How to Extend & Fix a Wobbly Outlet

In a perfect world, I wouldn’t do as much assuming as I do before I begin a project.  I almost always underestimate the time a project’s going to take… that I have every possible supply I could need already on hand (ha!)… and that I really won’t make that big of a mess.  I’ll be careful and aware of my surroundings.

In other words, I can be pretty stupid.

In a perfect world, I would do all of my homework before beginning a project and not just assume that two previous tiling projects make me an expert.  I would “get” that tiling a wall has a few more tricks up its sleeve, like cutting around outlets.  Sure, double-checking little details would take even longer than my projects do now (which would suck), but at least then I wouldn’t have to ride the DIY roller coaster of thinking I freaking rocked my latest project… and then realize I made a mistake that can’t really be fixed after the tile and grout have set.  Or can it?

gfci outlet

Just a few months ago, my uncle was in town and helped me to upgrade most of the outlets in the kitchen to GFCI.  I knew that I’d probably need to extend them out slightly once the tile backsplash went in.  I even bought the extenders (they are simply little plastic boxes – often blue or white – that help to push out the outlet box to bring it flush with the new wall depth).  But, clearly, I’d missed a core concept:  the little metal “ears” on each end were what kept the outlet from wiggling and wobbling around when in use.  Instead of cutting small areas around each outlet and light switch so that the ears (I keep calling them “prongs”) could sit on top of the tile with ease, I cut around them entirely.  Oops.  I should have made the tile spacing around the outlets smaller.  Thank you, Captain Hindsight.

I tried installing the extender to see if this would fix my wiggly outlet problem.  Instead, I realized I didn’t seem to really need an extender at all.  The tile was thin enough that it only changed the wall depth a tiny amount, and the extender would still have little tabs on each end that needed to sit on the wall’s surface to keep the outlet flush (otherwise, when you used the outlet, it would simply sink back into the wall, which was definitely not the way to go).  So I took the extenders back to the store and swapped them out for a package of long screws (they were just longer versions of the screws already used to hold each outlet in place).

But, the screws weren’t going to be enough.  Since the ears sat on air, it would still result in a wobbly outlet (the outlet face plates can help stabilize outlets a tiny bit, but not enough in my case).  And that’s when Carrie, my nemesis (well, in terms of DIY battle) and also my super awesome friend, came to the rescue.  She suggested these:

They’re called “Caterpillars” or “Caterpillar spacers”.  I may have audibly blurted a “hell yeah!” in the store when I spotted them (in the electrical aisle, fyi).  They’re kinda hard to miss actually – since they’re neon yellow.  The concept makes total sense… I’ve used wooden shims before all the time.  Same concept, only these are more like little plastic Legos.

There are little nubs on each piece that let you connect and stack multiple units together.  Simply cut them apart and stack them, then click them together (the directions also suggest simply folding one interlocking piece over the other and clicking together, but I didn’t find mine cooperative when they were still connected, so I just broke them apart).

(image from Toolmonger.com)

You’ll have to experiment with how many you need for each outlet, and mine were inconsistent.  Some outlets needed two, some needed three.  But you just put these between the little metal ears and the wall, thread the screw through to align all of the holes together, and tighten.

If your walls are like mine, you’ll still have to work with getting the wedge position just right (lest the little plastic pieces slip under the outlet box entirely), but it comes together in a matter of minutes.

And then you put the face plates back on each outlet, and you’re done!

gfci outlet

I know I’ve given myself some crap in this post, but I did it with a purpose in mind.  The truth is, DIY is always a learning process.  I’m never going to get things exactly right.  And while that can be frustrating, it’s also what makes the beer taste so damn good when I do finish something and it looks amazing.  And despite giving myself a lot of shit when I realize I’ve made a rookie mistake, four years of kicking up dust in this house have also taught me that most mistakes can be overcome… as long as I’m willing to get creative and see it through.  So the next time you screw up on a project, just take a deep breath and consider your options.  Chances are, in the entire history of fixing and building houses, someone out there has probably run into the same issue you have… which means that a solution is probably a little closer than you think!

Comments

  1. says

    These frustrating little jobs can be so satisfying when you finally get them done right. I wish we were at this point in our project. Our kitchen progress stopped when we found out that we had electrical problems back in March, and we still have not gotten an electrician in to look at it. Arg! Hopefully, we will be putting our outlet covers over our newly installed tile sometime before the snows come again.

    • says

      Ha, for me, it would still require a trip to the store (I don’t have any extra cable lying around). But if and when I do, I’ll definitely remember this tip! Thanks!

  2. says

    Ok, those are slick! I was an electrician for a few years and never saw anything like these. We used to coil #12 solid wire around a screwdriver and cut off whatever thickness we needed to stick behind the yoke to hold it forward. Otherwise, chopping a wire nut into a makeshift washer would do the trick. Great find!

  3. SherryD. says

    YES! I never knew those things existed. Thanks for letting us know…now off to fix my wiggle outlets.

  4. Alex Dent says

    A few years ago I needed to do the same thing and I used a stack of metal washers to achieve it, but it was a bear to get them on the screw shaft and not have them fall off into the outlet box, but with preserverence I accomplished the task. I’m going to keep this product as well as the other suggestions in mind for when I need to do it again.

  5. says

    I have never heard of these and always wondered how to get your outlets flush with a tile back splash so keeping this post hand as I will soon be putting up a back splash in my kitchen!

  6. says

    When we purchased our first house, I removed the outlet cover in our kitchen to find the outlet had been mounted in expanding foam! There wasn’t even a box behind it. It took about 2 hours to get it all scraped out. That must be a fire hazard! I’m surprised the house didn’t burn down. Since then, I’ve used these each and every time I’ve had the need. They are miracle workers!

  7. Electrician in Olathe KS says

    I’ve been an electrician for 15 years now. I have never seen those before. I have always made spacers out of a bare #12 wire and wrapped it around the round shank of a screwdriver, making it into a coil that can be cut to length. The plastic spacers would be faster. I’m going to pick some up.

  8. says

    this is another perfect example of “having the right tool for the job” – i never heard of these either, until your blog – i’m adding them to my shopping list! thanks!!!

  9. says

    Question for you (and it may be a dumb question…): did you turn off power to the outlet at the breaker box before you added all these little spacers in? I’m so glad you discovered that these exist, because as I’m renovating, I’m discovering that I need them, too!

  10. Chris says

    Hey Sarah, excellent writeup on this DIY project. Just a quick note, anytime your working with outlets or anything electrical it’s always a good idea to turn off that breaker.

    Keep the articles coming!
    Chris

Leave a Reply

Comment Policy: I love comments, especially if they make me laugh. Feel free to let your words of wisdom and humor fly (there's no swear jar on this blog), but if you're overly spammy, rude, or just plain boring, you're just going to have to accept that your comment may not see the light of day.