Proper way to trace electrical circuits
Asked Dec 14, 2005, 05:46 AM
Recently, we replaced our old Pushmatic Breaker panel with a GE unit. Now I can get new breakers without having to buy them off E-Bay. Being a cheap Ba**rd, er I mean Frugal, I saved $50 by tracing the electrical circuits myself instead of having the electrician do it.
Since I had to do it, and I have seen some posts where others have no idea as to what breakers control which circuits, I thought I would share some of the tricks I found.
The one Item that I found indispensable, besides my family members was a Plug in Polarity tester. (This has lights on it that indicate if the outlet is wired correctly or not)
Step 1) Turn on EVERY LIGHT IN THE HOUSE, whether it be controlled by a switch, a pull cord or autosensing.
Step 2) Plug in a light, a radio or some eletrical device into an outlet in each room.
Step 3) Make sure that each Switch that controls an outlet is turned on.
Step 4) Turn off a breaker, noting the amperage it is rated for as this may give a hint as to where to look for what areas are controlled by it. (20 amp is typically for a wet area like a kitchen or a bath)
Step 5) Go to the area in the house that is now dark.
Step 6) Test Every outlet in that room with the polarity tester. You may be as surprised as I was when I found some live outlets in a room that was dark.
Step 6) Test outlets in adjacent areas
Step 7) If you come across an outlet that had something plugged into it that is now dark, check the other receptacle if there is more than one as it may be powered by another circuit. (Hopefully not)
Step 8) Don't assume that other areas couldn't possibly on the same circuit as they are at the opposite ends of the house. Spot check outlets that don't have something plugged into them.
Step 9) Write down each receptacle that is controlled by each breaker. I made a simple spreadsheet that listed the breaker number, amperage, and what the circuit controls. I also noted if there was a GFI outlet on the branch. I printed it off and took it to Kinko's and had it laminated and it is now attached to my circuit panel.
Step 10) Repeat for each breaker in the panel.
Step 11) If you come across an outlet that doesn't seem to be controlled by any breakers, take some of Labman's advice in tracing hot wires: "I came across the niftiest gadget for trouble shooting, a voltage detector. They work through the insulation of wires. There are several brands. I have a GB Instruments GVD-505A, less than $15 at Home Depot. Touch it to a hot wire, and the end glows red. Find the doodad that lights it on one side, and not the other, and you have the culprit."
Now that you have found out what each breaker controls, take an inventory of how much power each circuit CAN use. You may discover as I did that you have way too much on one circuit and not enough on another. Or that what should be a dedicated circuit (Refrigerator, microwave, Dishwasher, etc) is actually powering multiple receptacles. This is common after remodeling.
If you found some possibly overloaded circuits as I did, it would be a good idea to consider re-arranging what is supplied by that circuit. OR, run new circuits to supply power to these areas.
Finally, consider replacing breakers that control bedrooms with Arc Fault Circuits. Follow this link to learn more about these breakers: http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/afci.html
Remember to update your spreadsheet when you add new circuits or if you revamp existing ones.
TK, LabMan and others, please add your own comments and corrections. And, as always, thanks everyone for helping me to learn how to make my home better. And hopefully, this diatribe will provide some assistance to others in making their home safer.