8 Different Types of Electrical Testers and How to Choose One

voltage tester

The Spruce / Margot Cavin

Professional electricians use a variety of electrical testers to check for voltage, amperage, continuity, shorted or open circuits, and improper wiring. And DIY homeowners might find some of these tools useful as well. Learning to identify the different types of electrical testers and understanding their functions will greatly expand your expertise when it comes to working on wiring. 

Some testers are multifunction devices that can perform most, if not all, of the common electrical testing duties. Others are single-function devices that test for just one particular thing, such as live voltage. Below, we'll break down the ins and outs of each common type of electrical tester to help you choose which is right for your project.

  • 01 of 08

    Non-Contact Voltage Tester (Inductance Tester)

    Yellow non-contact voltage tester inserted into 120-volt outlet receptacle

    The Spruce / Kevin Norris

    • Best for: Detecting and measuring voltage

    Non-contact voltage testers (also known as inductance testers) allow you to check for voltage in wires or devices without you having to touch any electrical parts. They are safe, easy to use, and inexpensive. 

    The device is like a mini wand with a small tip on the end that senses voltage in such things as electrical wiring, outlets, circuit breakers, lamp cords, light sockets, and switches. You can get a reading simply by sticking the tip of the tester into an outlet slot or even touching the outside of a wire or electrical cable. 

    Most models inform you of the voltage present with a red light at the tip of the tester as well as a buzzing sound. The most basic models indicate only whether any voltage is present. More sophisticated (and more expensive) types provide a rudimentary measurement of how much voltage is present, though the measurement is not nearly as precise as that offered by certain other electrical testers.

    Tip

    Non-contact voltage testers are typically battery-powered. And it's important to ensure that the battery is fully charged to know the device is working properly. Always test the device on an outlet or switch you know has power to it to verify that the tester is working.  

  • 02 of 08

    Neon Voltage Tester

    Neon circuit tester to test electrical outlet for grounding

    The Spruce / Kevin Norris

    • Best for: Detecting voltage, testing for grounded outlets

    Neon voltage testers, or neon circuit testers, tell you only whether voltage is present; they don't tell you how much voltage is in a circuit. They have a small body with a neon light inside and two short wire leads with a metal probe on each end. This device does not use a battery, making it a dependable tool. It is also inexpensive.

    To use a neon voltage tester, simply touch one tester probe to a hot wire, screw terminal, or outlet slot. Touch the other probe to a neutral or ground contact. The small neon bulb in the tip of the tool will light up if there is current present.

    The tester can also verify whether an outlet is properly grounded. If the tester lights up when the probes are inserted into the hot and neutral slots on the outlet, but fails to light up when the probe is moved from the neutral to grounding slot, it means the outlet is not properly grounded. 

    Tip

    This is an easy tool to use, but it should be handled with caution. If you accidentally touch either of the metal probes during a test—and there is voltage in the circuit—you can get a shock. Carefully hold the tool's probes by the plastic casing when using a neon circuit tester. 

  • 03 of 08

    Plug-In Circuit Analyzer

    GFCI outlet testes with a green voltage tester by hand closeup

    The Spruce / Margot Cavin

    • Best for: Testing grounded outlets

    Plug-in circuit analyzers are inexpensive, easy-to-use testers that can tell you a great deal about the functions of a circuit when you plug them into an electrical outlet. These devices are designed to test grounded outlets that have three slots. They can't be used on older two-slot outlets.

    Plug-in circuit analyzers have three neon lights that light up in different patterns to indicate specific test results. A chart sticker on the tester helps you interpret the light patterns. Different light combinations signify a correctly wired outlet, a reverse-wired outlet, an open circuit, and the presence or lack of a ground connection.

    Circuit analyzers have no batteries; they simply plug into the outlet to perform the test. The outlet must have power for the tester to work.

    There are new, more sophisticated plug-in circuit analyzers that also tell you what the voltage is and circuit conditions on an LCD screen. This new type does require batteries or recharging.

  • 04 of 08

    Continuity Tester

    Continuity Testers
    Amazon
    • Best for: Testing circuit continuity

    A continuity tester is a battery-powered device that has a probe at one end and a cord with either an alligator clip or another probe at the other end. If you touch the two together, you complete a circuit and light is illuminated on the body of the tester, indicating a complete circuit. These testers are inexpensive and great for checking to see whether something like a single-pole switch or 3-way switch is working properly or to test to see if a fuse is blown or not.

    Unlike other testers, a continuity tester is always used when a circuit is turned off—or on wiring or devices that are disconnected from the circuit. If you are using a continuity tester on a device attached to circuit wiring, always turn off the power to the circuit or device. Or disconnect the device from the circuit wiring. It can be dangerous to use a continuity tester on wiring that is carrying voltage.

    Continue to 5 of 8 below.
  • 05 of 08

    Multimeter

    Wires clipped to continuity tester to single-pole switch screw terminals

    The Spruce / Kevin Norris

    • Best for: Measuring multiple electrical values

    Multimeters are versatile electrical testers capable of many different testing functions. Most multimeters can provide precise readings of resistance, AC and DC voltage, continuity, capacitance, and frequency. Thus, they can provide virtually all the information offered by other types of electrical testers. 

    Multimeters have a boxy body with a digital or analog readout, a dial for setting the test function (as well as voltage and various readout settings), and two long leads with metal probes at their ends. These testers can range widely in quality and accuracy, and you'll often have to pay more for quality. They are generally more expensive than the basic testers but still not too pricey.

  • 06 of 08

    Solenoid Voltage Tester

    Solenoid Voltage Testers
    Amazon
    • Best for: Measuring multiple electrical values

    Solenoid voltage testers, known by the nickname "wiggies," are also multifunction testers for voltage and polarity, and they are somewhat simpler to use than multimeters. Pros often prefer this tool over the multimeter, as it is rugged and has no batteries to monitor. However, it isn't quite as accurate as a multimeter for providing a numerical measurement of how much voltage is present. But it is generally less expensive than a multimeter.

    Both analog and digital models are available. Solenoid testers have two wires, each with a probe, extending out of the bottom of the tester. They announce the presence of voltage by clicking or vibrating—the louder the clicking or more pronounced the vibration, the higher the voltage level. They often will trip ground-fault circuit-interrupter (GFCI) devices or GFCI circuit breakers during testing. This is a handy "bonus" in that it can be used to test the functionalist of a GFCI device. By placing one probe in the hot slot of an outlet and the other probe to ground instead of neutral, it will trip the GFCI device.

  • 07 of 08

    Digital Clamp Meter

    Digital clamp meter

    :KhotenkoVolodymyr / Getty Images

    • Best for: Measuring multiple electrical values

    A digital clamp meter combines the function of a multimeter with a current sensor, and it's slightly more expensive than a multimeter. It's a specialty tool that few homeowners will need unless they are engaging in advanced electrical work.

    There are subtle differences in function between a multimeter and a clamp meter. The most obvious one is that this tool features clamping jaws that can grip wire conductors. This makes the tool somewhat safer and easier to use in some applications, such as when working inside an open circuit breaker panel to test individual circuits. The tool also features wire leads that allow it to be used in the same manner as a standard multimeter. 

  • 08 of 08

    Wand Voltage Meter

    • Best for: Detecting and measuring voltage

    A wand voltage meter is another somewhat expensive specialty tester usually owned only by professional electricians. This is a numerical voltage tester which has electrostatic wands that can detect and measure voltage simply by holding them in proximity to wires or metal contacts. For example, placing the wand ears near an NM cable will give an indication of the amount of voltage being carried.

Choosing an Electrical Tester

When determining which type of electrical tester is right for you, it's important to consider the projects you hope to tackle. For instance, if you just need to know whether voltage is present to do some DIY work, consider a basic non-contact voltage tester or neon voltage tester. If you plan to do more advanced work or have a variety of projects to complete, you might need a multimeter.

Be realistic about your skill and confidence levels with electrical work, as well. If you only have basic knowledge, you might be safer and better off not spending money on a tester with all the bells and whistles—consider hiring a professional electrician instead.