How is an Electrical Circuit Tracer Different from a Breaker Finder?

ElectricianAn electrical circuit tracer is an essential tool in an electrician’s bag of tricks.  Any self-respecting DIY enthusiast usually has one, too. It is a kind of magic box for tracing electrical wires hidden around the house, which accounts for its popularity. Yet few nonprofessionals know how it works and how to choose the right one.

Here is some vital information about your electrical circuit tracer, from the experts at

More than a breaker finder

Most people actually have a circuit breaker finder rather than a circuit tracer.  The finding tool is a much simpler device that is only useful for finding breakers for live circuits. The finder transmitter sends short bursts of signal when plugged into a live outlet for the receiver to detect. The transmitter has no battery, and the receiver is not very sensitive because it only has to detect a signal from about an inch or two away from the source. On the other hand, the tracer lets you follow a circuit from as far away as five feet, so the receiver is much more sensitive.

Live and open

The circuit tracer can trace a line whether it is live (energized) or open (de-energized) because the transmitter can generate its own power through a battery. This is important when you are trying to find a break in the line or a short circuit. A breaker finder will only indicate that the line is open because it will not work. However, it will not help you find or fix the problem.  Tracers are also very useful for mapping the path of the circuit during renovations so you do not have to rip up walls or ceilings to find what you need.

What you need

A breaker finder is usually good enough if you only want to know which breaker connects to each outlet. This can help you label your circuit board properly. However, if you plan to do more than that, then you need something a little more sophisticated. You will have to follow instructions carefully, though, because you need to be able to tune it properly to separate the line from all other interference.

There is nothing wrong with a breaker finder. It is just not an electrical circuit tracer. An electrical circuit tracer may be more expensive, but if you need a tracer for a job, then the finder will just not cut it.