How to insulate your electrical outlets

By Allstate

Last updated: January 1

It's winter and your home is closed up tight to keep out the cold air, but you still feel a draft. Where could it be coming from?

Sometimes, especially in older homes and on exterior walls, light switch boxes and electrical outlets can let in outside air if they are not insulated properly, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Air leaks also happen in the summer, when warm air can move in through these cracks and heat up your home.

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Aside from the discomfort of having hot or cold air come into your home when you don't want it to, inadequate insulation can cause problems in terms of energy efficiency and added moisture, says Oak Ridge National Laboratory. For instance, insufficient insulation around outlets can result in lost heat and higher utility costs.

Additionally, notes Oak Ridge, air leaking through outlets can bring moisture with it, which can condense and turn into liquid within the walls. This can become a problem if too much liquid accumulates on the insulation. When insulation in the walls gets wet, it doesn't work as well and could cause damage to the structure of the building or become a health risk for those residing in the home, according to Oak Ridge.

To avoid these risks and help prevent moisture, reduced energy efficiency and discomfort, you'll want to identify the sources of the air leaks.

Testing for air leaks

According to the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors (NACHI), you can find air leaks around your outlets and light fixtures with a simple test. On a windy day, take an incense stick or smoke pen and carefully hold it in front of your outlets, particularly those with an air path to the outdoors. Watch the smoke stream. If it moves horizontally, there is likely an air leak, NACHI says. Use caution when using incense sticks and be sure to keep them away from drapes and other flammable materials, NC Cooperative Extension says.

Insulating your electrical outlets

If you find out your outlets are letting in a draft, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says that usually means the electrical outlet insulation is not adequate. There are a few options for insulating electrical outlets:

  1. One way to help reduce drafts from outlets is by insulating them with foam gaskets, NACHI says. The Environmental Protection Agency says gaskets can be purchased from any hardware store and are composed of fire-retardant foam that is pre-cut to fit around your outlets or switch plates. To install, simply unscrew the outlet cover, press the foam around the outlets and then reattach the cover. Be sure to follow the instructions on the packaging.
  2. If adding a foam gasket does not solve the problem, the NRDC suggests sealing drafty electrical outlets and fixtures with caulk or putty. This is a great option when there are cracks or gaps around the wall plate. Remember to turn off the power to the outlet before you begin working. NACHI says you can also use foam sealant or buy new plug boxes with a built-in sealant.
  3. If you're unable to solve the problem on your own, you may want to turn to a professional who can install more insulation in between your walls, says the NRDC. This is the most expensive solution, but the NRDC says it may add up to cost-savings on energy in the long run.

Whichever insulation method you choose, the NACHI also recommends putting child-safety plugs into outlets when not in use, as it's an easy way to help prevent additional cold air from coming into your home.

Drafts in a home can be more than just unpleasant — they may be an indication of air leaks. If you are feeling the chill, check your electrical outlets and light switches and try one of these suggestions for improving your insulation