify GFCI outlets by looking for two small buttons labeled “Test” and “Reset” on the front of the receptacle.
GFCI receptacles constantly monitor the amount of current reaching the outlet and detect a ground fault across the hot and neutral wires. The detection and disengagement are nearly instantaneous to cut off power.
GFCI protection does not need a ground wire to work, which is why the NEC allows old 2-prong ungrounded outlets to be replaced with GFCI without replacing the wiring.
If a ground fault is detected in the ungrounded wiring, the GFCI will cut power to that circuit until an electrician can repair it.
GFCI outlets aren’t any more waterproof than other outlets, but their safety mechanism can help prevent some of the catastrophic consequences that may occur when a receptacle gets wet.
These outlets can still short circuit, melt wires, and cause fires, but they will trip at the receptacle level, which is much faster than waiting for the breaker box to cut power.
AFCI Outlet Protection
Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter (AFCI) protection helps protect against power surges caused by arcing electricity. Arcing occurs when electricity jumps between two hot connections, often producing sparks and starting an electrical fire if left unattended. AFCI outlets monitor the current, and when it detects arcing, it trips the receptacle.
When water comes into contact with an AFCI outlet, it behaves much like a standard wall receptacle. Electrocution is a significant concern when an AFCI outlet gets wet. Plugging a device into a wet AFCI outlet can cause it to short circuit and trip the breaker.
As I’ve previously explained, short circuits can cause severe problems, including device overheating, wires melting, electrical fires, and an increased risk of electrocution.
Can Tamper-Resistant Receptacles Get Wet?
Tamper-resistant outlets are just like regular outlets, but they have two internal covers blocking the neutral and hot slots on the front of the unit. The slot covers help prevent people from accidentally electrocuting themselves, curious children. The slot covers move out of the way when you plug a device into the outlet and apply equal pressure to both prongs.
Tamper-resistant wall outlets are better at keeping water out than open-slot outlets. The internal covers on the two vertical slots create a decent seal, helping to keep out water from spills or splashes.
Tamper-resistant receptacles come in standard, GFCI, and AFCI configurations. So when a tamper-resistant outlet comes into contact with water, and the liquid makes it past the slot covers, the outlet acts according to its type described above.
How Water Can Get Into an Electrical Outlet
Now you know the basic three types of outlets found in most homes and how each reacts when it comes into contact with water. Understanding how water might get into an electrical outlet in the first place is a great way to help prevent it from happening to you.
Below are some of the most common causes for water getting into an electrical outlet:
- Spilling Water – Accidentally spilling water on an electrical outlet is typically the most common way receptacles get wet. It could happen in many ways, ranging from knocking a glass of water off a table to tripping while carrying a pitcher.
- Water Splashes – It is easy to splash water onto wall outlets in the bathroom, kitchen, or other room with water access. Electrical outlets should be a reasonable distance from sinks and showers if everything is up to code, but accidents happen.
- Water Pipe Leaks – A leaking water pipe can cause severe damage to your home, and additionally, it can cause water to leak into wall outlets. It is essential to spot and fix water pipe leaks as soon as possible to prevent long-lasting damage.
- Window Leaks – Windows are prime locations for water to get into your home. Many houses have electrical outlets right below windows, so a leaky window can easily allow water to make it to the wall receptacle.
- Flooding – Flooding can cause severe damage to your home and allow water into your home’s wall outlets. Indoor flooding is quite apparent, but flooding outdoors can cause water to seep into your foundation or walls and get into your electrical work.
Most commonly, water gets into electrical outlets when you accidentally splash or spill water in your home. However, there are plenty of passive ways that water can get into your wall receptacles, so it’s essential to keep an eye out for leaks and water damage.
If you find a way that water is getting into your home or outlets, fix it as soon as possible and take any necessary steps to prevent it from happening again in the future. Sometimes it may be required to call a specialist to help fix your water issues.
Weatherproof & Weather-Resistant Exterior Outlet Covers
There are a few different weatherproof outdoor receptacle covers that you can use to protect your exterior outlets from the elements. You may not be aware, though, that outlet covers in damp locations must have to weatherproof for safety under the National Electrical Code (NEC).
In new home construction, the NEC now requires the use of hood covers (bubble covers) that protect the outdoor receptacles on a home’s exterior, including underneath covered porches, patios, and decks. While existing homes aren’t required to meet electrical codes, it’s a good idea to change the covers for improved safety.
Traditional Exterior Outlet Covers
With traditional exterior outlet covers, the doors open on the side, leaving the outlet vulnerable to moisture when the lid is open and in use, making it susceptible to water entering the wiring. It has the potential to catch fire and trip GFCI circuits.
Traditional covers will not protect the outlet from water when open in this position, posing a hazard to your house when protection is needed most.
Hood Covers (Bubble Covers)
A hood cover (bubble cover) for outside outlets is ideal for wet places since it gives moisture protection whether or not an outlet is in use. Even when an electrical cord is inserted into an exterior outlet, the cover lowers over the outlet and covers it.
Hood covers prevent GFCIs from tripping and circuit breakers from shorting out due to water contact with the wiring of your house.
Can a Wet Electrical Outlet Cause a Fire?
Wet outlets are extremely dangerous due to the increased risk of electrocution and easily cause an electrical fire. Water conducts electricity very well, and it can cause a short circuit. Plugging a device into a wet outlet can also cause a power surge.
Short circuits and power surges are never good and can cause catastrophic damage. Both events push an increased amount of current to the outlet, possibly damaging any plugged-in devices, melting wires, and causing sparks. All of this increased heat can quickly ignite a fire.
If you notice one of the outlets in your home is wet, immediately switch the breaker to the receptacle to cut power. Once everything is safe, take the proper steps to clean up the water and fix the problem.
What To Do If Water Gets On an Outlet
Talking about how water gets into your home and what happens if it comes into contact with your outlet is excellent information, but what should you do when it happens to you? If water is in or on an electrical outlet in your home, this is what you should do.
1. Turn Off the Circuit Breaker
First, step back from the outlet and assess how much water has contacted the wall outlet. You should switch off the outlet’s breaker for any amount of water over a few drops. If it’s only a few drops on the outside of the outlet wall plate, letting it air dry or wiping it carefully with a cloth will do the trick.
You can cut the power off to the affected outlet at your home’s breaker box. The electrical panel should have proper labels, but just in case, it’s good to make sure there is no current coming to the outlet using a multimeter. If you have a GFCI outlet, you can hold down the “Test” and “Reset” buttons on the front of the receptacle to shut it off at the outlet level.
After you’ve cut the power to the wet receptacle, you can move on to drying the water up. If you’ve never worked with electrical before or are unsure, it may be a good time to call an electrician at this point to handle the situation safely.
2. Dry the Area and Fix Any Leaks
The easiest way for moderate amounts of water is to air-dry the outlet. You can leave it overnight to evaporate or place a small box fan in front of the outlet to help expedite the process. Use a towel to wipe up any remaining water on the outlet wall plate, wall, or floor.
If the damage is more severe, you may need to remove the outlet wall plate, pull the outlet from the wall, and manually dry the area. You typically must do this if water got into the receptacle due to flooding or a severe water leak. However, you’ll likely need to replace the outlet and hardware anyways at that point because of water damage.
3. Replace Any Damaged Wires or Hardware
If your outlet came into contact with a lot of water, it’s best to play it safe and replace the entire receptacle. It would be best if you replaced any water-damaged wiring (most household wiring is not rated for underwater use, but some wiring can withstand water submersion). Even small amounts of moisture can cause mold or oxidation over time so make sure everything is dry and safe.
This situation is the perfect time to replace a standard outlet with a GFI one if you are in an older home and haven’t got around to doing that yet.
Once you’ve thoroughly air-dried the outlet if the water contact was minor or replaced the unit entirely if it was a large amount of water, you can turn back on the power. Ensure no water is left on the floor, walls, or otherwise before reinstating power to the outlet.
Why Is There Condensation In Your Electrical Outlet?
Condensation in an electrical outlet sometimes referred to as an outlet “sweating,” is caused by humid air in your home. Any water in an outlet, including condensation from moist air, can cause severe problems and increase the chance of electrocution.
There are two main approaches that you can use to reduce condensation in your electrical outlets: sealing up the outlets better and lowering the humidity in your home.
You can add foam gaskets underneath the outlet wall plate to insulate the receptacle. You can get these foam cutouts at any hardware store or electrical supply center. Another option is to add spray foam around your outlet’s junction box to insulate it better.
Another way to reduce the amount of condensation in your outlets is to lower the humidity in your home. You can go about this in many ways, but increasing the air movement and ventilation in your home works well. If needed, you can also get a dehumidifier.
Water coming into contact with an electrical outlet can have devastating consequences if not handled properly. If you’re ever unsure about doing electrical work, it’s always best to call an electrician to handle the situation safely over trying to do it yourself.
Take preventative measures by looking out for possible water leaks and fixing them promptly. If you live in an older home, replace standard outlets with tamper-resistant GFCI receptacles for the best protection.