Welcome to the Take Charge of Your Home series from Direct Energy! Hiring a professional to perform household maintenance may offer convenience and peace of mind, but you can do many of these jobs yourself with no experience or special tools. And in the process, you’ll save money, learn about how your home works and gain a sense of accomplishment from a DIY task done well!
Any time you perform electrical work or maintenance around your home, you’ll need to shut off one or more circuit breakers before it’s safe to begin. Working on a live circuit can have deadly consequences, so there can be no guesswork when it comes to which breakers you choose.
Every household electrical panel should have a clearly posted list or diagram that shows which areas of your home correspond with each circuit breaker. If your home was recently built or if you’re its only owner, you may have no doubts that this information is correct. But if you purchased your home from a previous owner or your circuit diagram is missing or damaged, you might need to correct or reconstruct this information by “mapping” your electrical panel.
Mapping your home’s circuitry is simply the process of verifying what is connected to each circuit by shutting down the breakers one at a time. If you have a partner and a few basic supplies, you should be able to accurately map your home’s electrical panel in less than an hour, allowing you to post a reliable diagram in your breaker box.
Understanding Your Circuitry
The reason we call them circuits is because the voltage carried by electrical wiring travels a circuitous path from the electrical panel to the outlet and back again. The hot wire carries electricity from the breaker box to the outlets, light fixtures and other devices in a certain area. The neutral wire carries it back. When you flip a circuit breaker, it interrupts the circuit, making it safe to work on.
If you find a circuit map posted in your electrical panel, it might have labels like “living room” or “bathroom 1”. It’s possible that those circuits control every outlet and fixture in their designated rooms, but it’s also possible that the light fixtures are on one circuit and the wall outlets are on another. And if electrical work was performed after the map was created, there could be wired outlets that are completely unaccounted for.
One Circuit at a Time
The best way to map your electrical panel is to have one person at the panel itself and another person walking around the house. Using cell phones or walkie-talkies to communicate will prevent unnecessary trips back and forth. If the circuit breakers aren’t already clearly numbered, you should number them with permanent marker before you begin.
The person who is away from the panel should carry a pen, a notepad and an outlet tester – an inexpensive device that lights up whenever it’s plugged into a live outlet. If you don’t have one, you can use something light and portable like a clock radio or a small lamp.
It’s a good idea to complete this process during daylight hours, because lights will go off and on. Before beginning the mapping process, turn on all lights, electronics and appliances with the exception of computers or any devices that need to be shut down carefully. These should be turned off properly, because their power sources will be disconnected at some point.
The person at the electrical panel should shut off one breaker at a time, starting with the large double-pull breakers. These typically control large appliances that draw lots of power, such as furnaces, air conditioners, ovens, dryers and water heaters. With one breaker flipped, the person in the house should look for deactivated lights, appliances and electronics, using the outlet tester or other device to check unused outlets. Controllers like thermostats, security keypads and pump controls may need to be used to check for power in certain equipment.
Just because you find one dead outlet or fixture doesn’t mean you’re done with that circuit – to get an accurate accounting of your household wiring, you’ll need to check all of the nearby outlets and lights to confirm. It’s also important to keep in mind that outdoor outlets, lighting, pumps and other equipment are connected to the electrical panel, so if you don’t find any power cut off inside, check outside.
Every time you identify what’s on a circuit, take detailed notes. If you want to go a step further than making an accurate circuit map, you can also remove each outlet cover and switchplate as you go and write the breaker number on the back before reinstalling it. That way, if someone removes the cover in the future to perform electrical work, they’ll immediately see which breaker to shut off.
After you’ve collected all of your circuitry information, there’s still a little work left to do – beginning with resetting the clocks on your digital electronics.
When you’re ready to make your circuit map, there are a couple of smart ways to go about it. The simplest format is to create a numbered list or table with detailed descriptions of the rooms, outlets, fixtures and major appliances connected to each circuit. If you prefer a visual approach, you can also design and print a floor plan of your home with marks indicating the location and circuit number of every electrical source.
Many circuit maps are written on large decals affixed to the inside of the breaker box door. If you create a new circuit map, consider printing it on ordinary paper and slipping it into a plastic document sleeve that you can attach to the door. That way, it’s easy to replace if you make changes later, and it’s protected from dust and moisture.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve never pulled the breaker switches in your electrical panel before — mapping circuits is a safe and simple job that any homeowner can pull off. But if you find anything unusual throughout the process, from dead outlets to sticky circuit breakers, you can always call in a licensed, experienced electrician to finish the job.