As an electrician, I've had a few opportunities to work on some great commercial job sites. When I say "great", I mean very complex and challenging. A home remodel can feel like a refreshing change of pace compared to some larger projects. It also lets me dust off and use some tools that have been lying dormant in my toolkit. During a recent remodel, I took the opportunity to coordinate with Pro Tool Reviews. I used my own Breaker Finder, but integrated eight other tools as well. I've used many of these tools – but by no means all of them – and I'd really like to see who makes the best circuit breaker finder and tracker.
There's a big difference between a circuit breaker finder and a circuit tracer. Follow the links for a more detailed explanation of how each works. It can be said that these products cover the entire range of circuit-related tools. This is a great opportunity to use more of the products available on the market and see which circuit detectors and tracers work best. These are truly must-have tools if you are an electrician working on residential or commercial projects.
These tools come in handy when rewiring your home during a remodel. Usually, you'll need to find the circuit breaker in the panel box. Other times, you may need to move a wall. When remodeling includes removing interior walls, it's essential that you understand wiring so you don't create unnecessary work. All in all, I have three different jobs scheduled to test these tools out and I can't wait to get to work.
The term "circuit breaker finder" has always stuck with me. Why? Because I always know where the circuit breaker is – it's on the panel I left it on. But since all of these tools work by transmitting a signal on a specific circuit, you end up doing the same thing – locating the relevant circuit breaker for the circuit being traced. When you're labeling your panels, you're systematically checking your home's electrical circuits. However, as you go through the discovery process, the panel tagging process jumps from one circuit breaker to another.
Best Entry-Level Circuit Breaker Finder and Tester
The three tools I tested, the Amprobe BT-120, Triplett Breaker Sniff-It (9650) and Klein ET300, were all built from the same platform. In fact, they both work interchangeably with their monopole emitters. (I've tried them in various configurations.) That's not to say you should interchange them or that they're identical. (Each sensitivity setting may vary slightly.)
These are the very basic models that make up the entry level of these tools. They work fairly well, but you'll have to be patient and may need to troubleshoot when ghosting occurs on nearby circuits. The Klein has an orange rubber overmold that protects the device, at least partially helping the side-mounted on/rest button from being accidentally activated every three seconds. No such luck with the other two models — throw them in a tool bag and you're guaranteed to go through the battery like I did through a bowl of popcorn.
By the way, Klein also offers a two-year warranty, while the Triplett Breaker Sniff-It offers a limited lifetime warranty. All in all, these breaker detectors get the job done, with the only exception being a little off track once on a particularly active circuit that I know has a lot of RF equipment connected to it, including UPS's, backup batteries, and various home theater equipment.
The Best Circuit Breaker Finders for Indoor Use
VersativTECH Circuit Breaker Finder
I really like using the VersativTECH Breaker Finder when working with indoor electrical panels. From the beginning, I appreciated that this tool has an integrated LED light. It is activated by a momentary switch on the face of the tool. This comes in handy when the lighting isn't that great.
The transmitter is also a step up, with an outlet test mode that can audibly and visually identify missing ground and neutral and reversed wiring. VersativTECH also had some fun with their tool, integrating a nice "smiley" face and a "sad" face as default states for found circuits. There's even a battery gauge to tell you when it's time to replace the receiver's 9V. At $42, I find it hard not to recommend it.
Best Circuit Breaker Finder for GFCIs
Sperry Instruments Circuit Breaker Finder (CS61200)
In addition to locating the breaker, I was able to test the GFCI circuit for proper wiring using the Sperry Instruments Breaker Finder (CS61200). The shape of the device is unusual. It comes in two parts, the lower transmitter part does double duty as a receptacle tester with GFCI testing. The only problem with this tool is that most sockets are oriented such that the fault guide is upside down (and therefore invisible). This is not a problem if the circuit is wired correctly. If you want to identify a specific fault before you memorize the code, you might want to pull out the tester and look at the guide.
The outlet also has a grounded plug which is so tight I think I may have to unplug a few outlets from the wall before I finish. A quick squeeze with a pair of Kleins will do the trick. As a circuit breaker detector, the CS61200 works right out of the box. Sometimes I wish it came with a way to manually adjust the sensitivity.
When a suitable breaker is found, the 10-step LED will quickly show the maximum range, but adjacent breakers will respond similarly. That leaves us with the tone, it does make a difference from the right circuit breaker to the next one. I've found that manipulating wand position and distance is the best way to manually adjust sensitivity. Finally, an excellent piece of technology makes this $42 tool one of the more reliable solutions for marking circuit breakers.
Best Circuit Breaker Finder for Ease of Use
Extech CB10 Circuit Breaker Finder
Extech CB10 Circuit Breaker Finder is a very easy to use tool. A blinking LED light and an audible beep will let you know when you're in the right place. The CB10 also features variable sensitivity adjustment to pinpoint the correct breaker in crowded panels.
Apart from the Sperry CS61200, this is the only tool of its kind with a GFCI tester. For some circuits, it may be necessary to reset the receiver and scan the breaker again in a different location in order to distinguish false alarms from correct circuits. Variable sensitivity helps in this process. Get it for just $41.
Best Commercial Circuit Breaker Finder
Zircon Crusher ID Pro 300
The Zircon Breaker ID Pro 300 includes a Circuit Finder receiver and transmitter that can handle voltages up to 277V. In theory, you could use it to locate circuit breakers for commercial lighting fixtures. The transmitter is terminated to a universal male connector allowing it to be used with the included two-prong 120VAC plug, separate 120V/240V blades and clips.
They even include an outlet adapter so you can find standard 120V lighting. For some 240V applications, a single blade provides some placement flexibility. However, on larger receptacle sizes such as older 50A series receptacles, they may fit too loosely. For those, I still need an assistant.
To actually find the breaker for these circuits, you may need to clamp on the wires to securely connect the transmitter. Overall, separate blades and clips are very convenient for three-phase applications. If you need extra functionality for locating breakers over 30 amps, this $190 solution might be just right for you. Thanks to the supplied accessories, this flexible kit enables various circuit tracing scenarios.
The best circuit breaker finders for tracing live wires
Ideal Industries 61-534 Digital Circuit Breaker Finder
The Ideal Industries 61-534 Digital Breaker Detector was the first device I used to trace live wires. I pulled it out when I was trying to discern the path to take to run the outlet for the existing wall mounted bedroom TV. I used the Ideal Industries Breaker Finder to put the Circuit Tracer Transmitter into what I thought was the receptacle on the same line. Tracing over the TV's power outlet, I was able to verify operation and plug into that outlet to provide extra power to the home theater.
It has had limited success on thicker walls made of plaster and lathe, but performs well on plasterboard. Of course, the 61-534 is also pretty good as a circuit breaker finder. I especially like the automatic sensitivity setting. It does a good job of eliminating false alarms and discerning the correct circuit from adjacent breakers. Priced at around $106, this is a very flexible and versatile tool.
See: How Circuit Breaker Detectors Work
Included GFCI circuit tester and non-contact voltage sensor (80-300VAC) does a little more than a typical $35 breaker finder. Overall, the Ideal 61-534 circuit tracer is capable of a lot more.
The best circuit breaker finder for visual feedback
I immediately liked the ergonomics of this tool. This is the first circuit seeker/tracer I have used that has direct visual feedback to the user. Typically, the visual readout is on the side or top. The LCD on the CS-8000 isn't overly detailed, but that's its strength. We used this tool to trace live wires in walls that were removed as part of a remodel. Obviously, this tracer is much more sophisticated (and more sensitive) than the product I'm currently writing about.
In addition to the absolute signal strength meter, you also have a 5-level relative signal strength scale. The display tells you when you are in auto gain or manual gain mode and when you are in breaker mode or search mode. It also correctly identifies live or open circuits. That's it. It doesn't display additional details on the screen that you don't need, allowing you to use the tool efficiently and effectively.
The CS-8000 is fast. This is mainly because the LCD screen and audible tones make it very simple to know what's going on at any given moment. It was clear that Greenlee was well versed in locating circuit breakers. It has a lower false positive rate and is able to scan circuit breakers and set its own sensitivity much faster – or so it seems.
The CS-8000 was also quick to identify the correct panel when I was dealing with multiple panel boxes. I just put the tool in search mode and scan the four corners of each panel to determine the one with the highest signal strength. At $761, it's more expensive than other tracers, but you get more features.
The most accurate circuit breaker finder
Ideal SureTrace 61-957
Next up is the Ideal SureTrace 61-957 kit. I used it to perform the same task as Greenlee. It's just as quick to use, and I love the new "rotating" OLED display. It's easy to spot what's going on, and it's very noticeable in all types of lighting, whereas if you're using the Greenlee CS-8000 with your back to the sun, it can suffer from glare. The display also shows you 99 levels of signal strength in high resolution.
The CertainCircuit feature is also really nice because it saves me from having to go back to the building after I trip the breaker to verify that the correct circuit is cut. Instead, an icon on the screen told me that when I turned off the circuit, the transmitter did read it was deactivated.
I'm torn between the Ideal 61-957 kit and the Greenlee CS-8000. These are two very different systems that perform the same task, and as far as I know, they are the same market. The Greenlee certainly ups the ante with its ergonomics, but the Ideal is nearly foolproof in its execution. It must be $1,031.
For basic circuit breaker finding, most of these tools do a good job. The three least expensive models are capable of locating most circuit breakers. They did a great job in our home where we had to completely re-label the electrical panel after re-wiring. Throwing them in your kit might leave you with some dead batteries, thanks to the accessible power button. Other than that, there's nothing wrong with an inexpensive, effective tool.
However, functionality is important. If you find yourself frequently checking GFCI circuits, you don't need to keep a separate tool with you. Plus, the convenience of the 2-in-1 Sperry is a great design that makes more use of audible cues than many other products. The LED lights on the VersativTECH Breaker Detector are too bright (literally) to be ignored.
If advanced features are your thing, The Ideal Industries 61-534 is the best of both worlds — or at least part of it. It's not as sensitive as a true circuit tracer, but it seems to do a good job of tracking live wires beneath the surface of a drywall wall. Since it's also a really good circuit breaker finder, it's a real tool.
Two options for professional users
For actual live and open trace, both the Greenlee CS-8000 and the Ideal SureTrace kit are great. I prefer the feel of the Greenlee, but the CertainCircuit feature of the Ideal RC-959 is a stroke of genius. It just sends a signal from the transmitter to the receiver to let it know if the line is live or not. When it appears, there will be a lightning bolt icon. If dead, that icon will disappear. This is a very convenient feature when you test a circuit breaker without having to go back and check to see if power to the transmitter was cut.
Ideal backs their tools with a generous 2-year warranty against defects, while Greenlee backs their tools with a limited lifetime warranty. This may also affect your high price decision. No matter what you choose, any one of these tools will make you feel a bit like a superhero. Once you get used to the setup and best practices, you'll be able to see through walls and trace circuits like Superman, and spot short circuits faster than you ever thought possible.
As part of the "Gang of Three", this breaker locator was actually very accurate in our tests and is almost interchangeable with Klein and Triplett models. Considering the price, while there are more feature-packed options, it's hard to pass it up in a pinch. The common disadvantage of this tool and Triplett is that they open on collision. Throw it in your kit, and you might find that the battery dies before you actually start using it.
- Pros: Inexpensive enough to fit in every kit, pretty accurate.
- Cons: Easy to open, can drain battery if stored loose in a tool pouch.
- Verdict: An affordable, no-frills breaker detector.
- Price: $32
Triplet Breaker Sniff-It 9650
Like the Amprobe BT-120 and Klein ET300, this circuit breaker detector works solidly, but doesn't offer frills or features that are particularly noteworthy. This tool (or one of its mates) is so affordable that there's no excuse for anyone not to own it, and it should easily become a must-have in any tool bag everywhere. However, Triplett is very proud to be the only manufacturer that does not include the required 9V battery.
- Pros: Simple design, fairly accurate, super cheap.
- Cons: 9V not included, easy to turn on, could drain battery if stored loose in a tool bag.
- Verdict: An affordable, no-frills breaker detector, but don't forget the 9V.
- Price: $42
Klein obviously couldn't sit by and use the same form factor as the Amprobe and Triplett and not do anything, so it added a nice protective rubber cover to the receiver. It gives it some protection, but more importantly, it makes the switch less prone to accidentally turning on the receiver when you give it a nudge. For the extra $5, I'd pick this tweaked model right away.
- Pros: Nice protective rubber case, great value, fairly accurate.
- Cons: Can still turn on accidentally when thrown in a tool bag.
- Verdict: An affordable, no-frills breaker detector with a little extra protection.
- Price: $30
VersativTECH Circuit Breaker Finder
If there's one thing I've observed about General, it's that they tend to add nifty features to their tools that others ignore. For the BF10-AC, one of these features is an integrated outlet tester and a handy LED light that can be activated by pressing the momentary switch below the receiver's power button. Plus, a built-in low-battery indicator will tell you when it needs to be replaced, which is a nice touch. I also love the company's sense of humor. At least that's what I thought when I saw the smiley and sad faces used to indicate the correct circuit breaker. The tool feels very comfortable in the hand, although it forces you to hold it completely perpendicular to the surface of the power strip, which may not be ergonomic if you do this type of work a lot.
- Pros: LED light, low battery indicator, nice rubber coating on receiver, good performance.
- Cons: Might be less ergonomic when used with taller panel boxes due to the readout on top.
- Verdict: A no-nonsense tool that doesn't take itself too seriously, with some thoughtful and useful features.
- Price: $42
Sperry Instruments Circuit Breaker Finder CS61200
There's a lot to like about this circuit breaker detector. From the two-piece compact design to the magnetic base that holds the receiver in place when you guide the wand over the breaker, Sperry thought hard about the CS61200. The transmitter on this tool also doubles as a GFCI tester. It is the least expensive of the two testing tools with this feature. A combination of visual alert (with ten LED lights on to indicate signal strength) and beep alerts you which breaker is correct. The wand is a bit sensitive, but the fact that you can change its position and distance from the breaker also gives you the ability to customize the sensitivity and hone the correctness of two adjacent breakers.
- Pros: Nice unibody design, magnetic mount on receiver, GFCI tester, compact and portable.
- Cons: Relies heavily on audible cues when dealing with adjacent breakers.
- Verdict: An inexpensive compact portable breaker detector with a lot of flexibility and features.
- Price: $41
The Extech CB10 might not win a beauty contest, but this tool is very effective. Unlike the retired CB20, it does require a screwdriver to replace the receiver's battery. Zircon has the only other tool it doesn't have. This tool makes it easy to identify circuit breakers. A simple light with a translucent tip blinks when the correct live circuit is found and the receiver beeps. This is the second tool we've tested with a transmitter that includes a GFCI tester.
- Pros: Ergonomic grip and positioning, easy to read – even in dimly lit rooms, GFCI tester.
- Cons: A little more expensive than other tools of similar capabilities, would benefit from a sensitivity dial.
- Conclusion: If you're looking for a lot of circuit breakers, this tool helps you move fast.
- Price: $41
Zircon Crusher ID Pro 300
The Zircon Breaker ID Pro 300 allows you to hold the tool at an angle so you are not completely perpendicular to the electrical panel. It also allows for tool-less replacement of the 9V battery in the receiver. Functionally, it's pretty straightforward, except for the case (a very nice foam-lined mini road model) which includes various connectors and adapters for finding breakers through 220V/230V lines and 120V lighting. In addition to the 120V outlet adapter, the Universal Transmitter's 12" long male leads fit into a single pole AC plug, a pair of clips, or a pair of individual blades. As far as receivers go, the Zircon isn't a fancy rig, but it was consistently accurate in my tests.
- Pros: Consistently accurate results, functional kit, nice case.
- Cons: More expensive circuit breaker detectors.
- Conclusion: A pricier but more powerful breaker kit
- Price: $190
Greenlee Circuit Seeker CS-8000
The full-featured CS-8000 kit is a true workhorse, unique among circuit explorers. It's by far the most ergonomic tool I've used for this type of work, and it's quick and easy to use — no steep learning curve. The kit includes two 12' test lead extensions so I can connect to branch circuits if needed. There is also an AC plug adapter about 3 feet, two clips, and an AC blade connector. In search mode, this tool is surprisingly fast at finding and tracing live circuits or locating circuit breakers in a panel. The flexible kit makes this tool especially adept at configuring it to trace conduits and shorts.
- Pros: Easy to read LCD screen, incredible ergonomics, long test leads, very accurate.
- Cons: Not cheap, hard to adjust sensitivity quickly, can be misled by nearby fluorescent lights.
- Conclusion: This tool takes you to the next level, allowing you to reliably and quickly trace live or open circuits
- Price: $761
Ideal SureTrace Open/Closed Circuit Tracer 61-957
Ideal has three SureTrace suites available, this is the middle child. The 61-957 includes a high-end receiver with a gyro-controlled OLED screen that rotates the display so it is always face-up. Also included are accessories that allow you to do everything you need to trace live or open circuits behind walls or inside conduits. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this system is CertainCircuit Detection, a simple but effective system that confirms when the circuit under test is de-energized at the circuit breaker. It eliminates the hassle of going back inside and visually confirming that the correct breaker is deactivated.
- Pros: Auto-rotate OLED display, very accurate, certain circuit detection, easy sensitivity adjustment.
- Cons: You get what you pay for, and can be misled by nearby fluorescent lights.
- Verdict: Ideal steps up its game again with useful features and a nearly foolproof system
- Price: $1031