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  • Andy

Getting your house's electrical system in order!

I can’t tell you how many electrical panels that I come across with circuit breakers that are mislabeled or lack a label altogether. Navigating a panel without an accurate legend can be time consuming at best but it can also create a potentially unsafe condition for anyone who might need to work in your home. Having a well-labeled electrical panel is not only a requirement by the National Electrical Code but it will give you peace of mind when you need to isolate and cut off power to an individual receptacle in your home for whatever reason. Depending on the size of your panel (and your home) you can create an accurate and organized electrical map of your home, create a label for each breaker, and become code compliant in an afternoon. A helper with a cell phone will certainly speed up the process but if your home is small and you don’t mind getting some exercise in the process, you can complete this task on your own.

Since you will be identifying circuits by turning on and off breakers, this project is best left for the daytime hours and it helps when other members of the household are out or don’t require the use of electricity. The only tool (besides a pen and paper) that you need will be some sort of electrical tester. I recommend the plug-in type similar to the one pictured. It is possible to identify circuits with a simple lamp, radio, or other electrical device but the $15 spent on a plug-in tester shown here will be a great addition to your tool box and will allow you to troubleshoot other potential problems in your home (more on that later).

Examine the breakers in your panel and identify any dedicated circuits that might be easy to determine based on their size and rating. These will probably be your 220 volt circuits (breakers that take two spaces in your panel) that serve to shutoff a single device. For example, if you have an electric clothes dryer, you will likely have a 220 volt, 30 amp breaker. If you don’t have any major electrical devices (like an electric range, electric heating, central air conditioning, or clothes dryer, you will probably not have any 220 volt devices. Some 120 volt (single space breakers) that might be dedicated include dishwashers, washing machines, and some microwave ovens. You can confirm the breakers that control each of these devices by temporarily switching them off. Write down the breaker number and a short description of the device it covers.

After your major dedicated circuits are done, move on to lighting. The entire electrical mapping process is pretty much trial and error unless you have some labeling on your panel to give you a clue. That being said, there is nothing difficult about doing the following. Start in any room that has a light switch, turn it on, and keep flipping breakers one at a time until the light goes off. Jot down a description (i.e. kitchen light above table) and the breaker number and then move on to the next light switch. Focus only on hard-wired fixtures at this point and skip over lamps that are plugged into an outlet. Also remember that multiple devices will likely be on the same breaker.

Now it is time to identify all the receptacles (or outlets) in your home. You will need to go around to every receptacle, plug a device into that receptacle, and turn off and on individual circuit breakers until the device plugged into that particular receptacle goes off. Write down the circuit breaker number that controls each and every receptacle in your home. Again, remember that several receptacles will likely be controlled on the same circuit. Receptacles and overhead lighting might also share the same circuit breaker. You can perform the ‘receptacle test’ with any known working electrical device but a lamp or small radio will work best if you don’t have a plug-in electrical tester.

As mentioned earlier, a plug-in electrical tester is a great investment. I like the kinds that have the capability to test GFCI receptacles as well as ordinary outlets (like the one pictured- note the black button on the tester). If you have already committed to the project of mapping out and labeling every receptacle in your home, you might as well test the wiring to each receptacle at the same time. The plug-in tester shown will allow you to do just that.

On the tester will be a series of three lights that will generally glow either amber or red when plugged into a live circuit. If no light is illuminated on the tester when plugged into a receptacle, this indicates that no power is getting to that receptacle… either the breaker that controls that receptacle is off or there is a significant wiring fault. If all of your breakers are in the ‘on’ position and your tester shows no lights, check first to make sure that the receptacle is not a ‘switched outlet’. That is, a receptacle that can be turned off or on by a light switch somewhere in the room. This is fairly common in bedrooms without overhead light fixtures. If not a switched outlet, the receptacle or wiring behind it contains some kind of a fault that will require more expertise than this article will provide and you should consult an electrician.

The light sequence that you are looking for on each receptacle is two amber lights. This will indicate that the outlet is wired correctly, grounded properly, and is fully functional. Make sure you test every plug in the outlet since there are times when the top plug may work and the bottom plug will not (and vice versa). If you see two amber lights, jot down a description of the receptacles location and the breaker number that controls it. My advice would be to use directional symbols and not furniture locations or occupant descriptions (i.e. “Master Bedroom North Wall” is better than “Natalie’s Bedroom behind desk”). This way as furniture moves around the room (or occupants move out of the house) the descriptions will still be valid.

If you encounter any receptacles that display anything other than two amber lights on the tester, you will need to note them and consult an electrician. Having ‘reversed polarity’ or and ‘open ground’ aren’t problems that are necessarily difficult to correct but they involve working with the electrical wiring behind the outlets and that is something best left for an experienced professional.

If you have a plug-in tester that can test GFCI receptacles, you should do that at each receptacle of that type as well (usually located in kitchens and bathrooms). Pressing the button on the tester should ‘trip’ the switch on the GFCI receptacle. If it doesn’t make a note of it and have it replaced. After tripping the GFCI receptacle, you will need to reset it by pressing the appropriate button on the receptacle before it will supply power again.

After you have gone through every room in the house (outdoor circuits too) and tested every receptacle, turned on every light switch and identified every device that uses electricity in your home, you are just about done. Make an organized list by breaker number that lists every item on that breaker. If you have a fancy label maker, you can create a label for each breaker and affix it to the panel.

That is it! You are done. Hopefully you will have identified every single breaker in your panel and found no faults in any of your circuits… take some time to relax and enjoy the electricity in your home! You will sleep better at night knowing that everything electrical is organized and in proper working condition.

For those of you that really can’t be bothered to waste an afternoon circling around your house, give Handy Andy a call! We would be happy to perform all of these tests for you and provide you with a well-documented map of everything that is electrical in your home.

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