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June 2010
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Before You Remodel – Utilities

You have a house and you want to change it. I say go for it, but I remodel a lot.   A good idea before you begin remodeling is to figure out where stuff is. This serves two important functions.

First, it helps you to understand how stuff works in your house, helping you become familiar with things that you will contact once you start opening up walls or changing fixtures.

Second, if you have a professional helping you for work that you are not comfortable doing, knowing where stuff is helps them do their job better and faster saving you money.

This is a rough guide on how to find out where the primary utilities Electricity, Water and Natural Gas, are and what they do. You may want to get a (big) three ring binder with plastic pocket pages to hold various things you discover as well as manuals for your appliances. You can use this to track your progress as well as keeping your notes and things in one spot.


Find out where your main panel is and how big it is, how many breakers you have, whether or not you have any blank spaces for expansion, and most importantly where your circuits go, and what they feed. Get a piece of paper and draw a picture of your panel.  Ignore the writing on the panel around the 15 and 20 amp breakers especially if it is an older house. Take another piece of paper and make a drawing of the rooms of your house. As you test the outlets and lights make marks on it showing the locations. Your panel has numbers on it so you can mark down what circuit feeds what outlets and or lights.

Buy a simple plug in circuit tester with lights on it to test your outlets. They are only a few bucks and can save you lots. The lights will indicate that you have a properly wired outlet, or if there is a problem what it is like having reversed wiring. (the Black wire is the Hot and goes on the gold screw of your outlet, the White wire is the Neutral and goes on the silver screw of your outlet, the bare copper wire is the Ground and is attached to the Green screw-There are No Exceptions to this. ), an open neutral or open ground. Open meaning that there is a connection missing in the white path or the ground wire back to the panel. In either case this is something that must be corrected.

First start with the largest breakers 30, and 50 amps. Most 50 amp circuits are for electric stoves, electric heaters and a/c units. If you have a really large house with a 200 or 400 amp service you may see a 100 amp breaker, but it is uncommon in most houses. Confirm that they actually control what is marked on the panel. Turn off the breaker and try to run the appliances that they say they control. Mark it down on your paper.

Next start on the 20 amp breakers and turning them off one at a time. Plug in your tester into your wall receptacles until you have no lights on the tester. Once you find one, check the rest of the outlets in the room you are in. Also check the outlets in the next rooms on shared walls. There is no requirement for circuits to feed a single room. There is only a requirement on the maximum number of devices on a circuit. A single circuit can span multiple rooms. Normally 20amp breakers feed outlets, and 15 amp breakers feed your lights. Test the lights at the same time. They should be separate, but in tract homes, saving a few bucks on wire by feeding a light off a outlet circuit is much more common than folks admit.

Also is the devils spawn of the switched outlet. Some designer somewhere decided to eliminate overhead lights and use the switch to turn on and off an outlet, the theory being that it was more elegant or some such nonsense. If you don’t have a ceiling light, you probably have a switched outlet. And these can be on a totally separate circuit daisy chained with other rooms with switched outlets.

Yes the first few breakers will have you testing every outlet in the house, but as you go the number of choices will go down as you cross off rooms on your list. Mark these down on your paper. Continue until you have identified every breaker and circuit in your house.

While you are tracking down your circuits, also test  your GFCI outlets in the bathroom, kitchen and anywhere else they may be, most typically on exterior outlets.

Take new  paper and make a clean copies of what you have discovered and put them somewhere safe. So when you go to remodel you will know what to turn off.


Find your city main shutoff and note its location. Check all your plumbing fixtures to see that they do not leak and that the shutoffs work properly.Turn them off and check that water is not leaking past them. If they are jammed or do not work properly, make a note to replace them. To prevent this problem in the future, cycle them monthly.

Check to see if you have a shut off in your house from the city line so that you can turn off the water in your house without needing the weird wrench most cities use for their shut offs.

Kitchen: Check the shut offs by turning them off and turning on the faucets, one at a time. Check for manufacturer names and model numbers where applicable in case you need or want to repair vs replace.  Check the bottom of the sink cabinet for leaks. Check around your garbage disposal for leaks or looseness.  Check your dishwasher connections.

Bathroom: Check the shut offs, and test them including the toilet shut off.

Check your water heater. Find out if it is gas or electric and where the shut down and start up procedures are. Check it for corrosion and leaks. You will also find draining instructions. You should drain it on a regular schedule depending on the manufacturers recommendations or more frequently if you live in a high mineral area like Arizona.

Check your laundry room washer connections and shut offs and examine the supply hoses for age. Especially if your laundry room is in an unheated portion of your house. If you have a utility sink, check its shut offs. Your dryer should be checked to see that vent to the outside is clean. If it is electric, you should have discovered what breaker controls it already.

Also check your drains for leakage, loose couplings, and damage.

In Arizona and parts of the southwest an item of interest and irritation are swamp coolers. Basically a box that sprays water on aspen pads and a fan that circulates ‘cool’ moist air through your duct system. They require regular pad replacement. Checks for leaks not only at the shut off, but also with the pans rusting out, pumps failing, fans stopping and belts breaking.

Natural Gas

Find the meter and shut off and make a note. Check all your appliances that use gas, and use soapy water and a small brush to check for leaks at the couplings. Water heaters, Gas dryers, Furnaces, stoves and ovens. If you do not have instructions for shut off and start up, make a note of the name and model number, visit the manufacturers websites and download what you need.

Good hunting!