How to install an electrical outlet

        The harnessing of the electron to power the myriad conveniences and wonders of modern life is one of humankind’s greatest achievements, and underpins like nothing else the explosive technological progress of the last century and a half. Sadly, most people have only the vaguest idea what electricity actually is, and are often overcome with self-doubt at the thought of undertaking even simple electrical improvements. In this article, we will confront those fears head-on as we walk through a typical project.
         The first step is to become more familiar with electricity.
         According to the de Broglie hypothesis – one of the cornerstones of quantum physics – electrons and indeed all objects have both a wave and particle nature, though it’s not really noticeable in anything bigger than an atom. However, there are two interesting points to keep in mind about that as we install our outlet (the actual process of installing an outlet is painfully dull, and the twists and turns of the de Broglie hypothesis, which has a lot to do with electrons, which in turn have everything to do with electricity, will give us something to think about while we’re drilling holes and such): First, in the category of all objects, we can ipso facto include ourselves; second, it’s entirely possible that we haven’t noticed the wave/particle nature in anything large (such as ourselves) because we’re just not looking in the right place. After all, each of us contains quite a few electrons jiggling around amidst all the other stuff, and they must have some effect – mentally if not physically. Perhaps all those jittery electrons have something to do with those persistent, unsettled feelings about life that so many of us are plagued with? Food for thought.
         But back to the task at hand, tedious though it may be.
         Pick a location for your new outlet, then remove the cover plate from the closest existing outlet, which is where the power for the new outlet will come from. Remove the screws that attach this outlet to the plastic or metal electrical box and then pull the outlet outwards by the rabbit ears at the top and bottom. Now, before you have time to think much about consequences, spread your thumb and forefinger and grasp the outlet right at the two opposing screws that the bare wires are wrapped around. Direct, immediate action is necessary here. No hesitation.
         (One tiny caution – make sure you’re not standing barefoot in a puddle of water when you do this.)
         In slightly less than an instant, if you’ve followed the instructions correctly, you will feel an intense jolt travel up your arm and through your entire body. Many first-timers find themselves flung violently backwards, without conscious volition. This is a completely normal response; only serious adepts are able to hold on for more than a fraction of a second.
         Your initial thought as you lie twitching on the floor may be something like “Owwwhh!!!” Some liken the sensation to being tickled, except multiplied a thousand-fold and without any feeling of hilarity. But take a deep breath, focus and push deeper. Look through the pain: notice how in that moment all your ordinary consciousness, all your inner uncertainty and pointless worrying about life simply dissolved into nothingness – was swept entirely away. There are equations describing this, but in non-mathematical terms, what essentially happened is that an elemental force that began it’s journey in the first instant of the big bang and will end it when time dies took a sudden detour through your tender flesh.
         Quickly, as the last tingles slowly fade away, ask yourself: "Was I wave or particle just then?" If you think you know the answer, contact the nearest physicist and tell them "de Broglie sent me." They'll know what to do. De Broglie himself is long gone, but quantum physicists have a legend that every time someone understands what he was talking about, two wandering protons suddenly collide in a particle accelerator somewhere, and from their splattered remains a beautiful new data set is born.
         Once you are able to stand again, turn off the circuit breaker and remove the outlet from the box. Don’t be gun-shy about this. Best to jump back on the horse that threw you, as the old expression goes.
         We all tend to compartmentalize the world around us, separating it into “I” and everything else – as if we were just tourists strolling through it, admiring quaint scenery from a safe distance. The direct experience of electricity breaks through this barrier. Perhaps this compartmentalization was an important evolutionary adaptation back in the days when much of the scenery wanted to eat us. But is it still necessary? Most philosophers argue that really this separation is false – that the sense of “I” is simply an illusion created by a relative handful of neurons in our brain. Modern science too is quite clear that on a basic atomic level there really isn’t much difference between a human and, say, dirt. Just two different structures built from the same tiny lego blocks. Therefore, as you putter away at your outlet, you might find it fruitful to ask yourself, “What was ‘I’ just now? Where did ‘I’ go?”
         Incidentally, you may have discovered by now (and I probably should have told you) that, through carelessness, poor handwriting, or occasionally actual malice, circuit breakers are often not accurately labeled and that the outlet which you thought was safely unpowered is still very much so. This happens, even to the most experienced, but it gives me an opportunity to introduce a little fun into the job. 
         Lawyers and old maids would have you believe that the only certain way to locate the circuit breaker for a given outlet is to check the wires with a non-contact voltage tester as you flip the breakers. That will certainly work, but here’s a more exciting way.
         Cut a foot or so of wire from a roll and strip an inch of the insulation from both ends. Bend the wire into a U shape and hold one end against the silver-colored neutral screw on one side of the outlet. Now carefully touch the other end to the gold-colored hot screw on the other side of the outlet.
         As soon as the wire makes contact there will be flash of light and a small but exciting explosion. Too quickly for human eyes to see, the tip of the wire will fuse with the screw. Assuming you’re holding the wire by the insulated part, there’s little danger to you, so relax and enjoy the fireworks. But entertainment value aside, creating a short circuit will immediately flip off the mystery circuit breaker, allowing you to locate and label it confidently without wasting time on trial and error.
         With the outlet finally powered down, disconnect all the wires and remove the metal or plastic box housing it. If the box is nailed to the stud, cut the nails with a hacksaw blade or reciprocating saw. Pull the box out, then cut a new hole further down the wall for the new outlet.
         The next step is to fish a length of wire from the old outlet to the new outlet location. This can be tricky, and since every house is different, you’ll have to figure it out on your own. I’ll share a story about running wire, though, that might give you some ideas. A friend of mine was trying to run wire for a three-way switch through 15 feet of 2 x 4 stud wall, and not having much luck. There was a thick concrete slab below him, so dropping the wire down to a basement and across was not an option. The roof above was constructed of 4-inch thick, tongue-and-groove, Western Red Cedar (D grade and better), which imparted a pleasant cedary smell to the house but left no room at all for wires. The wall on one side was covered with priceless antique wallpaper and obviously could not be chopped into, while the other side was paneled in extremely rare, crotch-grained, flame-pattern Costa Rican mahogany panels so securely fastened to the wall that my friend, even after an hour of study, could see no way of prying them loose without destroying them.
         After pondering the problem for the better part of a morning, my friend finally became so frustrated that he impulsively jammed his .44 Magnum into the hole in the wall where the old switch had been, aimed it at the center of the next stud, and fired. The recoil shattered his wrist and he lost consciousness for a bit, but when he came to, lo and behold, there was a clear path for the new wire all the way through the wall. There was some collateral damage, of course, as is to be expected when you use such a powerful weapon indoors, and I can’t by any means recommend this method, but the point is that sometimes you have to look for creative solutions for these problems.
         So, get the wire through the intervening wall somehow or other, screw the new box in place, then attach the wires to the outlet – white neutral to silver screw, black hot to gold screw, and bare ground to the screw at the bottom. Close everything up, flip the breaker on, and you’re done. Nothing to it really.