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Update labeling on your breaker box  Smart Choices Archive

Update labeling on your breaker box

Image: Kathy Roth Eastman


Your breaker box is probably way down in a dark corner of your basement where you rarely go unless there is an electrical problem such as when a tripped breaker disrupts power to a portion of your home.

When that happens, you may realize how odd the connections are, with the circuit providing power to an outlet in one room and a light in another room. If you are like many homeowners, you can’t remember which outlets are on which circuit. And to make it more difficult, the cryptic notes for each circuit may not include details for each outlet in each room.

It’s easier to tell what’s what when the breaker has tripped, but harder if you are trying to cut power to a particular outlet. Often, experimentation is the only way to figure out what’s on which circuit.

Update your labels
This can be a tedious task, but it makes your home safer, and you’ll have an easier task the next time you need to selectively shut down a circuit. It is also helpful to anyone who doesn’t live in your home who must access the electrical panel, and of course, if you sell your home, the new owners will need to know the details.

At the same time you are updating your labels, it’s also a smart move to draw a map of your home, identifying where each circuit goes. You’ll be in even better shape if you color code your box labels along with the map showing each circuit.

Pointers for tackling the labeling task:

  • It works best with two people; one to turn breakers off and on, and another to check each outlet, light switch and appliance. You can start with all of the lights on (or all turned off) and identify which go off (or come on) with each breaker flip. To test outlets, use a small lamp or digital clock (or a non-contact voltage tester) to test which outlets stop working with each breaker flip. Don’t forget to check “hidden” items such hard-wired smoke detectors; doorbells; security systems; and outdoor connections such as lights, motion sensors and timers.
  • You also have at least a few dedicated circuits, which handle large appliances including your refrigerator, cooktop, dryer, microwave, furnace and air conditioner, water heater, garbage disposal and possibly other items. You may be able to see if the appliance is working by whether the light is on or if you can turn the appliance on. In some older homes, there may be other items on the circuit, too, so be sure to check light fixtures just in case.
  • If your box labels are like those in many homes, the info on each label is difficult to read, may be completed in pencil and has words crossed off or erased. To redo your labels, it’s best to start over. You can purchase labels made for breaker boxes or create your own. Color coding is a good idea, too. You could create a new grid on heavy paper and slip it into a plastic sleeve to attach it to the box. To see a variety of label styles, you can check out Pinterest for examples.
  • This Old House magazine suggests numbering each circuit and accurately labeling exactly what is included on the circuit. For example, instead of listing a room as “the playroom,” ID it as “the bedroom on the southwest corner.” You may have to list individual outlets from several rooms; specify which outlets go with which circuit, again identifying them by their location in the room (“on the north wall” or “below the window”).
  • If you draw a color-coded map, enclose it in a plastic sleeve and attach it to the box, either on the front of the door or inside the box if there is sufficient room.
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