How to know if there is electrical wiring behind a wall when hanging shelves

Written by ian kelly
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How to know if there is electrical wiring behind a wall when hanging shelves
Locate electrical wiring behind plasterboard before installing shelves. (Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images)

When hanging items such as shelves and flat-screen TV’s on a plasterboard-clad wall, hidden live wires present a serious hazard; if you drive a screw or drill into one of them you could be electrocuted. Until recently, specialised instruments for locating hidden wires inside walls and floors were bulky and expensive. However, with the latest technological advances, inexpensive deep-scanning stud finders capable of detecting the precise location of hidden live wires are now available.

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Most building and electrical contractors retain plans and wiring diagrams after completing house constriction, therefore if you live in a relatively new home you may be able to get hold of the plans. Although wiring diagrams are not that detailed, wiring is invariably horizontally or vertically orientated. Whether or not plans are available, select a wall containing as few electrical outlets as possible for your intended shelving.


Choose a stud finder with both deep scanning and AC wire detection capabilities. If possible, insist on a live demonstration together with an acceptable money-back guarantee before buying. Once you get home, familiarise yourself with the instrument by following the written directions and practising on a wall with multiple switches and electrical outlets. Pay attention to the live-wire warning light and listen for the audible beep when crossing a hidden wire.


Mark out the horizontal and vertical positioning of both the proposed shelving and the mounting brackets. Use the stud finder to track the exact location and orientation of any hidden wiring both above and below the location of your proposed shelving. Consider hanging the shelving on a different section if you detect one or more live wires likely to interfere with the shelf or the mounting brackets.


Take special precautions when mounting your shelving regardless of the instrument’s findings. Use a cordless drill/driver for both pre-drilling and for driving mounting screws. Locate the main switch or breaker on your household electrical panel and turn it off before starting work. As an added precaution tape the switch to the panel with a strip of masking tape to prevent someone else from restoring power while you’re working.

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