Labelling and Getting to Know your Electrical Panel

Somebody was just using the hair dryer, and you know because the lights in the den just went out. No need to be alarmed. A breaker has tripped, and all you need to do now is make your way to the electrical panel to flip the breaker. Maybe it’s a trip to the laundry room in the basement or a trip to the water heater closet, but you are likely headed to an area that hasn’t been dusted in the past few months. Hopefully it’s well lit, and the panel is in good condition, or else you’ve got bigger problems. You open the door to see which breaker is tripped, and you are faced with a chart that appears to have been written in ancient hieroglyphics.

Ok. That might be an exaggeration, but who uses a dull pencil to label anything? And has coffee been spewed on the chart? How did this important and protected piece of paper come to look like it was stored in a dirt cellar for 20 years? While the mysteries of the state of electrical panel labelling is an 8th wonder of the world, it can be fixed. Thankfully, you can see which breaker is tripped, so the day is saved, but don’t let your electrical panel remain poorly labelled.

You might be thinking, no big deal. This happens once in a blue moon. But there are good reasons for labelling your electrical panel. For one, it familiarizes you with the breaker panels and where the main power breakers are. This can be useful in an emergency. More commonly, it allows certain areas of the house to be safely freed of electricity for home projects. Nobody wants to live in the dark because the spare room has been painted, and it’s time to change the outlets.

There are basically two reasons a breaker trips:

  1. Electrical overload
  2. Electrical short circuit

The first is a minor inconvenience, but it can be prevented by knowing which circuit is getting overloaded. The second, an electrical short, can be serious and can cause a fire or damage expensive appliances. Make these problems easy to solve by making a clear map of your home’s breakers and what they belong to!

How to Label your Electrical Panel

  1. Turn off all breakers.

This should be done one-at-a-time. Slowly switch each breaker into its off position, and get ready for an electrical scavenger hunt.

  1. Obtain a meter.

A full range of meters can be used for this project from a digital multi meter to a tic tracer, and all that is necessary is that the meter detects voltage.


  1. Flip on each switch and find out what goes live.

If you have a newer home, your breaker panel may make sense. Bathrooms, living areas, and the laundry room will each have their separate breakers, and big items like stoves and dryers will have dedicated two-pole breakers (they take up two spaces in the panel). However, if you haven’t tested it before, don’t assume your electrician was thinking logically. Too often, one plug-in in a room will be on a completely separate circuit from all others, which is dangerous when doing simple tasks like changing out plug-ins. This is why the electrical meter ensures that you have it right. Test everything!

  1. Map it out!

A handwritten chart is a must while mapping the circuitry of your home. Pre-draw the breaker panel and number it, making sure to adjust for two-pole breakers. Make sure it’s legible because this is your blueprint for your final result. If there is a weird anomaly in your wiring scheme, include it on the chart!

  1. Get a fine-point permanent marker…or put it on an Excel sheet.

Don’t try to rewrite over your old, yellow, faded chart. That chart should now be in the trash can. At the very least, draw a new chart on fresh, white paper. Lined notebook paper is fine, but make sure to write in legible, dark, permanent ink. You don’t want a repeat of the previous chart. The other option is to put it on an Excel sheet. Make it fancy! However, don’t forget to put a plastic covering over either option to protect it and keep the writing clear.

Pro Tip: Measure the door to your electrical panel prior to creating a chart. There is nothing more frustrating than a redo because of lack of foresight.

  1. Rest assured.

You may feel accomplished, or you may feel underwhelmed, but a responsible homeowner should know how their house is wired, and the only way to do that is by creating an accurate and readable chart.

Does it still seem too daunting? Or maybe you just don’t want to do it? Then, fork over the dough for an electrician, and they will happily trace the circuits in your house. Just don’t wait until you need it. Safety and convenience lies in preparation, so why not get started?

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