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Should We Use Noncontact Voltage Testers? The benefits and drawbacks of these handy tools

By Dustin Stelzer | May 14, 2024
Fluke’s 1LAC II A noncontact voltage tester
Most of us have seen it before. An apprentice electrician is in front of a piece of nonmetallic sheathed cable stuffed into a box, trying to make sure the conductor isn’t going to shock them. 

Most of us have seen it before. An apprentice electrician is in front of a piece of nonmetallic sheathed cable stuffed into a box, trying to make sure the conductor isn’t going to shock them. They pull out a noncontact “tick tracer” that’s beat up and sometimes works, but other times doesn’t. They bang it on the wall a couple of times, waiting for the indicator light to come on. They stick the tester in the box and it doesn’t make a sound, so they assume power is off. Confident the breaker is off, they grab and cut through multiple conductors together, and a large flash illuminates the room with a loud, echoing “pop.” The circuit was, indeed, live.

This time only a $40 hand tool is lost, but next time it could be the apprentice that takes the brunt of the current.

Noncontact voltage testers (NCVTs) have emerged over the years as a staple tool for electricians and DIY enthusiasts. With added features such as flashlights, laser pointers and dual-voltage ratings, they’re great multiuse tools on job sites everywhere. Everett, Wash.-based Fluke’s 1LAC II A noncontact voltage tester stands out as a prime example of such a tool, offering a quick, contactless means to detect the presence of voltage.

Despite their utility, the inherent limitations and misuse of NCVTs can lead to dangerous situations. Misinterpreting readings can foster a false sense of security, potentially leading to electrical shocks or accidents. By incorporating a fundamental understanding of electrical principles and complementing NCVTs with tools like the Fluke T6-1000 digital multimeter, users can achieve a more comprehensive approach to electrical testing and safety.

How noncontact voltage testers work

At the heart of an NCVT lies the principle of capacitive coupling. This technology allows the device to detect changes in an electric field without requiring direct contact with the conductor. When brought near a conductor with electrical potential (voltage) present, the NCVT senses the electric field through the insulation. The device’s internal sensor acts as one plate of a capacitor, with the conductive material (i.e., the wire) serving as the other plate and the air (or other insulating materials) acting as the dielectric between the two. This capacitive coupling generates a tiny current, which the NCVT amplifies and translates into a visual or auditory signal, indicating the presence of voltage between the tester and the conductor.

However, it’s crucial to understand that NCVTs do not measure voltage in the way many people assume. Unlike a multimeter, which can provide a quantitative measurement of voltage between two points in a circuit, an NCVT simply detects the presence of an electric field between itself and another object. There are no measurements, readings, values or data when using these testers—it’s simply a presence or absence of an electric field.

This distinction is vital for interpreting NCVT readings accurately. To call this testing for “voltage” is a bit misleading, as voltage is a precise value of electrical potential (similar to pressure) between two points, and is often a much more valuable piece of information to know.

 


Benefits of using NCVTs

The Fluke 1LAC II A and its counterparts offer significant advantages in terms of safety and convenience. Their ability to detect the presence of potential without requiring physical contact with the conductor minimizes the risk of electrical shock, making them ideal for preliminary checks or quick assessments in a variety of settings. For electricians and maintenance professionals, NCVTs can quickly identify whether a circuit is being switched on or off, which is often crucial when identifying circuits tied to circuit breakers in a different location.

Moreover, the ease of use associated with NCVTs makes them accessible to a broad audience, from professional electricians to homeowners looking to perform minor repairs or installations safely. The immediate feedback provided by the LED light or audible alert simplifies the process of identifying energized conductors, even in complex or crowded electrical boxes.

Limitations and misconceptions

Despite their utility and regardless of brand, NCVTs are not without their limitations. One common misconception is that the absence of an indication (light or sound) from an NCVT guarantees the absence of voltage. This assumption can be dangerously misleading. Several factors can affect the device’s sensitivity, including the insulation thickness, distance from the source, battery life and environmental conditions.

Moreover, device malfunctions, such as dead batteries or a faulty LED, can result in false negatives, leading users to believe a circuit is de-energized when it is not. These tools are often thrown into toolboxes, left out in the rain, dropped from ladders and abused without thought. For a piece of potentially lifesaving equipment, this is not acceptable.

A technician once suffered a severe electric shock from a misidentified 480V circuit while working up in a bucket truck. Down below, another electrician, believing the black and white wires were 120V, tested them with an NCVT and, receiving no alert, declared the line “dead.” Trusting this, the tech above grabbed the conductors and was thrown back, receiving a 480V shock through his hands, accompanied by severe burns.

Only after checking with a multimeter did they discover the actual 480V present, revealing the NCVT’s silent malfunction despite seeming operational moments before. This illustrates the importance of ensuring test equipment works properly, and underscores the use of a multimeter before working on potentially live circuits.

Fluke’s 1LAC II A, while designed to mitigate these risks with high sensitivity and reliability, is still subject to these limitations. Users must recognize that NCVTs are designed for detecting voltage presence, not absence, and should not be the sole tool relied upon for verifying a de-energized circuit. It is always advisable to double-­check findings with a multimeter so the user knows between which exact objects potential exists (e.g., between a blue conductor and a white one, or between a black conductor and a metal box).

Understanding what is going on in a circuit gives actual data to the electrician, whereas a simple beeping sound does not. Sometimes, it can read nearby potential from other devices and conductors, resulting in incorrect readings. Every electrical professional should train their technicians with this perspective. 

The experienced electrician understands that verifying safe conditions must be achieved through readings between several objects and only with a fully functional multimeter tested prior on a known live circuit. It’s one thing to verify which conductor is tied to a switch, or a breaker with an NCVT—it’s an entirely different thing to trust it to tell you the characteristics of an energized system.

Proper training and usage

To mitigate the risks associated with NCVTs, adherence to proper training and usage guidelines is paramount. Users should:

  • Verify NCVT functionality: Before each use, test the NCVT on a known live circuit to ensure it’s working correctly. It is wiser yet to test the known live circuit with a multimeter to ensure accurate functionality. This step helps confirm that the device’s sensitivity and alert systems (visual or audible) are functioning, reducing the risk of false negatives.
  • Use as a preliminary tool: Treat NCVTs as preliminary tools for detecting the presence of voltage. When multiple conductors are present and they need to be identified, NCVTs provide a verifiable result each time the breaker is turned off, then on, then off again. This can be successfully used as an identification tool. For tasks requiring detailed information about a circuit (e.g., exact voltage levels), use a digital multimeter, such as the Fluke T6-1000, which provides precise measurements and additional safety features.
  • Double-check with contact methods: When an NCVT indicates a circuit is de-energized, always double-check with a multimeter before proceeding with any work that involves potential exposure to electrical components.
  • Take care of equipment: Regularly check the NCVT for signs of wear or damage and replace batteries as needed. Do not let a piece of potentially lifesaving equipment sit in the bed of a truck and get rained on. A well-maintained device is more reliable and reduces the risk of malfunction.

Complementary tools and methods

While NCVTs play a crucial role in electrical safety, they should be part of a broader toolkit and safety protocol. A True RMS digital multimeter exemplifies a complementary tool, offering precise voltage measurements, continuity testing and other functionalities not available with NCVTs. Integrating both NCVTs and multimeters into electrical safety practices allows for a more comprehensive strategy, from initial voltage detection to detailed circuit analysis.

Additionally, understanding and employing proper lockout/tagout procedures further enhances safety by ensuring that circuits are properly de-energized and secured against accidental re-energization during maintenance or repair work. Just because it was off doesn’t mean it will stay that way. It is always better to take extra precautions around energized circuits.

Conclusion

Noncontact voltage testers are solid tools for detecting the presence of voltage, offering a convenient and safe means to conduct preliminary checks. However, understanding their operation, limitations and correct usage is crucial to avoid the dangers associated with misinterpretation. By complementing NCVTs with detailed testing tools and adhering to comprehensive safety protocols, professionals and enthusiasts alike can ensure electrical safety and accuracy in their work. Continuous learning and adherence to best practices are the cornerstones of electrical safety, enabling the safe and effective use of these essential tools.


 

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Scan the QR code above to find videos, or read the column on ECmag.com around the 15th of each month to watch the corresponding video included in the article. Don’t miss bonus content from Dustin and other experts!

 

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About The Author

Stelzer is a master electrician from Austin, Texas. As the CEO of Electrician U, he’s dedicated to revolutionizing the trade industry through education, offering comprehensive courses, hands-on tutorials and insight. Under Dustin’s guidance, the platform aims to empower electricians with the knowledge and skills needed to excel in their craft. To learn more about Electrician U, visit ElectricianU.com.

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