How to Read Your Electrical Panel

A technician in a blue shirt flipping a switch on a breaker box.

You take the electricity in your home for granted, but if something goes wrong, you need to know how to read and use your electrical panel. You may normally avoid this mysterious gray metal box, afraid that messing with it could cause some sort of disaster. It’s time to demystify the electrical panel so you can use it when the time is right.

Find the Breaker Box

Check around your home for a gray box mounted flush to the wall. Common areas include the utility room, garage, laundry room, basement or hall closet. The electrical panel may also be located outside if you can’t find it in any of these indoor locations.

Check For and Read the Labels

Once you open the breaker box cover, you’ll see two columns of switches. Each switch sends power to a specific circuit in your house. Hopefully, someone labeled the circuits when the wiring was originally installed for the purpose of avoid confusion and frustration.

The labels might be located right next to each switch or on the inside of the breaker panel door with numbers matching them to their corresponding switch. The labels may refer to specific appliances or rooms on each circuit.

What to Do If the Switches Aren’t Labeled

If someone skipped this step in the past, you should take the time to test and label the circuits for future reference. Labeled circuits make it easy to tell which switches to turn on and off if a circuit trips or you need to shut off a specific breaker for an electrical repair.

The easiest way to label your break panel is to guess and check:

  • Switch off all the circuits except one.
  • Walk through your house to check for lights and outlets that still work. Bring a small lamp or other electronic device around with you so can quickly test outlets.
  • Once you determine the room or rooms on the circuit, return to the breaker panel and label the switch.
  • Repeat this process with each switch until they’re all labeled.

How to Reset a Tripped Circuit Breaker

When a circuit breaker trips, this means too much electricity traveled through that circuit at one time. To reset the breaker, first open the breaker panel and look for the circuit that isn’t lined up with the rest of them. Switch the breaker all the way to the off position. Pause for a moment and switch it back to the on position.

The appliances and lights on this circuit should start working again. However, if the breaker trips repeatedly, you need to make a change. Perhaps you have too many high-powered appliances on the same circuit. These may include window air conditioners, vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, microwaves and refrigerators.

If possible, relocate one high-powered appliance to a different circuit to distribute electricity use more evenly. Use the labels in the breaker panel as a guide. If this isn’t possible, then you should look into upgrading your electrical panel so more electricity can flow on each individual circuit.

For more help reading your electrical panel, or to schedule an electrical system upgrade, please contact Mr. Electric® today.

On to the next challenge! Learn how to set a programmable thermostat in these tips from our fellow Neighborly brand, Aire Serv.

For further reading:

Electrical Panel Upgrades