Circuit Breaker Finders and Tracers Tested
As an apprenticing electrician, I have some opportunities to work on some great commercial job sites. When I say “great” I mean intensely complex and challenging. In comparison to some of those larger projects, getting involved in some residential remodels is a refreshing change of pace. It also allows me to dust off and use some tools that have been lying somewhat dormant in my tool bag. I knew I had a remodel job coming up and took the opportunity to coordinate with Pro Tool Reviews so that I’d be able to try, not only my own circuit breaker finder, but eight other tools as well.
Circuit Finding and Tracing Tools
There’s a big difference between circuit breaker finders and circuit tracers, but I’ll leave that detailed explanation up to the “How’s It Work” article located elsewhere in this magazine. Suffice it to say, these products span the whole range of circuit-related tools. I’ve used a lot of these tools, but certainly not all of the brands tested. This was a good opportunity to use a lot more of the available products on the market and see which tools worked the best. Hopefully, I can do a decent job of documenting my experiences so that you can purchase the right tool for your application should the need arise…and if you’re an electrician working on residential or commercial projects, the need will definitely arise.
I had a couple of jobs where I was involved in rewiring some homes during some remodeling work. A couple of the projects involved locating circuit breakers in a panel box. On other sites, we had to make sure not to cut through any wiring when moving a stud wall to expand a room. And by “moving” I’m really saying that the old wall needed to be demoed and a new one built. It’s important when doing remodel work like this that you understand how the wiring is run so that you don’t create more work than you have to. All in all I had three different jobs lined up with which to test out these tools, and I couldn’t wait to get to work.
Finding Circuit Breakers
The term “circuit breaker finder” always bugged me. Why? Because I always know where the circuit breaker is—it’s in the panel where I left it. But since all of these tools work by transmitting a signal on a particular circuit, you end up doing exactly that—locating the associated breaker for that traced circuit. As a result, when labeling a panel, it’s likely that you’ll systematically go through the circuits in the home, but the panel labeling process will jump around from breaker to breaker as you go through the process of discovery. I tested the tools in several different ways, but the first thing I did was order them from least expensive to most expensive and use them as circuit breaker finders in that order.
Three of the tools I tested, the Amprobe BT-120, the Triplett Breaker Sniff-It (9650) and the Klein ET300 are all built from the same platform. In fact, they can all work interchangeably with their single pole transmitters. (I tried them all in various configurations.) That’s not to say that you should interchange them or that they are completely identical. (It’s possible that the sensitivity settings are slightly different for each.) The Klein, for example, comes with an orange rubber overmold that protects the unit and at least partially helps the side-mounted on/rest button from accidentally activating every three seconds. No such luck on the other two models—throw them in a tool bag, and you’re sure to go through batteries like a I go through a bag of popcorn. The Klein also comes with a two-year warranty while the Triplett Breaker Sniff-It includes a limited lifetime warranty. All in all, these breaker finders did the job, only once getting a little sidetracked on a particularly active circuit that I know had lots of RF devices attached, including uninterruptible power supplies, battery backups and various home theater equipment.
When using an indoor electrical panel I really liked using General Tools’ BF10-AC Circuit Breaker Finder. Right from the start I appreciated that this tool had an integrated LED light. It’s activated by a momentary switch right on the face of the tool. This came in handy when the lighting wasn’t that great. The transmitter is also a step up, with a socket test mode that audibly and visibly identifies missing earth and neutral as well as reversed wiring. And General has some fun with their tool as well, integrating a nice “smiley” face for a found circuit and a “sad” face as the default state. There’s even a battery gauge to tell you when it’s time to change out the receiver’s 9V.
In addition to finding breakers, I was also able to test the correct wiring of GFCI circuits with the Sperry Instruments Breaker Finder (CS61200). This unit is unusual in its form factor. It separates into two sections, and the lower transmitter portion has a dual-function as a socket tester with GFCI test. About the only problem with this tool is that most outlets are oriented such that the fault guide is upside down (and thus not visible). This isn’t a problem if the circuit is wired properly, but if you want to identify a specific fault you’ll likely have to pull out the tester to check the guide. The socket also shipped with the ground plug so tight, I thought I might yank a couple of outlets from the wall before I was finished. A quick squeeze with a pair of Kleins fixed that right up. As a circuit breaker finder, the CS61200 worked well, but I wish it came with a way to manually adjust the sensitivity. The 10-step LEDs quickly revealed the Max range when locating the proper breaker, but adjacent breakers also yielded a similar response. That left us with the tone, which did indeed vary from the correct breaker to the next one, but some finagling with the wand positioning and distance was the best method of manually adjusting the sensitivity, as it reassured me that I had the correct breaker selected.
Extech’s CB20 Circuit Breaker Finder was a surprisingly easy tool to use. Right away I liked the ergonomics of the tool—the way the tip bent, allowing you to hold the rubberized handle at a comfortable angle. There are only two buttons on the CB20—and one of those is the GFCI tester located on the transmitter. The other activates the receiver, at which point the tip glows a nice red. When you correctly locate the breaker, the tip turns green, and the unit emits a solid beep. Aside from the Sperry CS61200, this is the only other tool to come with a GFCI tester. As with many of these circuit breaker finders, one of their strengths is the ability to automatically adjust the sensitivity when scanning through the breakers on the first pass. For some circuits it may be necessary to reset the receiver and scan the breakers a second time in a different location in order to differentiate false positives from the correct circuit.
Zircon’s Breaker ID Pro was one of two kits received for this round-up. Inside was the Circuit Finder receiver and transmitter which handles up to 277V, so you could theoretically use it to locate breakers for commercial lighting fixtures. The transmitter terminates to universal male connectors that allow it to mate with an included two-prong 120VAC plug, individual 120V/240V blades and clamps. There’s even a socket adapter to let you trace out a standard 120V lighting fixture. For certain 230V/240V applications, the single blades offer some flexibility for placement, but on larger socket sizes (like older 50A range outlets) they may fit too loosely to be of much use without an assistant. To truly locate breakers for these circuits you may need to clamp onto the wire to get a solid connection for the transmitter. Overall, the individual blades and clips are quite handy for three phase applications. If you need the additional capability to locate breakers over 30 amps, this just might be the best bang for your buck.
Tracing Live Wires
Amprobe’s ECB50A was the first device I was able to use to trace a live wire. I pulled it out when attempting to discern the path taken to run an outlet for an existing wall-mounted bedroom television. Using the Amprobe Circuit Seeker I placed the Circuit Tracer Transmitter into the outlet I believed to be on the same line. Tracing above the television’s supply outlet I was able to verify the run and tap into that outlet for additional power to the home theater. It had limited success on thicker walls made of plaster and lathe, but in drywall it excelled. Of course, as a circuit breaker finder, the ECB50A also works well. I particularly liked the manual sensitivity setting, which came in handy when attempting to eliminate false positives or discern the correct circuit from an adjacent breaker. For only $65, this is an amazingly flexible and versatile tool.
Which brings us to products like the Ideal SureTrace and the Greenlee CS-8000. We began with the Greenlee and used it to trace out a live wire that was in a wall being removed as part of a remodel. Obviously this tool is considerably more complex (and sensitive) than the products I have written about so far. (See our “How’s It Work” article in this issue for more on that.) The LCD screen, for example, probably costs more to implement on this tool than the sum of the electronics in a typical $35 breaker finder. With that complexity comes a different feature set that enables the CS-8000 to do a whole lot more. I immediately liked the ergonomics of this tool. This is the first circuit seeker/tracer I’ve used that has the visual feedback facing the user straight-on. Typically the visual readouts are on the side or top. The LCD on the CS-8000 isn’t overly detailed, but that’s what makes it good. You’ve got a 5-step scale for relative signal strength in addition to an absolute signal strength meter. The display tells you when you are in Auto Gain or Manual Gain mode as well as Breaker Mode or Search Mode. It also correctly identifies a live or open circuit. And that’s it. It doesn’t gum up the screen with other details you don’t need, allowing you to use the tool efficiently and effectively.
The CS-8000 was fast. This was largely because the LCD screen and audible tone made it extremely simple to know what was going on at any given moment. It was also apparent that the Greenlee was extremely proficient at locating breakers. It gave less false positives and had the ability to scan the breakers and set its own sensitivity at a much faster pace—or so it appeared. It could also quickly identify the correct panel when I was dealing with multiple panel boxes. I just put the tool in Search mode and swept the four corners of each panel to determine the one with the highest signal strength.
Ideal’s 61-957 kit was next, and I performed the same tasks with it as I did with the Greenlee. It was equally quick to use, and I liked the new “rotating” OLED display. It’s easy to identify what’s going on and highly visible in all types of lighting whereas the Greenlee CS-8000 can suffer from glare if you use it with the sun at your back. The display also shows you 99 steps of signal strength, which is a lot of resolution. The CertainCircuit feature was also really nice in that it kept me from having to go back into the building to verify that the correct circuit had been cut after I tripped the breaker. Instead, an icon on the screen told me that when I turned the circuit off, the transmitter was indeed reading it as having been deactivated.
I bounced between the Ideal 61-957 kit and the Greenlee CS-8000. These are two very different systems that go after the same tasks and, as far as I can tell, the same market. Greenlee definitely ups the ante with its ergonomics, but the Ideal was nearly foolproof in its execution. The pricing is near-identical, so it makes it all that much harder to really come to a conclusion as to which I’d prefer.
For basic circuit breaker finding, most of these tools did an excellent job. The three least expensive models are even capable to locating most breakers, and they did great on a home where we had to completely relabel the electrical panel following a rewire. Tossing them into a tool bag might net you some dead batteries due to the overly-easy on button, but aside from that there’s nothing wrong with an inexpensive tool that works. The next thing I realized is that features matter. If you find yourself constantly checking GFCI circuits, then there’s no need to carry around a separate tool. Also, the convenience of the two-in-one Sperry is great design which uses audible cues to a larger degree than many of the others. The LED light on the General Tools BF10-AC is brilliant (literally) and not something to be overlooked. More comfortable to use than most, the Extech’s ergonomic positioning, shape and molded handle was far superior for a basic circuit breaker finder, but you also pay a premium.
If advanced features are what you need, Amprobe’s ECB50A is the best of both worlds—or at least a little of both worlds. It’s not as sensitive as a true circuit tracer, but it seemed to do a great job of tracking with live wires just below the surface of a wall of sheetrock. Since it’s also a pretty good breaker finder, at $65 it’s a real steal of a tool.
For actual live and open circuit tracing, both the Greenlee CS-8000 and the Ideal SureTrace kits are fantastic. I liked the feel of the Greenlee better, but the CertainCircuit feature of the Ideal RC-959 is a stroke of genius. It simply sends a signal from the transmitter to the receiver to let it know if the line is live or not. When it is, there’s a lightning bolt icon, and when it is dead that icon goes away. Not having to go back and check to see if the power was cut to the transmitter when you test the breaker is a really handy function. While Ideal covers their tool against defects for a generous 2 year period, Greenlee offers their tool with a limited lifetime warranty. That may play into your ~$800 decision as well. Whatever you choose, either of these tools will make you feel a little bit like a super hero. Once you get acclimated to the setup and best practices, you will be able to see through walls like superman and trace circuits and spot shorts more quickly than you ever thought possible.
Tool by Tool
Part of the “gang of three”, this circuit breaker locator was actually quite accurate in our testing and was nearly interchangeable with both the Klein and Triplett models. Given the price, it’s hard to pass this up in a pinch, though there are more feature-rich choices. One negative shared by this tool and the Triplett is that they will turn on when bumped. Toss this in a tool bag, and it may well be that the battery is drained before you actually get to use it.
Pros: Inexpensive enough to be in every tool bag, Reasonably accurate.
Cons: Turns on easily and might drain the battery if stored loose in a tool bag.
Verdict: An affordable, no-frills breaker-finder.
Triplett Breaker Sniff-It 9650
Like the Amprobe BT-120 and Klein ET300, this breaker finder worked very reliably but offered no particular frills or features worth highlighting. At a price point that is too cheap to allow anyone an excuse not to have one, this tool (or one of its compadres) should easily be a staple of tool bags everywhere. Triplett has the distinct honor, however, of being the only manufacturer to not include the required 9V battery.
Pros: Simple design, Reasonably accurate, Super inexpensive.
Cons: 9V not included, Turns on easily and might drain the battery if stored loose in a tool bag.
Verdict: An affordable, no-frills breaker-finder, but don’t forget the 9V.
Klein apparently couldn’t sit by and use the same form factor as Amprobe and Triplett without doing something, so it added a nice protective rubber cover for the receiver. It gives it some protection, but more importantly it makes the switch less prone to turning the receiver on by accident when you nudge it. For the extra $5, I’d opt for this tweaked model in a heartbeat.
Pros: Nice protective rubber slip-case, Great value, Reasonably accurate.
Cons: Can still accidentally tun on when tossed in a tool bag.
Verdict: An affordable, no-frills breaker-finder with a little extra protection.
General Tools Circuit Breaker Finder BF10-AC
If there’s one thing I’ve observed about General, it’s that they have a tendency to add nifty features to their tools that others overlook. For the BF10-AC one of those features would be the integrated socket tester and the handy LED light that can be activated by pressing the momentary switch below the receiver’s power button. In addition, the built-in low battery light that tells you when it’s time for a change is a nice touch. I like this company’s sense of humor, too—at least that’s what I thought when I saw the smiley face and sad face used to indicate the correct circuit breaker. The tool is very comfortable in the hand, though it forces you to hold it perfectly perpendicular to the face of the electrical panel, which can be less than ergonomic if you’re doing a lot of this kind of work.
Pros: LED light, Low battery indicator, Nice rubberized coating on receiver, Good performance.
Cons: With readout on top it can be less ergonomic when using with taller panel boxes.
Verdict: A serious tool that doesn’t take itself too seriously and has some thoughtful and helpful features.
Sperry Instruments Breaker Finder CS61200
There’s a lot to like about this breaker finder. From the two-piece compact design to the magnetic base that holds the receiver in place while you guide the wand over the breakers, Sperry put some serious thought into the CS61200. This tool’s transmitter also doubles as a GFCI tester and was the least expensive of the two tools tested that had that feature. A combination of visual alerts (there are ten LEDs which light up to indicate the signal strength) and audible beeps cue you in to which breaker is the right one. The wand tended to be a tad touchy, but the fact that you can vary its position and distance from the breaker also gives you some ability to customize the sensitivity and hone in on the correct of two adjacent breakers.
Pros: Nice all-in-one design, Magnetic base on receiver, GFCI tester, Compact and portable.
Cons: Relies a lot on audible cues when dealing with adjacent breakers.
Verdict: An inexpensive compact and portable circuit breaker finder that has lots of flexibility and features.
This tool started off a bit finicky, but then we got the hang of it and found that it was very adept at finding the correct breaker. We absolutely loved the manual sensitivity dial, which helped us better compensate for false positives. This $65 tool also has basic live circuit tracing capabilities, which is to say that the sensitivity can be dialed up high enough to penetrate sheetrock and detect the circuit beneath. It’s not nearly as accurate or sensitive as a true circuit tracer, but in a pinch it’s quite impressive. I was a little perplexed that the LCD display only produces the letter “H” when the proper circuit is discovered. A single LED would have been less expensive to implement and just as informative. One negative was that the transmitter lacked even a single illuminating LED to indicate that the receptacle I plugged it into was live. Because of this, there was no visual verification when I switched off the breaker to test my work.
Pros: Basic live circuit tracing, incredible value, manually adjustable sensitivity
Cons: No power LED on transmitter.
Verdict: An almost unbelievable value considering you can use this tool as a basic live circuit tracer.
If this were a beauty pageant, the Extech CB20 would win for most attractive tool. Its sleek lines, ergonomic shape and rubberized grip make this a tool that’s super easy to use. It’s also one of the few and the proud that doesn’t require the use of a screwdriver to change the receiver’s battery. (Zircon has the only other tool that falls into this category.) It’s also very easy to identify breakers. There’s a simple tone and a light at the translucent tip that turns from red to green when it finds the correct live circuit. This is the second tool we’ve tested whose transmitter includes a GFCI tester.
Pros: Ergonomic grip and positioning, Easy to read—even in dimly lit rooms, GFCI tester.
Cons: A bit more expensive than other similarly-featured tools, Would benefit from a sensitivity dial.
Verdict: If you’re doing a lot of circuit breaker finding, this tool may save your wrist.
Zircon Breaker ID Pro 64058
Like the Extech, the Zircon Breaker ID Pro allows you to hold the tool at a slant, so you’re not completely perpendicular to the electrical panel. It also allows tool-less 9V battery changes in the receiver. Feature-wise, it’s pretty simple except that the case (a very nice foam-lined mini road model) includes all sorts of connectors and adapters for use with finding circuit breakers via 220V/230V lines and 120V lighting fixtures. In addition to the 120V socket adapter, the universal transmitter’s 12″ long male leads fit into a single pole AC plug, a pair of clamps, or a pair of individual blades. The Zircon isn’t a fancy unit as far as the receiver goes, but it was consistently accurate in my tests.
Pros: Consistently accurate results, fully-featured kit, nice case.
Cons: A pricier breaker finder.
Verdict: A higher priced, but more robust kit for finding circuit breakers
Greenlee Circuit Seeker CS-8000
The fully-featured CS-8000 kit is a real workhorse and unique among circuit seekers. It’s by far the most ergonomic tool I’ve yet used for this kind of work, and it is quick and easy to use—there’s not a sharp learning curve. The kit includes two 12′ test lead extensions so I could tie into a branch circuit when needed. There’s also a ~3′ AC plug adapter, two clamps and a single AC blade connector. In Search Mode this tool is amazingly fast at finding and following live circuits or locating breakers in a panel. The flexible kit makes the tool especially adept at configuring it to trace conduit and shorts as well.
Pros: Easy-to-read LCD screen, Incredibly ergonomic, Long test leads, Very accurate.
Cons: Not inexpensive, Difficult to adjust sensitivity quickly, Can be misled by nearby florescent lighting.
Verdict: This tool steps you up to the big leagues and lets you reliably and quickly trace live or open circuits
Ideal SureTrace Open/Closed Circuit Tracer 61-957
Ideal has three available SureTrace kits, and this is the middle child. The 61-957 includes a high-end receiver with a gyroscopically-controlled OLED screen that rotates its display so that it’s always right side up. Also included are accessories that let you do everything needed to trace a live or open circuit behind walls or within conduit. Possibly most impressive about this system is the CertainCircuit detection, a simple but effective system that confirms when the tested circuit has been de-energized at the breaker. It eliminates having to go back inside and visually verify that the correct breaker was deactivated.
Pros: Auto-rotate OLED display, Very accurate, CertainCircuit detection, Simple sensitivity adjustments.
Cons: You pay for what you get, Can be misled by nearby florescent lighting.
Verdict: Ideal has stepped up its game once again with features that are practical and a system that is nearly foolproof