Questionable breaker locating methods

There are many cases where there is need to trace which electrical outlet is connected to which fuse/breaker. Anyone doing renovation is familiar with both residential and commercial buildings where the circuits weren’t identified properly. New buildings may label circuits very well, but older structures aren’t nearly as accurate or detailed. There’s a big difference between circuit breaker finders vs circuit tracers. Typical circuit finders and tracers generate some kind of signal to electrical wire that can be detected near the fuse/breaker.

With breakers some people have though of also method to cause a situation which cause breaker to trip. When the breaker that was a moment ago on has tripped, you know you found the right breaker and you also know that the power is turned off. Many people have seen this funny meme pic of fuse/breaker finder to do the testing.

via MEME

This idea seems to be a common joke. Using it might not be a good idea and always safe. If it works well, the main the problem with this is the black marks it can leave on the receptacle or potentially damage it otherwise to state that outlet needs to be replaced.

On the bad case in addition to helping to find the fuse, this will also test if the fuse was right size to protect the wiring and not replaced with something like a nail. If testing starts a fire that burns down your house, you know that there was not right fuse or your breaker was not working properly. If it it wouldn’t trip the breaker, it could just dim the lights and that’s when you need to be ready to disconnect quickly before wires become frying hot.

Some advice on Facebook said “Take off the wire nut and put the wires on a switch this way the arc happens in the switch. No black marks.

Single pole switch was said to much safer for your eye and no black on the wall either. Bot for this to work you would need top to use heavy duty enough switch – if you use too low rating fuse you could end up with single use tester (welded contacts) or sparkling fireball on your hand.

Another Facebook comment said: “Wire it through a 30 amp motor rated switch. Arc happens inside the switch. And if the breaker doesn’t pop it gives you that split second to shut it off before it welds the contacts closed.”

With all the dangers it might sound that those are all stupid ideas. Maybe something that you would not expect to see on commercial product sold to consumers. But Ryobi had few years ago a tester like for US market: Ryobi Power Tracer

It was advertised with good performance promises: Ryobi introduces the Power Tracer, a safe and easy solution to begin electric work. The Power Tracer is a circuit tester which also incorporates a new to world technology that traces a breaker with the push of a button. The Power Tracer can identify a specific breaker from up to 100 ft. away. Power Tracer is perfect for providing a solution for mislabeled or unlabeled breaker boxes. The easy to read circuit tester light legend helps users identify and detect common wiring problems in wall outlets.

It looked like an outlet tester with an extra push button one that when you pressed a button would cause the circuit breaker to trip (by more or less short circuiting the live to neutral). A circuit tripper sold by a large brand name. Marketed towards homeowners and DIYers. That’s exactly who you want blowing circuits up, right? No ETL markings or CAT ratings. I mean, yeah, I guess it’s a safer version than the single-pole switch hooked to a plug, but I’m really surprised an outfit with as many lawyers as Ryobi would put their name on this. They sold it some time (seems to came out around 2018), but now seems to be unavailable. It looks as if it’s discontinued, but still available for sale.

Review on the ryobi breaker popper

The Ryobi Power Tracer — Tests and then turns off the power

Ryobi Power Tracer ESV1000

Life Saver… Ryobi’s Power Tracer ESV1000

Ryobi Power Tracer ESV1000 – All In One Circuit Tester And Tracer test article says that with this tool you’ll be able to test if outlets have been wired correctly, test AFCI and GFCI outlets and works as a circuit breaker tracer. It allows you to trip the circuit its on with a press of button so you know which circuit breaker you’re working on at the breaker box.

Ryobi Power Tracer review says: “The tracer works only in a three-prong outlet and will not work with older two prong outlets
Just insert the tracer into any three-prong outlet and you will get a reading on the back of the tool. Different combinations of lights will light up and indicate a reading to the user.In the center of the tool, there is a button. If a user presses this button, it will trip a breaker in your panel. This will work up to 100′ away.
” It is designed to work well with most normal circuit breakers according to manufacturer, but unfortunately it does not work 100% of the time. There are some limitations on it’s use like it might not work with very long lines, with typical fuses and even some breakers found on some panels. Manual says that This product will only work on circuit breakers with an electromagnetic trip function.

The manual says: “The power tracer can be used to assist in identifying the circuit breaker which controls the receptacle you are testing by attempting to activate the electromagnetic trip function of the breaker. DANGER: The device may not successfully trace circuits that have a high electrical resistance. Always verify which circuit breaker has tripped at the panel, power has been deactivated at the receptacle, and all indicator lights are out first if intending to perform electrical work. Failure to follow these instructions and contact with energized electric wires will result in death by electrocution, serious personal injury, damage to electrical system, risk of fire, and/or property damage.”

According to descriptions on Internet and how I understand it when you push the button, it puts a high current on the circuit for a short time. It does NOT create a dead short. Modern breakers incorporate both magnetic and thermal tripping mechanisms, increasing safety and the likelihood that they will function properly in the event of an overload or short circuit. To trip a breaker quickly, it takes 4.5-9 times the rating or 90-180 amps for a 20 amp circuit breaker to trip quickly with magnetic tripping. For 20A breaker at 3X (60 Amps) 4-15 seconds and for a 1 cycle trip, you need 9X (180 amps) or greater. At 2500 watts 20-21 amps a QO circuit breaker can carry 20 amps (1X) for 500+ seconds 8.33 minutes or longer. All modern residential CBs are Thermal Magnetic, if it works with one brand it should in theory work with all, assuming the CB is not defective. For 15A breaker the current needed to trip can be scaled down to 3/4 of what those listed for 20A breaker.

Actually if you read the manual , it does state that the unit attempts to activate the breakers electromagnetic trip. The short-circuit or magnetic overload trips “instantaneously” when very high current is detected. “Instantaneously” means 1/40th of a second or less (3 cycles of AC electricity). The Power Tracer tests only the magnetic/short-circuit part of the breaker. It produces a very brief spurt of current which should trip. This product is recommended for use with GE, Square-D, and Eaton brand breakers. Not for use with Siemens, Zinsco, or Federal Pacific brand breakers, outdoor outlets, or homes with aluminum wiring. For the short time the device generates internally lots of heat (potentially over 10 kW) but because the amount of time the power is passed through, the device will not become too hot on one or few tests especially when the breaker trips as expected.

The manual says that it has HIGH TEMPERATURE PROTECTION: “The power tracer can generate heat if the button is pressed repeatedly in a short period of time. It is equipped with a high temperature protection feature that automatically deactivates the tracing function of the product when it is overheated. To resume operation of the tracing function, unplug the power tracer, allow it to cool, then plug it back into the outlet. The circuit testing feature will still function when the product is overheated.

Still I don’t think that creating a huge current load spike to an outlet is a great idea to locate the circuit breaker. And it is even worse if you happen to have fuses instead of breaker.

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