How to Read Your Circuit Breaker Panel

The flat gray or brown metal panel you see in your garage, utility room, or basement of your Los Angeles home is your circuit breaker panel. Your circuit breaker panel is the main power source for your home and distributes electricity from the utility company’s lines to the electrical circuits in your house. 

Knowing how to properly read your circuit breaker panel is important in case of emergency as you may need to quickly shut off power to the building, or if you need to restore power to a circuit breaker that has tripped due to the use of too many appliances. This article will help you learn the basics of your circuit breaker, how to decode your electrical panel, and how to troubleshoot any issues you may run into.

Understanding Your Circuit Breaker Panel

To understand the basics of your circuit breaker panel, first, you must understand the components. When you open your circuit breaker panel box, you’ll see the dead front cover or a flat panel with cutouts for all the breakers. In most cases, the panel has two vertical rows of breakers, with a larger main breaker on top.

The main breaker allows you to turn off all circuits at once. The branch circuit breakers are used to turn off individual circuits. They’re broken down further into:

  • 15-amp circuits, for lighting and outlet circuits
  • 20-amp breakers serving supply outlets for the kitchen, garage, and other areas where large appliances are used.
  • Double-pole breakers (30, 40, or 50 amps) supplying 240-volt appliances (dryers, ranges, etc.)

Each switch has an ON and OFF position. When the ON side is pushed in, the circuit is active. If the circuit is off or the breaker trips, it will be in the OFF position. Breakers are reset by switching them back to the ON position when you’re ready to restore power. Each breaker should only be switched on one at a time to avoid sudden power surges.

A breaker trip isn’t the only time you’ll use your breaker panel. If you’re doing major housework, you might need to shut off all the power. To do this, identify each individual circuit breaker, and shut them off one at a time. Then, you can flip the main circuit breaker to its OFF position. It is also the first breaker you would turn back on to restore power.

Aside from single- and double-pole breakers, you’ll also find the following in a circuit breaker panel:

  • Ground-fault circuit-interrupter breakers: A GFCI breaker protects an entire circuit against ground faults. It helps avoid shocks if there is a surge or fault.
  • Arc-fault circuit-interrupter breakers: Prevent house fires by protecting a circuit from arc faults. Both AFCI and GFCI protection may be provided by dual-function breakers.

Circuit breaker panels also consist of parts you don’t normally see. Each breaker snaps into a bus bar (a single-pole breaker with one hot wire, typically colored black) or two bus bars (two-pole breakers with two hot wires that are black, red, white, or a different color). Electrical current returns to the breaker panel via the neutral bus bar, which sends current back to the utility.

Understanding Circuit Breaker Labels 

If you’re lucky, you will see labels or numbers on the inside of the breaker panel door that help you identify the circuit breaker switches. Reading the circuit breaker numbers will help identify the switches they correspond to, labeled on a diagram. Or, tags may be placed near the switches to specify the areas of your home or appliances they correspond to. 

If a switch isn’t labeled, you’ll need to know the circuit it’s connected to, for future reference. You can label switches on your own, but first, you’ll need to test each circuit. A useful method is to turn off all circuits except one, then check for lights, outlets, and appliances that still work. Or, you can plug in a small lamp to test individual outlets. When you know which room is on the circuit, you can label the corresponding switch. 

You will also notice a variety of symbols on your circuit breaker switches. Interpreting these circuit breaker symbols will help you understand how a circuit is connected and the function of the component. 

Color Coding

The colors of your circuit board switches help you understand the status of the circuit and allow you to take the necessary precautions. The most common colors you’ll see on a circuit breaker are

  • Green: Green indicates that the circuit is live and functioning, and should be approached with caution.
  • Red: Red indicates that the circuit has shut down. This most often means that the circuit has tripped, overloaded, or detected a fault.
  • White: White indicates that the circuit power is off.

It’s also important to understand what the wire colors mean when dealing with your circuit breaker. The most common wire colors include:

  • Black: Black indicates a hot or live wire that is carrying electricity.
  • Red: Red also indicates a hot or secondary live wire.
  • White: White or gray wires are neutral.
  • Green or bare: Green or bare wires are grounding wires. They’re used to provide a path during a short circuit for electrical current to discharge into the ground.

Common Circuit Breaker Issues 

Knowing the signs that your circuit breaker has run into an issue is important as it allows you to take action and fix the problem before further damage is done. The most common signs of circuit breaker issues include:

  • Odors: If you notice the smell of sulfur, burning plastic, or rotten eggs coming from your circuit breaker, call an electrician as soon as possible. This indicates that your circuit breaker is damaged and can lead to fire if not resolved.
  • Flickering lights: If the lights in your home are flickering or dim when another appliance is turned on, this can be a sign that there is a problem with your circuit breaker.
  • Warm outlets: If you notice that your outlets are warm when in use, that’s not just the Southern California weather. There is likely something wrong with your circuit breaker. It’s important to immediately turn off the power to the outlet and contact one of our technicians.
  • Humming noises: A humming noise coming from your circuit breaker is a sign of overload, which means your circuit breaker can not shut down successfully and may lead to sparking.
  • Shocks: If you’re being shocked when touching your appliances or circuit board, you should immediately turn off the power supply. Shocks can lead to an electrical fire if they’re not tended to immediately.

If you notice any of the above signs, it’s important to contact us as soon as possible. One of our technicians will be able to assess your circuit breaker and advise on the necessary repairs or replacements needed. 

Safety Guidelines

As your circuit breaker is the main power source for your home, it’s important to follow safety guidelines when working on it to avoid serious injury. The key guidelines include:

  • Turn off the power: Turn off the main breaker of your circuit panel before doing any work on it. 
  • Wear protective gear: Wearing personal protective equipment keeps you safe from shock and injury. Put on a pair of insulated gloves and goggles when working on your circuit breaker.
  • Inspect your circuit breaker: When handling your circuit breaker, perform an inspection to make sure the tools, wires, and components are free from damage.
  • Perform regular maintenance: Have an electrician perform annual maintenance on your circuit breaker panel to ensure everything is in good condition and there are no issues with your electrical system.

Upgrading Your Electrical Panel

There are several reasons you may need to replace your electrical panel, including failure, age, or damage. The average cost for replacement ranges from $520 to $2,090 depending on the type of breaker you have and the complexity of the replacement. 

Working on your home’s electrical system is a dangerous job that requires proper training and experience, so it’s important to call one of our licensed technicians to ensure the job gets done safely and properly. 

Call Express Electrical Services for Your Circuit Breaker Needs

At Express Electrical Services, we can help you with all of your circuit breaker needs. Whether you notice warning signs, require maintenance, or need a replacement, we have technicians available around the clock.

Our experienced electrical contractors offer same-day service in Orange County, San Bernardino, Riverside, and throughout the Los Angeles area. With a special focus on safety and reliability, you can be assured that we’ll get the job done right and keep your household safe.


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