Here’s how to check your electrical outlet:
1. Grab your digital multimeter. (Need a new one? Check out our multimeter page.)
2. Multimeter settings: Set the dial to AC Voltage or VAC. Note the maximum voltage for each setting, household current is approximately 120 volts, set the dial accordingly.
3. Connect the probes to the proper inputs: COM for the black lead and Volts for the red lead.
4. Carefully insert the red probe into the right slot of the outlet.
5. Carefully insert the black probe into the left slot of the outlet.
6. Examine the readout on your meter, this should show your household voltage.
These diagnostic steps are used to help locate electrical problems in a number of different sources. A digital multimeter gives automatic, quick readings that display VAC (volts alternating currents), VDC (volts direct current), and ohms. When being used in your home you will need to use the VAC reading available on the device, because you are looking for a measurement of Alternating Current Voltage.
So, to reiterate:
The first step when testing an electrical outlet is to locate the multimeter’s connector labeled “volts” and insert the red lead into it. Next you will need to connect the black lead, this is done by connecting it to the “com” label. Note – The red lead may have a red ring around the connector and the black lead may have a black ring. As mentioned above, you will be using the “VAC” or volts option on the multimeter. So make sure the digital multimeter is on this setting. Each multimeter is different which means yours may read 0.0 VAC, VAC, or only 0.0. Once this is set, you are ready to begin testing.
Now it’s time to insert the red lead into the vertical slot of the wall outlet, make sure to insert it into the slot located on the right. The black lead will be inserted into the left vertical slot of the wall outlet. Now it will be time to check to see what reading you are receiving. Typically you should receive a reading between 110 and 120 VAC. This all depends on the power levels the utility companies are supplying. If your multimeter continues to show 0.0 you may have a bad connection, try wiggling the leads for better contact. If this does not help you may have an electrical problem with your outlet.
Now it’s time to remove the black lead from the slot and insert it into the oval slot. This section of the electrical outlet is the ground and you will soon see a voltage reading. If no reading is displayed you may have a blown fuse or the circuit breaker may be tripped.
A digital multimeter is an extremely useful tool to have around the house, here are some tutorials covering other things you can do with one:
Here we explain how to locate a buried cable fault with a digital multimeter.
This tutorial explains how to test LED’s with a digital multimeter.
And, for a deeper dive, try this tutorial on measuring resistance with a DMM.