Circuit breakers are the standard safety devices installed in your electrical service panel to protect your electrical system from overloads and other hazards. They are also used as convenient shut-off points for electrical circuits, allowing you to shut off the power when you need to make repairs or upgrades to a circuit. But unless your electrical service panel (circuit breaker box) is very carefully mapped, it can be difficult to identify which breaker controls which outlets, switches, or light fixtures. Although it sounds easy, mapping all the breakers in a service panel can take two people several hours. A great little device that simplifies this task is an electronic circuit breaker finder, which easily locates a circuit in a breaker box and makes this all a one-person job. This device works for either circuit breakers or fuses and is very easy to use.
Parts of a Circuit Breaker Finder
An electronic circuit breaker finder includes two parts: a transmitter and a receiver. The transmitter plugs into a household outlet (or light socket, using an adapter) for which you're trying to identify the controlling circuit breaker or fuse. A faint electronic signal is sent through the circuit wires.
At the breaker box, you use the electronic receiver that is paired with the transmitter. When the receiver passes over the circuit breaker that carries the electronic signal from the transmitter, the receiver rapidly beeps and flashes. It's as simple as that.
How to Use a Circuit Breaker Finder
Install the Battery
The receiver on circuit breaker finders is powered by a battery—often a 9-volt battery installed in the handle. The battery compartment is easily accessed by sliding a cover back on the bottom of the receiver.
After installing the battery, adjust the receiver for maximum sensitivity. With the model shown here, you simply rotate the receiver's wheel back until it clicks and the LED lights up.
Test the Receiver and Transmitter
The next step is to confirm that the receiver will pick up the transmitter's signal. Plug the transmitter into a wall outlet. The outlet power should be on, and the transmitter should light up, indicating power. Place the receiver near the transmitter. The receiver should light up and/or beep to indicate it has picked up the transmitter signal. You can now use the device to locate the matching circuit breaker in your breaker box.
Match the Circuit to Its Breaker
Open to the door to the main circuit breaker box. Hold the receiver so the sensor tip is at a right angle and directly on the face of a circuit breaker. Slowly move the receiver up and down over the rows of circuit breakers while continually lowering the receiver’s sensitivity until only one breaker or fuse causes the receiver to beep. (Note: Sometimes an adjacent breaker or fuse may cause a beep due to the routing of the wires in the panel.)
After you have located the correct breaker or fuse, you can turn off the circuit by switching the breaker to the "off" position. The receiver will stop beeping.
Return to the outlet where the transmitter is plugged in to check that the transmitter light is off, indicating the circuit is no longer energized. This confirms you have turned off the correct breaker.
Using a Circuit Breaker Finder With a Light Fixture
Because the circuit breaker finder's transmitter must plug into an outlet, you can use an inexpensive adapter, called a keyless socket adapter, to plug the transmitter into a light fixture socket.
To use an adapter, turn off the light fixture at the wall switch, and remove one of the light bulbs on the fixture. Screw the adapter into the light bulb socket. Plug the transmitter into the adapter, and turn on the light switch. The transmitter will function just as if it were plugged into an outlet. Follow the same steps listed above for wall outlets to check for power, transmitter, and breaker.
Keyless socket adapters are sold at hardware stores and home centers and cost less than $10.
Buying vs. Renting
Circuit breaker finders typically cost $30 to $50, so it's a relatively affordable tool that a serious DIYers may well want to add to their electrical tool kit. Circuit breaker finders often include a GFCI outlet analyzer, and this combined kit is a valuable addition to a DIYer's electrical tool kit.
But if your goal is simply a one-time project to map your service panel, circuit breaker finders may be available for rental at home improvement centers or tool lease outlets. The daily charge for this kind of tool is usually $10 to $15.
Keeping a Circuit Breaker Finder in Good Condition
Make sure to turn off the tool after each use to avoid draining the battery. For long-term storage, it's a good idea to remove the battery entirely to avoid leakage that can damage the circuitry. Store the tool in a dry location.
When to Replace a Circuit Breaker Finder
Properly maintained, a circuit breaker finder should last for many, many years, but misuse may damage the internal circuitry. If the tool refuses to work even with a new battery, it probably needs to be replaced. This is not a tool that can be affordably repaired.