Before you tackle any electrical project, having the proper tools is essential to getting the job done efficiently, correctly, and more importantly, safely! The old saying, use the right tool for the job, couldn’t be more relevant, especially when it comes to electrical work.
Personal protective equipment (PPE)
Your personal safety should be the most important consideration. Goggles and safety glasses, gloves, long-sleeve shirts, long pants or bluejeans, hard hat, etc. A large dose of common sense is required here. Think about the hazards and protect yourself accordingly before taking on any task.
You need to have a voltage tester of some type for electrical work, and one that you trust is working properly! This can be anything from a $2 neon voltage check, to a $2000 digital multi-meter, or anything in between. The important thing is to ensure that it is working so you can verify that you have the power off on any circuit you may be working with. Check it on a known live source before trusting it to determine if your circuit is dead.
It is essential to have a good quality set of screwdrivers. It is best to purchase them in a complete set rather than individually, as this will save you money, and increase the chances that you will have the driver that best fits the need.
A basic set of screwdrivers should include the 3 main types of screwdriver heads.
1. The Standard blade tip
2. The Phillips tip
3. The recessed square shank or Robertson tip
You need at least two sizes of each, but a full set would include:
1. Standard blade
a) 3/16″ Cabinet Tip 4″shaft
b) 3/16″ Cabinet Tip 6″shaft
c) 1/4″ Keystone Tip 4″shaft
d) 5/16″ Keystone Tip 6″shaft
2. Phillips Tip
a) #1 Phillips Tip 4″shaft
b) #2 Phillips Tip 4″shaft
c) #3 Phillips Tip 6″shaft
3. Square Recess Tip (Robertson)
a) #0 yellow 4″shaft
b) #1 green 4″shaft
c) #2 red 4″shaft
d) #3 black 4″shaft
The square recess screwdriver system is used extensively in Canada, but not so much in the U.S.A. In the opinion of anyone who has used them, they are a superior system to the Phillips tip, but for reasons that involve some patent dispute or disagreement, they are not common in the States. They work on most combination head receptacles, switches, and panel screws.
If you are going to take on any project beyond the most basic of jobs, such as, for example, changing out an individual receptacle or switch, you should have a good cordless drill and driver tool, along with a complete set of screwdriver bits and drill bits. This will save you a lot of time and when used properly, a power driver can be used in place of a screwdriver for most jobs.
I recommend purchasing a driver and drill instead of a basic cordless screwdriver as the quality is usually better, and one tool will perform both functions. Get the best quality you can afford, and make sure it has a 1/2″drive, and that is has sufficient power to drill a 1″ hole using an auger bit.
If you will be using it a lot as a screwdriver, then give some consideration to the weight and size when selecting the tool.
For larger projects, with a lot of drilling required (wood studs, etc.), then an electric drill is more practical. A 1/2″ medium duty drill is a minimum for driving a wood auger bit.
You will need to have a good knife, and I prefer a standard utility knife for stripping the PVC jacket from Romex, stripping large gauge wire, and for many other jobs as well.
Have a good quality wire stripper. I prefer a T-Stripper with a wire cutter, light-duty plier nose, and holes for bending termination loops on wires for most home electrical work. A combination crimper, cutter, stripper, bolt cutter and more, like those found in automotive electrical repair kits can be very handy as well, but the multi-purpose aspect means that the wire stripping function is compromised.
A mechanical wire stripper does a really good job, especially for commercial or industrial applications, but is not really necessary for the novice DIYér.
A lineman’s plier, or a bull nose plier with a wire cutter, and at least 8″or 9″ handles is also an essential part of the electrical tool list. We use these for cutting, bending, twisting wires, etc.
Standard, Long-Nosed Pliers
Also known as needle-nosed pliers. These tools are also very handy to have as a part of your electrical tool kit. They should have wire cutting knives as well.
Also known as side-cutters. A standard duty diagonal plier should also be a part of your kit.
Have a good quality, 16oz. claw hammer. You will need this for driving staples, nails, etc.
A good set of nut drivers is not essential, but come in very handy for certain jobs where a wrench or a socket set isn’t practical.
Have a good quality, locking tape measure and a 25’length, 1″ blade is maybe over-kill, but will come in handy for other projects around the home.
A 6″ plastic torpedo level is essential for levelling outlet boxes, cover plates, wall fixtures, etc. A plastic level is less likely to leave marks.
Always check to make sure the level is indeed “level”. Before purchasing, check on a flat surface and note the position of the bubble, even if not quite at center. Then flip the level end for end in the exact same location and see if the bubble is in the same spot. You would be surprised how many you will find that don’t pass this test. Especially in the lower quality price range.
Have one or two sizes of crescent wrenches in your kit.
Very handy, and essential if you are working with conduit, such as EMT, flexible conduit, or teck cable.
Essential if working with conduit, especially rigid or EMT conduit.
Every electrical tool kit should have at least a roll of black electrical tape, and having a few colours like red and blue helps as well for identifying wires, etc.
Every tool kit, electrical or otherwise, must have the universal repair tool that is a roll of duct tape!
A Tool Pouch
Not essential, but unless you have big baggy pockets, this is a very handy thing to have, especially if you will be working off ladders, or your work area is spread out. This can save you a lot of trips by having the essential tools strapped onto your body.
Tool Box or Chest
You need something, even if it’s just a big pail, to keep everything together, and to have a place to put all your tools away. It’s nice to have a good tool box with many compartments to help you keep organized.
Ladders and Step Stools
They won’t fit in your toolbox, but you will need the appropriate size for the height you will be working at.
Notebook or Notepad
Great idea to have a notepad in your toolbox to make diagrams, to take notes or reminders of how things were before disconnecting them, etc.
Pen, Pencil, Felt Pens, etc.
For obvious reasons.
No matter how careful you are, accidents happen. Just do all you can to protect yourself and to minimize the potential for injury. Have a first aid kit handy, just in case!
Great for cutting out openings for outlet boxes in drywall, panelboard, etc.
Critical if working with EMT conduit, flex, etc. If cutting a lot of metal, then an electric reciprocating saw will save you time.
Power Saw or Skill Saw
For cutting studs, blocking and reinforcing boxes, etc.
Many uses when working with wood construction.
If working with conduit, you will need a hickey bender or any bending tool designed for the conduit you are working with.
Fish Tape, and/or Fishing Tools
A fish tape is very handy, and essential if working with conduit. A fish tape or fishing tools are required if you are installing electrical in existing walls or ceilings and are trying to minimize the damage you may cause by cutting as few access holes as possible.
For when you need some extra light for dark places, or when the power is off while working on existing systems.
I have given you a list of many electrical tools and equipment here that you may need; some are absolutely essential, and some that will not be required or are just nice to have, depending on the complexity of the job at hand. There are many more electrical tools available, and lots of gadgets that are designed to make the job easier. Some work well, some not.
I will be adding more articles taking a closer look at some of the electrical tools and equipment listed here in the near future. Plus, watch for my upcoming video where I “showcase” my personal toolbox and its contents.
– Terry Peterman, the Internet Electrician