How to Read Your Circuit Breaker Panel

A man checks a circuit breaker.
What You'll Need
Blank sticker labels

A circuit breaker panel is a box of switches, each of which is connected to a circuit breaker that controls the electrical current flowing to a specific outlet or group of outlets in a house. In most houses, the circuit breaker panel is mounted on the wall in the garage, basement or laundry room.

Circuit breakers are meant to protect electrical appliances from power surges or current overloads. There is a main switch that controls the power to all the other breakers. If the electrical current flowing through one of the breakers exceeds a certain level, the switch will automatically break the circuit, thereby protecting any appliances beyond that switch from current overload. The following set of step-by-step instructions will give you all the information you need to read your circuit breaker panel.

Step 1 - Check for Labels

The first thing you need to do to figure out how your circuit breaker panel works is to check it for labels. Most people label their circuit breaker panels right after they move in to avoid confusion and frustration in the event of a tripped circuit breaker. If yours is already labeled, you should have no trouble reading it.

Step 2 - Read the Labels

The switches in most circuit breaker panels are arranged in two columns with an equal number of switches in each column. These are breakers that control power to specific outlets throughout the house. The main breaker that controls power to the whole house is usually located above and to the left of the two columns. The labels might be located right next to their corresponding switches, or on the inside of the panel's cover. They could either refer to the specific appliances that are connected to the outlets controlled by their corresponding switches, or the locations of the outlets themselves. If the switch is in its "on" setting, power is flowing to the labeled outlets, and if it is in its "off" setting, there has been a power surge or some other type of current overload and the breaker has tripped. All you have to do to return power to your appliances is turn the switch back on.

Step 3 - Deal with Unlabeled Switches

If you can't find labels for the switches in your circuit breaker panel, you should label them as soon as possible. The easiest way to label them yourself is to keep the main switch to the house on, but turn all the other switches off. Then turn one switch on and look through your house for electrical appliances that still work. The ones that do are connected to the one switch that is on. Make a label, turn that switch off, and repeat the process for all of the switches.

Especially if you live in an old house, you will probably have to deal with tripped circuit breakers every once in a while, so it is important that you know how to read your circuit breaker panel. If your circuit breaker panel is not yet labeled or you are just about to install a new panel, you should label it right away to avoid confusion in the future.