How to Wire an Outlet

by A Manly Guest Contributor on April 11, 2013 · 47 comments

in DIY Home Maintenance, Manly Skills


This is a guest post by Ethan Hagan from One Project Closer. Check out some of his other manly contributions like How to Install a Toilet.

Being able to wire an outlet is a great skill to have in your repertoire, and, once mastered, you’ll be able to replace old or damaged outlets in a matter of minutes. To help you know what to expect, I’ve created a tabletop guide with pictures illustrating how to properly wire an outlet.

This tabletop demonstration illustrates how to wire a typical electrical receptacle. This means I’m making some assumptions, and if you find wiring in your home that looks different, that doesn’t mean it was done wrong. In fact, there are many possible variations including a different amp circuit, amp receptacle, wire gauge, number of wires, and more. With that said, what I’ve presented below is a very common scenario, and it’s a great place to start.


Code and Permits

Obviously a tabletop demonstration doesn’t require pulling permits. However, local code often requires a permit for new or extended circuits, and sometimes only licensed master electricians can pull permits. In some counties homeowners can take a standard test and obtain permits for almost all work within their own home. Check out your county or state government’s licensing and permits website to learn specifics for your area. Most jurisdictions follow some variation of the National Electric Code (NEC), and you can get limited free access to the NEC via the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) website.

Tools & Materials


Most electrical projects can be completed with a few hand tools. For this demonstration, I grabbed:

  • Screwdriver
  • Lineman’s pliers
  • Utility knife
  • Needle-nose pliers
  • Wire strippers (many wire strippers have loop makers, eliminating the need for the needle-nose pliers)
  • Voltage tester (not shown in image)
  • 15 amp receptacle
  • 14/2 wire
  • Electrical box
  • Wire nut

You can find all the necessary tools and materials at your local DIY center. A 15 amp outlet like the one shown here only costs about $0.60, and you can purchase 100′ of 14/2 Romex for $35.00! If you’re planning a big project, purchase the “contractor packs,” and keep your eye out for a Home Depot coupon for even better prices.

Step 1: Turn Off the Breaker


If the outlet you’re working with is already connected to the breaker panel, turn off the appropriate breaker, and double-check that it is off with a voltage tester or even a lamp (that you know works). After turning off the appropriate breaker and double-checking with a voltmeter, remove the faceplate. You’ll see screws at the top and bottom of the outlet, and after removing those, the receptacle can be pulled out of the box. If the wires have enough excess length, they can simply be cut and re-stripped. If there isn’t much wire to work with, they need to be disconnected by either backing out the screw terminal or pressing the release slot to disengage the stab-back connection.


New work electrical boxes will be nailed to a stud, and remodel electrical boxes (like the one pictured below) will be affixed to the drywall. The box will have at least one cable (bundle of wires) entering through the backside. This demonstration shows 2-wire, which means each cable contains one black and one white wire, plus a ground wire.


Step 2: Pigtail Ground Wires


If you’re replacing an existing outlet, odds are good that you can skip this step because you can reuse the existing splice. However, if any of the wires are nicked or damaged, they should be cut back and redone.

Since this box has two ground wires and the outlet has only one ground terminal, we need to splice the ground wires along with a pigtail. Don’t make the mistake of just lining up the wires and twisting on a wire nut! That splice is sure to fail. Here’s the right way to do it:


Bend one of the ground wires back on itself.

Trim the other ground wire to the same length.

Trim the other ground wire to the same length.

Use lineman's to tightly twist the wires together.

Use lineman’s pliers to tightly twist the wires together.

Next, cut off the ends.

Next, cut off the ends.

Lastly, twist a wire nut over the splice. Make sure the wire nut is sized appropriately using this simple guide from The Home Depot.

Lastly, twist a wire nut over the splice. Make sure the wire nut is sized appropriately using this simple guide.

Step 3: Strip and Connect the Neutral Wires


Most receptacles have a strip gage on the back for easy reference. A strip gage defines how much bare wire should be exposed after stripping away the insulation. It’s just enough to loop around a terminal screw or make a solid connection with stab-back connection.

Line up the white (neutral) wires and cut them to an equal length. Next, strip back the insulation with wire strippers.

Line up the white (neutral) wires and cut them to an equal length. Next, strip back the insulation with wire strippers.

Using pliers or a loop-maker on the wire strippers, twist the exposed wire into a half-circle.

Using pliers or a loop-maker on the wire strippers, twist the exposed wire into a half-circle.

Slip the neutral wires around the silver screws in a clockwise rotation (the same direction the screws turn), and tighten down the screws.

Slip the neutral wires around the silver screws in a clockwise rotation (the same direction the screws turn), and tighten down the screws.

Step 4: Connect the Ground Wire

Loop the ground pigtail wire around the green ground screw and tighten the screw down.

Loop the ground pigtail wire around the green ground screw and tighten the screw down.

Step 5: Repeat for the Hot Wires

Repeat the same process of cutting, stripping and attaching the hot wires to the gold screws.

Repeat the same process of cutting, stripping, and attaching the hot wires to the gold screws.

Step 6: Secure the Receptacle to the Box

Carefully maneuver all the wires into the box and attach the receptacle with the two screws.

Carefully maneuver all the wires into the box and attach the receptacle with the two screws.

Step 7: Install Faceplate

Lastly, install the faceplate.

Lastly, install the faceplate.

At this point you can flip the breaker back on and test the outlet.

At this point you can flip the breaker back on and test the outlet.


Ethan Hagan owns and operates a home improvement website called One Project Closer. On One Project Closer you’ll learn how to tackle projects with expert knowledge from professional contractors. Check out OPC for home improvement how-tos (called Pro-Follows), and follow them on Facebook.

{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jon April 11, 2013 at 6:56 pm

I’m an electrical engineer, my father-in law is an electrician and I’ve rewire my own home.

This is a great tutorial. The one caveat I would add is that by using both screw terminals, you’re effectively using the receptacle as a “pass through.” If there are ever problems with this receptacle, it becomes a weak link for power to down-stream devices.

Instead, cut a short length (6″-ish) of black and white wire and use each to create a pigtail (just like you did for the ground wire). Wire nut them and coil them up in the back of the box. Now connect your receptacle to the pigtails. Now, if you ever have a problem with that outlet, it will not isolate the downstream devices.

2 T. W. April 11, 2013 at 8:13 pm

As a 4th generation licensed master electrician I just wanted to say… I approve of this post. Good job.

3 Jimmy April 11, 2013 at 8:36 pm

Great article. In high school our Physics teacher decided that it would be a lot more useful for us to do an electricity unit with actual electrical work. In college I fixed an outlet in a friend’s home that had been broken since she was a child because of the skills I learned and her mom was thrilled. This is one of those skills that every man should know how to do.

4 Michael M April 11, 2013 at 9:59 pm

I used to have a hard time remembering which side of the outlet was for which wire. It’s kind of color coded, but I still always forgot. An electrician friend told me about mnemonic rhyme his teacher shared with him, “black to brass, save your ass”. I have yet to forget since.

5 JP April 11, 2013 at 10:03 pm

I do a lot of handyman-type work after foreclosures and evictions and invariably find an outlet or two that need replaced. Something worth noting is that when removing old outlets the wires are sometimes inserted directly into holes in the back of the outlet, rather than screwed on the sides. (I actually find it rather common on the older units). There’s another tiny slot in the back that’s supposed to release the wire, but it was always a needle-in-the-haystack search through my toolbox to find something that’s small enough to fit. I finally figured out that if you make a little bend in the wire just above the outlet (makes it easier to grab hold of) and rotate the outlet back and forth while gently pulling the wire it just slides right out.

6 R.T. April 11, 2013 at 10:28 pm

You should ALWAYS connect the ground wire first. Ground, Neutral, Hot. Always.

I am a little surprised that all these Nth generation licensed electricians didn’t point this out, while I am only an apprentice.

7 Dan April 11, 2013 at 11:38 pm

I’m not sure the order you attach the wires matters much unless you’re wiring it live, which I wouldn’t recommend.

8 Mike April 12, 2013 at 5:55 am

Article 300.13(B) of the NEC states:
In multiwire branch circuits, the continuity of a grounded conductor shall not depend on device connections such as lampholders, receptacles, and so forth, where the removal of such devices would interrupt the continuity.

Therefore, being that the grounded conductor is your “neutral,” you should AT LEAST tail them out as well. I do all of them for simplicity of receptacle installation. I also tape around the screws two or three tunes as a courtesy to anyone who might have to pull it out hot later.

9 Daniel April 12, 2013 at 6:06 am

I agree with R.T.: Ground, Neutral, Hot. Always.

RE: Dan’s comment (Apr 11 @ 11:38PM), you should always work as if the circuit were live. It is simply good practice.

10 John April 12, 2013 at 7:03 am

As a homeowner with absolutely no credentials I have this advice:
Electrical switches and outlets come in three grades, homeowner, commercial, and hospital. A homeowner grade outlet does cost about a buck as indicated in the article, but is quite flimsy. Most hardware centers sell commerical grade, which are MUCH sturdier, for $3 – $5. I always use them. For two bucks extra you get a fixture you KNOW will last the life of the house. Hospital grade are around $25 (I work in a hospital), and are not really necessary for a home. They are designed for electrical devices people’s lives depend on. If you ever get one though, they are a work of art.

11 Native Son April 12, 2013 at 8:23 am

Why did the author show an outlet installation that uses the outlet device as a junction point? Every thing I’ve ever seen on replacing an outletshows the outlet as the endpoint of a wire run. Get more complex than that, and you need a licensed electrician. If you’ve ever seen the Canadaian TV show “Holmes on Homes” you’ve seen exactly why.

12 John Weiss April 12, 2013 at 8:29 am

My dad knows how to do this, but I don’t. My parents divorced when I was 9 so I never learned. Thanks for teaching me these things!

13 Jason April 12, 2013 at 8:38 am

People it’s just common sense. Always treat a outlet as live even IF you’re the one who flipped the breaker. I’ve flipped the wrong one before. Sh!t happens. CYA. I even have a live circuit detector as a backup to my own stupidity. You can make stupid mistakes when you’ve been working for hours and you’re tired.

Also follow Mike’s NEC guidelines. They are there for good reasons!

14 Dan M April 12, 2013 at 9:02 am

If you plan on doing many of these (or even if you only do one!), there’s a VERY handy tool called an outlet tester that will indicate a properly wired (and grounded) outlet with a series of lights. I had a “professional” electrician (my general contractor was a nutjob) swap hot and ground when wiring a bathroom addition. I caught it with an outlet tester and made them fix it. Most will also have a test button for tripping GFCI-protected circuits, required in bathrooms and near faucets and sinks.

15 Moeregaard April 12, 2013 at 9:38 am

I worked for an electrical contractor when I was in high school. He told me two things about electricity. 1) Electricity is extremely lazy, which is why it always takes the path of least resistance. 2) Never be that path, i.e., part of a circuit. We wired outlets and switches live all the time and this advice has served me well in the 35 years since.

16 Mike April 12, 2013 at 11:34 am

The pen-type non-contact voltage detectors are a must-have tool when working with potentially live circuits. Panel schedules aren’t always accurate, so the breaker you turn off may not be the correct one. the plug-in receptacle testers in my opinion are better for diagnosing a problem, rather than a new install.

Working on energized circuits is discouraged, despite common stereotypes of electricians working on live parts. ALWAYS give electricity due respect.

17 Claude April 12, 2013 at 12:11 pm

I’ve got an irrational fear of electricity, but owning a very old house means I have to do this occasionally. I always shut off ALL the power. Its a pain to have to reset all my clocks, etc when Im done, but its the only way I feel safe.

BTW I learned a couple of things I didn’t know with this article and im thinking I’ll re-do a couple of outlets I “fixed” previously.


18 JR April 12, 2013 at 12:12 pm

I am not experienced and know very little about electrical work,so my question is,”how do you know if the receptacle needs replacing other than it just won’t work.’?

19 Pete April 12, 2013 at 2:10 pm

The one thing I never see dealt with is the mechanical aspect of actually getting all the wires to fit inside the box and then being able to attach the receptacle to the box so it’s actually on there straight. If there are a ton of wires inside the box, the back side of the receptacle hits the wires and it won’t mount onto the box vertically. It is very unsightly to have the receptacle on there all crooked because all the wiring is cram-jammed in the box, thus preventing the receptacle from going on plumb. How do you deal with this?

20 Zapato April 12, 2013 at 2:12 pm

Local governments may require that a licensed electrician. That may or may not be true but the NEC states that the homeowner is allowed to do the work. In my area homeowner can only pull one permit a year. All permitted work is inspected and in most cases you are given a second chance to correct any mistakes.

I was taught years ago to pigtail (6-8 inches) all connections at the outlet and then join them to the leads.

Often the argument gets raised whether an outlet is right side up or not. To the best of my knowledge its not NEC specified. If you’re doing an addition or repair just do them like the rest of the house.

21 Mike April 12, 2013 at 3:25 pm

I don’t believe the Code does necessarily allow the homeowner to perform the work.

90.1(C), This Code is not intended as a design specification or an instruction manual for untrained persons.

100 definition of “Qualified Person” One who has skills and knowledge related to the construction and operation of the electrical equipment and installations and has received safety training to recognize and avoid the hazards involved.”

The NEC doesn’t really permit or deny homeowners from actually performing the work. However, the quality of the work, if it’s being inspected, must conform to the Code; regardless of who does it.

JR: If the receptacle is acting up, i.e. a lamp is not working which is plugged into it, my first steps would probably be to plug in one of those testers mentioned above. Hopefully the light configuration would give you a good lead on what the issue might be. Then you’d have to get down and dirty and start pulling stuff apart. Many times I come right down to the issue and recognize it immediately.

Pete: It just comes with practice. You have to learn how to make the wires long and short enough, as well as forming them up nicely. Usually I try to swirl all the wires in one direction around the inside edge of the box with any wire nuts grouped in one corner.

22 Quigath April 12, 2013 at 3:58 pm

Any advice from the more experienced out there: does it matter which way the outlet in installed in the wall?
I have typically seen them in portrait orientation where each socket makes a kind of a face with the ground hole below the two prong holes.
| |
But I had heard that the more modern, and slightly safer, standard was 180 deg to that where the ground hole would be above the others.
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I supposed it was so that if anything fell on to partially exposed plugs they would touch ground first instead if shorting the circuit (which has happened to me before).

My wife says they look upside down to her though so I’m looking for re-assurance that the new way is more correct. An electricians code reference would be great as well.

23 MM April 12, 2013 at 4:15 pm

It would be better to make a T junction on the wire than use outlet as a junction.

24 Brian April 13, 2013 at 2:34 am

Splice blacks together, pigtail. Splice whites together, pigtail. The electrician who replaces your outlet will thank you later.

25 R.T. April 13, 2013 at 2:35 am

Quigath: Installing a receptacle with the ground facing up is common practice in the Union here in the states. However, most people prefer the ground-down orientation, as it looks “right”.

There are caveats to each; with the ground down position, there’s more of a chance to accidentally bridge the hot and neutral terminals. Imagine, for instance, that you have a framed picture on the wall above the outlet, and the painting falls. If it lands on the plug, there’s the possibility that it could knock it out halfway and make contact with the hot and neutral terminals. If the frame is conductive, in a best case-scenario, it will trip a breaker. With the ground-up orientation, anything that jostles the plugs with be more likely to touch the ground terminal, which would be less catastrophic than touching the hot or neutral terminals.

This is the explanation that I’ve received, and while it’s a bit unlikely to happen, I can still see the benefits.

26 Brian April 13, 2013 at 2:36 am

Also, line screw on face plate up and down.

27 Steve Murphy April 13, 2013 at 11:42 am

To all of you “Master Electricians”: Jon said on April 11, 2013 at 6:56 pm

“I’m an electrical engineer, my father-in law is an electrician and I’ve rewire my own home.

This is a great tutorial. The one caveat I would add is that by using both screw terminals, you’re effectively using the receptacle as a “pass through.” If there are ever problems with this receptacle, it becomes a weak link for power to down-stream devices.

Instead, cut a short length (6″-ish) of black and white wire and use each to create a pigtail (just like you did for the ground wire). Wire nut them and coil them up in the back of the box. Now connect your receptacle to the pigtails. Now, if you ever have a problem with that outlet, it will not isolate the downstream devices.”

Any degree Electrician short of a “shade tree electrician” would only use a pigtail. Please, take Jon’s advice!

28 Josh April 13, 2013 at 5:40 pm

Where’s your lock out for the breaker to stop people from re-energising the circuit while you’re working on it?

And if I had a specific order of connecting wires. I’d connect the active (“hot”) wire first. It’s the one that gonna give you a bite, the sooner it tucked safely away, the better off you are. Plus you know exactly where it is now, so you can’t accidentally touch it.

And i must say, Australian electrical equipment is much nicer to work with.

29 Michael Maier April 14, 2013 at 9:47 pm

How do you add a ground to an outlet that doesn’t have one? I have (I think) all of two outlets that are properly grounded.

I use a high-powered bass guitar amplifier and I’ve gotten micro-shocks from it. I don’t want to die playing my bass.

30 Sebastian April 15, 2013 at 6:25 pm

Old trick for determining you have the correct breaker is to plug a radio in the outlet and turn it up. When it goes off, you have the right circuit. If the outlet is already bad you have to know what circuit it is on which can sometimes be tricky. Carefully remove and use voltage tester to ensure circuit is dead. Electricity though deadly is fairly simple. Three phase and 4160 get a little more complex but you usually will run into neither in households.

31 Steve April 16, 2013 at 6:30 am

I’ve got to agree with Josh here. I’ll take Aus power point over these anyday. They look like they’d be horrible to work with.

As for connecting the earth first, why? What good is the earth wire going to do if it’s tucked away in the terminal and someone comes along and turns the breaker back on? (Seeing as there is no danger tag or lock out on it) Get your active out of the way and safely terminated so you don’t have to worry about it floating around while you’re working.

Also, over here if you’re not an electrician and you did this work, it’s illegal. Every chippie, brickie, plasterer and tiler has played with power before. And I’ve seen some absolutely terrible things from them too.

But if you must do this yourself, never forget the golden rule. Test your tester, test the circuit, then test your tester again.

32 Deraillor April 16, 2013 at 10:32 am

Is a good multimeter a replacement for a non-contact voltage tester? I’ve got a nice Fluke multimeter that would seem to fit the bill.

33 DIO April 17, 2013 at 12:20 am

Deraillor: If you have a multimeter, especially a Fluke brand one, you’re way ahead of everyone else. That’s definitely a fantastic substitute for a non-contact voltage tester. With your meter, you should (at least) be able to check for the presence of AC and DC voltage, as well as, AC and DC current. Depending on any extra features you meter might have, you might even be able to check things like frequency.

34 Vern April 17, 2013 at 7:25 am

In over 40 years in construction, I am amazed at the number of guys who will attempt their own electrical work,(I’ve seen some real messes) but won’t touch plumbing. They will work on something that can kill them, or start a fire, but they won’t replace a faucet or trap because they are afraid of a water leak when they are done.

35 Justin April 17, 2013 at 12:45 pm

Pete: I may have a few tips that can help you with this problem. First, when splicing you wires, you don’t need the wires to be super long if you’re only splicing them. The rule of thumb I use is cut anything more than a hand length leaving the box. When you splice wires, tuck the splices in the back of the box so they are out of the way. Also, try wiring your receptacle upside-down and twisting it back the correct way when you’re ready to screw it into the box. This may make it easier because it twists the wires out of the way rather than trying to bunch it up in the back of the box.

Another tip for everybody is to not always trust your receptacle testers. There will be times where the receptacle will be wired incorrectly but it will show that it is correct with the tester. If the neutral and ground are reversed, or if somebody connected the neutral and the ground together (a “bootleg” ground). I recommend having a voltmeter on hand and testing it yourself if you feel something may be wrong.

36 Keith April 18, 2013 at 7:45 pm

Good post and very good info for anyone, One thing I would like to add is a trick a old electrician taught me. When your working on ANY electrical projects tuck one of your hands in you back pocket, if you happen to grab the “hot” conductor and the neutral the current will pass from one hand to your foot, and likely miss your heart. it only takes .1 mA to stop the human heart if it is passed directly through the heart, tho put that in perspective the common receptacle has 20 Amps. Never work on live circuits, but treat all of them as if they were live. And if you are the least bit scared to do anything with electrical then call an electrician.

37 Zach April 18, 2013 at 9:33 pm

If you’re using a metal receptacle box, you have to make sure you attach your grounding wire to the box then to the receptacle itself.

38 Zach April 18, 2013 at 10:52 pm

In reply to Keith, a common household receptacle is rated 15 amp unless located in the kitchen where it can be 20 amp for around appliances and 30 amp for stove and oven.

39 Guy April 21, 2013 at 11:06 am

My dad has been trying to teach me this since I was 2! he is an electrician. I would defer to him in regards to anything electrical but I want to know how to do It as well.

40 Brian April 23, 2013 at 1:50 pm

I agree with the tailing a single wire and not using the outlet as a pass through. Folding back 3 wires is a lot easier than 5 wires. I also use the screws closest to the ground, so the three wires can fold together.

So what is that second set of screws for? It is for running a separate circuit to that outlet, e.g. a switched circuit (for switched lamps in a living room). Just break the tabs between the screws.

41 Jack May 3, 2013 at 10:47 am

As for using a radio to find the breaker, I like a vacuum.

Also, on a big panel, I just turn off groups of them at a time, maybe 1/4 of all single pole breakers, listen and either turn them on 1 at a time or turn them all back on. It makes finding the right one much quicker.

There was a question about grounding a non-properly grounded receptacle. No simple answer, as it greatly depends on the situation. There are metal jacketed cable (BX and newer variants) that use the jacket for ground. There are metal conduit options. It could also be Romex (NM) cable. If the latter, look to see if the ground is connected to the device and trace back and check all other devices on that circuit between the outlet in question and the main panel. If metal conduit, verify that the conduit is connected properly all along the run. If BX, call a professional electrician. Another option is to get a GFI on an extension cord.

42 Jack May 3, 2013 at 10:55 am

@DIO: Great, he can check frequency. But what the heck is he going to do with that info?

@Brian: Ok, I get why there are 2 hot wires on a device, I split many of mine. But why 2 neutral wires? Have you ever ran two different circuits to a 120v duplex device? Even if you do, you can run a 14/3 or 12/3 and still use only a single neutral with hot wires for a pair of circuits.

I agree that pigtails are better, but why 2 neutral screws?

43 Brian May 15, 2013 at 6:43 pm

Jack: you should run two cables in and break both the hot and neutral tabs, keeping the two circuits separate, rather than using 12-3 to carry two circuits on a single neutral. Caveat: I am not an electrician, only a guy who really likes old homes and reads a lot.

If you do use a multi-wire branch circuit (two circuits on 12-3), then the circuits must be on different legs of the panel, and you must use a two pole breaker, not two single poles.

If the two circuits are on the same leg of the panel, then you are overrating the neutral and risking a fire. That is to say, you are using a single 12 gauge wire to serve as a neutral for upwards of 40 amps.

It keeps it simpler to just use two cables, and each circuit should have its own hot, neutral and ground (you can share the grounds).

44 Josh May 15, 2013 at 7:43 pm

Question. What would happen if the black and white wires were both connected to the gold or silver screw?

45 Geoff May 20, 2013 at 8:16 pm

Great article and comments — I have a slightly older house (33 years) so a lot of the outlets are dangerously loose. My handy man / professional electrician taught essentially the same to me. The one extra step was a wrap of electrical tape around the sides of the outlet to cover all the connections. This is especially handy for older, metal receptacle boxes.

I’ve been using a circuit breaker finder (Klein Tools ET300) for tracking outlets down and a non-contact voltage tester to make sure I’m safe. The former owner thought he was a master of all trades but after being warned by a neighbor and finding exposed hot wires under the kitchen range with only wire nuts covering the ends, I check everything carefully.

46 Jeremy Dixon May 27, 2013 at 12:08 pm

I would add one thing on handling the outlet. Start with whichever wire you want but point the screw you are using to the dominant hand, then rotate the outlet to the other side. This way you always have the screw to be tightened pointing at your dominant hand and the wires collapse to a core point for easy fold and push into box. +20 year valence electron pathway manager.

47 Daniel Barnhart February 13, 2014 at 4:31 pm

I’ve just moved into a friend’s “new” house (it was made pre 1965), and I notice the ungrounded outlets in my room. I’ve looked for a while to see if they are grounded or a method of changing them to grounded outlets. I have a multimeter which reads ~120VAC across the neutral and active wires, but ~24 across the active and box. I figured with no ground the box would read 0. Anyone have any idea why? (As you may know I have little electrical experience beyond circuit boards). Thanks!

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