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Do you have loose outlets in your home — you know, the ones where the receptacle wiggles every time you plug or unplug a cord?  More than likely the drywall guys cut the hole too big, and the ears on the receptacle don’t land on the drywall.  In the past I’ve used small washers or nuts to space the outlet far enough out from the wall so the cover plate fits correctly, but I noticed these Caterpillar spacers from Buchanan (Ideal) the other day when I was walking through Home Depot and decided to give ’em a try.

The 3/4″ by 3/8″ Caterpillar spacer/shims are designed to support loose outlets.  They’re small enough to fit behind the receptacle, yet large enough to stabilize the outlet. You can choose as many or as few as you need.  The spacers stack and interlock in a way that creates a slot that can slip over #6, #8, or #10 screws.  This means you don’t have to completely remove the screw to install them. The picture above is a composite of two diagrams I scanned from the bag — it does a better job explaining visually how they work.

The Caterpillars come in a strip with eight interlocking spacers.  You can buy packages containing 5, 25, or 500 strips.  Home Depot sells the packs of 5 and 25 strips for $2 or $6 respectively.

The above picture is from one of the outlets in my shoddily built addition.  The drywall for every outlet was cut too big, so the ears miss the drywall completely.  This outlet was a perfect candidate for trying the Caterpillar shims, as the receptacle moved quite a bit whenever I plugged any cords into it.

Getting started, I looked at the depth that the box was recessed, and I judged that I’d need three spacers.  So I clipped off three spacers from the strip and locked them together.  I backed the receptacle screws out to the point where I could slip the spacers over the screw, but with three spacers I ended up pulling the screw out completely anyway to get enough room to install them.

When I screwed both screws back into place with the spacers, I realized the three spacers made the outlet stand proud of the wall, so the cover didn’t fit flush.  I ended up removing a spacer from the top and bottom and screwing the receptacle back into place.  This time the cover plate fit correctly.  I tested the outlet by plugging and unplugging a cord, and there was very little wiggle.

The Caterpillar spacers worked well for my application.  If you have experience with these spacers, or if you have your own method of securing loose outlets and switches, let us know in the comments.

Caterpillars [Galesburg Electric]

 

15 Responses to Hands-On: Caterpillars Fix Wiggly Outlets For Good

  1. Brian says:

    I actually just bought some of these the other day to support some outlets and switches after a tile job. They worked great and are way easier then installing a box extension!

  2. John says:

    I thought the cover was there to help secure the outlets. As you tighten the screw connecting the cover to the cover to the fixture, it pulls the fixture out towards the room, and pushes the cover edges tight to the wall. As long as you use the metal covers, you can tighten them and secure the fixture so it doesn’t dive into the wall when you plug things in. Try this too much with plastic covers and you crack them. And alternatively make sure the screws on the fixture are tight enough so it doesn’t pull out from the wall as you unplug things. For the outlets I had in my house that were loose, I simply had to go buy a metal cover and tighten up the screws.

    so basically set the fixture a little below where it should end up, and use the cover to pull it to the right spot, making a tight connection. so the screws from the fixture to the box are pulling the fixture into the wall, and the screws from the cover to fixture pull the fixture out of the wall, making things tight.

    hard to explain, but just making some tension between the screws on the outlet to box, cover to outlet and cover to wall. that’s how I’ve set all my outlets and not had too much problem, even when the box is recessed a bunch in the wall, or the drywall is cut too large.

  3. Gene says:

    I’ve used washers for small gaps, and those plastic extender boxes for larger ones, but the shims seems like a good solution for the latter using less plastic.

  4. @John:

    Anybody feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but the cover is there 1) for looks, 2) so you don’t go sticking you fingers or other objects around the side of the outlet and get electrocuted, not to secure a loose outlet.

    While you may be able to fix a loose outlet with a sturdy metal cover, plastic and wood covers (which often have metal reinforcement) aren’t going to hold the loose outlet for more than a few plug unplug cycles.

  5. Scott says:

    When using non-Decora style devices (those that use a single central screw to link the face plate to the device), the face plate can stabilize the device.

    When using Decora-style devices (or any that use a top and bottom screw), especially when using hidden-fastener face plates the screws don’t do much, and may make things worse.

    These really shine when the box is firm but not quite square to the wall or the box is just a bit buried in the wall, these are a time saver.

    They won’t remedy a wobbly or flexing multi-gang box, nor would I suggest piling them up more than a stack two or three thick to bring a buried box out. They don’t offer much surface area. Use a box extension, or replace the box with an adjustable old work box. It may take a bit longer and cost a little more, but things will stay put.

  6. MR P says:

    I just set a nut after the receptacle so the screw is holding the outlet from moving fwd and backwards

  7. Jerry says:

    I have used these things for a few years – they are not new. And to respond to those who think the plate is there to stabilize the outlet, try to get that past the electrical inspector. Please make sure the receptacle (or switch) is securely anchored to the box and then put the plate on. The plate is to keep things like fingers from contacting the outlet and to make the thing look neat and tidy. These “shims” are great on older homes when you have added drywall over the face of old plaster. You have to shim the outlets to be able to attach the plates.

  8. THAT is cool, I can use some of these as my house is 100 years old.
    I have electrical boxes on 4 floors that span in age from the 1920 to 2009.

  9. rob says:

    I have always just made a coil of #14 wire around a thin screw driver
    and cut it to the correct length

    do it all the time but cool little idea but scrape wire is free just about always have some around

  10. Pete says:

    These are great, I buy the big pack at the depot and it lasts me a while. I agree with Jerry, there are lots of instances where I find plates are the only thing keeping the fixtures secure, and if their the cheap plastic ones, forget about it. their always cracked.

  11. Joe C. says:

    Nice idea. Though I’ve used a lot of washers and other fixes over the years, these look like they would be much quicker to find the right thickness.

  12. paganwonder says:

    Electrical box extenders are for safety, leaving them off when they are needed puts the structure at risk. Most electric codes were developed the hard way- people or structures suffered damage and the code changed to prevent re-occurance.

  13. @paganwonder that’s a good point.

    I remember the electrician I used to work for called them spark gaurds. My understanding is they are used when you have wood or some other material exposed that is combustible and they aren’t necessary for drywall.

    —–

    Doing a search for box extenders I stumbled across this article in the Family Handyman showing the caterpillars.

    http://www.rd.com/74696/article74696.html

    I’ve been bit by the first one, when the siders put up my new siding. They lost the wires for two of my fixtures because the people who installed the light previously made a pigtail and stuffed it back into the wall cavity. When they went to put the fixtures back up they pulled on the wire and they got a 8 inch piece of solid wire with a wire nut attached, leaving the feed buried inside the wall. This happened of course on my shoddily built addition. (Maybe you’re starting to get the picture of why I call it my shoddily built addition. Previous homeowners did it, not me 🙂 )

  14. Matt says:

    I do maintenance on a 4 yr old high rise plagued with this problem. I noticed in a few outlets the elctricians used an extender plate made by Caddy:
    http://www.erico.com/products/CADDYcfcDvcLvlrRetnr.asp
    I picked up a box and use ’em everywhere else I find loose plugs. Prior to that I used these Caterpillars, but these plates are a really quick, solid fix.

    • Gino Tortelli says:

      Thanks for putting me onto the “Caddy” plates. The plastic shims wear over time and the sockets begin to loosen again, plus they tend to rock from side to side. These “Caddy” devices seem to be what I have been looking for. I just ordered them cheap on eBay.

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