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Circuit Tracers and Breaker Finders – Do they really work?

November 21, 2007

Circuit Tracers and Breaker Finders

BBBertram Says:
Do circuit breaker tracers/finders really work? I have tried a couple and they only narrow the search down to 6 or 7 breakers which isn’t much help. Is there one you recommend?

Wayne Gilchrist Says:
I believe they work, but they are like everything else; you get what you pay for. We use the Greenlee Power Finder Circuit Seeker™ Circuit Tracer Cat# 2011 and the Amprobe Advanced Wire Tracer model AT-2001. Both of these tools come with hefty price tags and are probably not recommended for the average homeowner or DIYer because of the cost. However, if you don’t mind spending $500.00 – $750.00, then these are the 2 that I recommend.

Now a circuit tracer or breaker finder is simply a transmitter and receiver. You hook the transmitter to one end and use the receiver to find the signal at the other end. The problem is if the circuit you are trying to find is sharing a neutral or is in a conduit or cable with other circuits the signal can be induced or backfed onto other circuits and give you a false reading.

As always, you need to read, follow and understand the instructions with these and all tools before using them. You also need to “know your tools”. I thought our circuit tracers didn’t work properly and I felt “ripped off” at first. But after I read the instructions and used them several several times, I began to understand how they worked.

I definately think that the breaker box cover needs to be removed for more accuracy. However, I do not think you need one of these tools as a homeowner or DIYer. In a residential application with a second person helping, I recommend using a receptacle tester or turn on a light and have one person stay at the circuit location and the second person go flip breakers. Hopefully, the breaker box is labeled correctly. If it is not, please label each circuit. If you are working alone, plug in a radio on this circuit, “crank it up”, and go flip breakers until the radio goes off. 

I think circuit tracers or breaker finders are best suited for commercial and industrial applications. In these applications, there are typically several breaker boxes that the circuit could be in. Using one of these tracers will definately get you into the correct breaker box almost immediately.

Once I find the correct breaker box, I remove the cover and slowly search for the signal circuit by circuit. At this point, I run the receiver over the wires and not the circuit breakers. Once I narrow down the few breakers it may be, I concentrate harder on the receiver. The receiver will usually make a louder noise or the signal strength will be stronger on the correct circuit.

I hope this helps. Good luck and be safe when working in live or energized breaker boxes. 

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