Locate wiring in your wall prior to hanging anything.

How to Know if There Is Electrical Behind a Wall When Hanging Shelves

by Kim Blakesley

Hanging a shelf seems like a simple task, but there is an unknown danger that lurks beneath your wall's surface: electrical wiring. Due to safety reasons and the unsightly appearance of electrical wiring, electricians run the wires behind the walls and through the studs. Locating the wires is a simple task when using either a handheld wall scanner (a.k.a. multiscanner) or stud finder with wire detection. These particular tools trace the electricity flowing through the wire. A visual or audio signal will be emitted from the unit to tell you where your wires are located.

Turn on the wall scanner. Push the "Battery Charge Function" button to check if the batteries need replacing. Low battery power may cause an inaccurate reading. Two ways that indicate low battery life are an LED indicator showing low battery power, or an audible signal such as a beep when the unit is switched on. If this is the first time you are using the unit, insert batteries per the manufacturer's instructions. Replace the batteries if a low battery power is indicated.

Set the scanner to detect wiring, as applicable for the tool. Place the scanner on the wall where you want to hang your shelf. Hold the unit with the head flush against the wall. Move the head back and forth slowly over the area. Listen for a beep or watch the indicator arm for a positive movement for electricity. Read your manufacturer's instructions on exactly what your cable detector will do when electrical wires are found, if you are unsure.

Hang your shelf from the wall if no indicators exist for electrical wires. If a positive is shown for electrical wiring, choose a different location for hanging your shelf, one that is free of electrical wires.

Items you will need

  • Handheld wall scanner


  • Many rental locations have professional scanners for rent if you would rather not put money into purchasing one of your own.
  • Read the manufacturer's instructions to see if your scanner locates both live and dead wires. Some detectors will locate only live wires. If this is the case, turn on switches in the area so electricity is flowing through the wiring.
  • An alternative to using a wall scanner is to look at the blueprints of the room. Locate the electrical wiring on the blueprint, and choose a different area for hanging your shelf.
  • As a rule of thumb, wiring is installed in walls so that it runs in line with outlets and switches, either vertically or horizontally. This does not mean all wiring is run in such a manner. To hang small items, where the nail or screw will not go through the sheetrock or wallboard, notice where your outlets and switches are. Wiring will be located in a vertical and/or horizontal line from each area. As long as these lines are not in the vicinity of your chosen location, you can probably hang your shelves there without encountering electricity. It's always better to check, however. Drilling into wall studs is usually safe.

About the Author

Kim Blakesley is a home remodeling business owner, former art/business teacher and school principal. She began her writing and photography career in 2008. Blakesley's education, fine arts, remodeling, green living, and arts and crafts articles have appeared on numerous websites, including DeWalt Tools, as well as in "Farm Journal" and "Pro Farmer."

Photo Credits

  • Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images