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My breaker box is very poorly labeled and I want to figure out which circuits may have overloaded (or close to it) and which could reasonably handle a little more.

In the past I have just tried flipping one of the breakers and then running around the house flipping switches and trying receptacles. Surely there is a better way?

If there is a reasonably priced tool that would make this a lot easier I would consider it.

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4 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

They make Circuit Breaker Tracers for this purpose

Tracer

You plug in one end to the circuit you want to trace, then use the probe to identify which breaker in your panel the tracer is connected to. These devices differ from a telco tracer tool in that they work on live elctrical circuits.

This particular model is about $45USD at the time of writing.

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For one person, a loud portable radio (preferably one old enough that it turns on when power is restored, but a modern one that does not is usable, since the primary method of use is to plug it in, turn it up, and listen for when it shuts off as you turn off breakers. Saves on the running up and down part, a bit, at least for outlets.

For more than one person, lamps, lights, outlet testers and some communication make the process pretty fast.

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I tried one of the breaker finders, but it was worse than useless. So my solution was simple. I took a piece of paper and drew maps of every room in the house. On the map I located every outlet, light switch, etc. Then I turned off each breaker one at a time, and tested every outlet in a room, every switch.

For some boxes, you must be careful, as you may have two circuits going into the box in some cases. And some outlets may even be split in two, or some outlets are set up as switched outlets. Identify all of these things, taking careful notes on the map.

This all took little time, and perhaps even less time than it would have taken with a breaker finder. In the end, I have those maps, so whenever anything needs doing, I pull out the map and shut down the correct breaker easily before I do any work. Even so, I STILL check the box to test if the lines into it are dead. You can never be too careful with electricity.

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This is my motivation. I was planing on doing exactly what you describe but I am not looking forward to it. I don't relish the idea of running up and down 3-4 flights of stairs to flipping breakers and check outlets. But thanks for sharing your experience with this tool. –  auujay Apr 16 '12 at 23:18
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You still do less running around than you need to do with the electronic finder, IF it works! Send someone down to the box. Tell them to shut off breaker number 1. Find and label all outlets and switches that are now shut off. This will be quick enough. Now, yell down and have them turn breaker 1 back on, then turn off breaker 2. Repeat until done... If you don't want to yell, a pair of cell phones will do wonders. It really will go quickly enough. –  user558 Apr 16 '12 at 23:32
    
@auujay The tool suggested is the circuit breaker tester, designed to find the breaker. woodchips is correct. You know were the breakers are but you are trying to find what the breakers feed. Use a light, radio or whatever. You can use multiple lights but you cannot run multiple testers. –  lqlarry Apr 17 '12 at 3:52
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I used an outlet tester on our home that we had just bought when I was making the wiring map. It has a bunch of LEDs that signal whether an outlet is properly wired. It told me if there is no power, or if an outlet had a bad ground, or if the hot and cold wires were switched, etc. So at the same time as I was looking for breakers, I was also verifying that the house wiring had been done properly. –  user558 Apr 17 '12 at 10:20
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As Steven says, what you need is a circuit breaker finder. In addition to the components he shows in that picture, there is also an adapter kit available that will allow you to plug the tone generator into a light socket, or even clip onto bare wires (that should ONLY be done on a dead circuit, but it can be invaluable for finding out what a switch controls).

In addition to finding out which breaker controls a particular plug or light fixture, the probe of the breaker will also be able to detect the tone in other plugs and switches on the same circuit. So, you can plug into one outlet, identify the breaker, then take the probe around to other switches and outlets in the same area to determine which others are on that same circuit. Coupled with a simple floor plan diagram of the house, you can map out what circuits control which fixtures with a number or color-code system, then code or number the breakers to match and put the map on the inside of the panel cover.

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Remember when checking switched lights with a tone generator, to turn the switch on (it's not as useful if the circuit is open). –  Tester101 Apr 17 '12 at 12:17
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