Tracing doorbell wires behind wall

stripedbassAugust 7, 2014

The photo below is of my doorbell (with the cover removed) which has never worked since I bought this condo way back when. Half the doorbells in the building work, the other half don't work.

As you can see, the wires from or to the doorbell have been cut. I cannot tell where the wires connected to. I'm assuming they're supposed to connect to wires that are behind the wall.

Other than cutting up the wall, is there a tool that I can use that would allow me to locate the wires behind the wall (if they exist)?

I have a doorbell button at the front of the building on the first floor (my condo is on the 3rd floor).

I don't know where the transformer is. It could either be in the attic or basement. I have no idea how I'm going to find it.

The circuit breakers are in the basement.

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Ron Natalie

Look in the vicinity of the door button, the chime, and the circuit breaker for a small transformer which almost always looks like this:

Yes there are devices that will allow you to trace the wiring through the walls but they're probably overkill. Most likely the wiring is fine...the problem is at the button, the chime, or the transformer.

    Bookmark   August 7, 2014 at 5:11PM
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Spent all morning searching for transformer.

Checked the basement really carefully but no luck at all.

The building is old, built in the 1920s (but I'm assuming the doorbells are from a more recent period). It has 12 units. The basement is broken up so that 3 vertical units share a basement that is walled in. I checked my basement and the adjacent one.

I even poked my head into the massive attic but it's really hot and insulation covers the area above the ceilings for the 4 top units. My unit is a top one (3rd floor).

Where could this transformer be?

The doorbell for my immediate neighbor on the 3rd floor and the neighbor right below me works.

Below is a photo of the door buttons for 6 of the 12 units. Mine is the 3rd one from left. The buttons are just above the mailboxes.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2014 at 12:00PM
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Here is a link that might be useful: earthrise spirulina

    Bookmark   August 8, 2014 at 12:05PM
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This photo is of exterior door frame.

You will notice 2 holes. One hole is directly opposite the hole on the interior door frame where the doorbell wires most likely ran through. (The interior door frame is where the doorbell is.)

The other hole, above, is most likely where the wires entered the wall. There's even a piece of painted wire lodged inside.

I've placed strips of pink paper to help you spot the holes.

Since I'm having this door sealed soon (I have another door a few feet away), I had the exterior door frame removed but I did not see any wires. However, the wires may have simply been inside the wall, to the left or above the frame. This is why I really want to explore this issue now.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2014 at 3:42PM
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Install a wireless doorbell.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2014 at 4:13PM
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I e-mailed the former superintendent of the building, the person who ran it when it was a rental, before it converted to condos 10 years ago. Like me, he bought a unit in the building which is why I was able to contact him.

I wanted to know whether he knows where the transformers for the doorbells are.

He just wrote back and says:

"...the original doorbells were 'hard-wired' from the entry buzzer up, meaning a wire actually ran up to the unit. Mine fortunately was still intact so I simply got a new ringer and wired it into the existing wiring...I would suggest that you ask the electrician if he can test the line from your existing ringer to the top floor where the doorbell is to see if it is alive, (not broken or shorted out) and to use that if possible and 'hard-wire' the old-fashioned doorbell in (without transformer)."

So are there hardwired doorbells that don't use transformers?

Whatever the case, I still have to locate the wires.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2014 at 12:48PM
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Ron Natalie

I believe what he is saying is the transformer was part of the entry system. Doorbells always use transformers but they can be integral to something else.

    Bookmark   August 10, 2014 at 8:04AM
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Very interesting. In other words, there's the possibility that the transformer could be where the buttons are? If so, I wonder how I could test this.

    Bookmark   August 10, 2014 at 9:56AM
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If bell wiring was original to the building, the insulation was probably cloth. Most of the time, I find that insulation deteriorated and the conductors short circuited. The exposed portions of conductor could have been spliced onto the original at a later date.
Why not explore the possibility of running all new bell wire for your premises? Might be easier to do than you imagine. Don't use telephone station wire which is at most 22 gauge and most likely to be 24 gauge. Use 18 gauge and the bell will work quite well.

    Bookmark   August 10, 2014 at 2:46PM
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What's interesting about your post is that I also have a non-functioning doorbell on my deck door. I peeked behind its door button. The insulation for the wires is cloth.

But I still don't know what to do with my main doorbell.

The deck door is 11 feet from my main door. Do you think the 2 doors shared the same wiring?

    Bookmark   August 10, 2014 at 4:58PM
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Since I'm on the top floor of my condo building (3rd floor), I began searching the attic above me which is filled with blown in insulation.

After continuing to dig around, I found something today but I don't know whether it's the doorbell transformer (I hope it is!). So I took a photo. Could a kind soul tell me what the thing in the photo below is? Is it a doorbell transformer?

The only thing that makes me not jump up in excitement is that this thing is located directly above a hallway heat detector.

Needless to say, I'd really appreciate any feedback on this. Thanks!

    Bookmark   August 12, 2014 at 8:04PM
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That is most likely part of the fire alarm system. The orange cable is a relatively recent 3- conductor (plus ground) used to interconnect multiple sensing/signaling units. Not part of the bell system.

The bell transformer will have small gauge wires attached -- or screw terminals intended for those conductors.

This post was edited by bus_driver on Tue, Aug 12, 14 at 21:52

    Bookmark   August 12, 2014 at 8:24PM
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I just thought to post because there has been a new development.

My goal is to have a new doorbell and transformer installed, if we can find the doorbell wires.

I removed the exterior door frame because there's a wire hole in the interior door frame that leads to the exterior door frame. In fact, the wire from my door bell was originally in the interior door frame hole. However, after removing the exterior door frame I did not see any wires. Bummer!

I therefore want to summarize things as they now stand to see whether my dream of having a wired doorbell is still possible. This is what I know:

1) I have a doorbell button on the first floor.

2) I have a doorbell in my condo's kitchen on the 3rd floor. The doorbell wire is cut.

3) My circuit breaker box is in the basement.

4) But I have a new sub-panel that is being installed in my kitchen.

5) I cannot find the transformer in the basement or the attic which is filled with blown in insulation.

6) I have a telephone wire I no longer use because I have Comcast. I mention this because some people have asked whether I have a telephone line no longer being used. The suggestion is that I can use the phone line as wiring for my doorbell. I don't know how this would be possible but then again, I know nothing about wiring.

Given all of the above, is it still possible to have a wired doorbell without tearing up the whole building?

    Bookmark   August 19, 2014 at 12:21PM
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Wasting my time posting what I posted earlier. The telephone wire is too small gauge and the problem is compounded by the distance. But go ahead and do it because the "experts" have suggested it. My assurance to you is that it will work very poorly with your signaling device sounding very weak.
I know several "electricians" who do use telephone wire regularly for door chimes. The chimes work poorly. And those same people do other things that would not be acceptable if the work was on my premises.

    Bookmark   August 19, 2014 at 1:56PM
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Okay, bus_driver, I hear you. Advice noted. Thanks.

    Bookmark   August 19, 2014 at 6:49PM
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Something occurred to me.

1) If I or an electrician go to the doorbell button on the first floor and unscrew it, it will either have wires that go to the basement or the 3rd floor.

2) If the doorbell button wires go to the basement, they're either still good or broken somewhere. If they're broken, what if we tried to fish new wires to the basement.

3) Once the doorbell button wires are in the basement, do they have to be connected to a transformer (that I can buy) that's placed in or next to my circuit breaker box? Or do the doorbell button wires have to be connected to the doorbell in my kitchen on the 3rd floor?

4) What if I bought a new doorbell, installed it in my kitchen then ran its wires to my sub-panel in my kitchen?

Would the above plan work? If not, where am I wrong?

What I've learned with electrical work is that the more you know in advance, the better off it is as the electrician doesn't have to bill you through the nose to figure it all out for you.

This is how we got the sub-panel cable up to my 3rd floor. I explored wire routes that my neighbors took. Most did not work for me because of my condo location. But the route that the only other neighbor who's in the 3rd floor (like me) took ended up being the solution for me!

    Bookmark   August 19, 2014 at 6:51PM
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I've just come back from the basement. I was exploring the area right under the doorbell buttons on the first floor.

I found the transformer! It's actually above one of the circuit breaker boxes in the basement immediately adjacent to mine. Our basement is divided into 4 sections.

There are 6 condo units on my half of the condo building. This means that there are 2 hallways. Each hallway has 3 units in a vertical row.

When I went to the basement and checked under the area where the doorbell buttons are, I noticed 4 wires going in one direction and 4 wires going in another direction. I didn't understand this since I'd assume there would be 6 wires in total. Do you know why this is the case? Is one wire for the transformer?

In any case, the bunch of wires for my row of units went a short distance along the basement wall then entered the floor board above the basement. When I went to the hallway, above the basement and approximated where the wires would come out from, it seemed to be inside the wall that divides the two vertical hallways (with 3 condos each).

What this means is that the wires probably travel upward and branch off into their respective units. In my case, since I'm on the top floor (3rd) I hope they come up to the attic for this is the only way I'll be able to spot them.

My next goal is to go back to the blown-insulation filled attic then check the area that is vertically above the spot in the basement where the wires enter the floorboard.

Below are some photos. The first one shows the wires coming from the area below the doorbell buttons in the basement. The second one is of the 3 wires joining together with a 4th one that comes from the transformer. The third one shows the transformer (above the circuit breaker box).

Now if I can only find the wires that are hopefully above my 3rd floor condo (in the attic)...

    Bookmark   August 21, 2014 at 3:28PM
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If half work and half do not then make sure that transformer is indeed good.

    Bookmark   August 22, 2014 at 11:26AM
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I have a wired doorbell at last!

I called an electrician today. I thought he would only be able to come next week. But he said he was doing nothing and could come immediately.

When he got to my place we went to the transformer. Then we went to my 3rd floor condo with his detector thing. In no time he was able to locate the doorbell wires. They were behind a wall in my hallway, right outside my condo. They were halfway up the wall. He cut a small hole in the sheetrock and pulled them out. He then tested them. They had voltage!

While he was running new wiring, from behind the sheetrock up into the attic and into the inside of my condo, I rushed to my local Home Depot and bought a new doorbell. When I got back he connected the new doorbell. I then decided to also get a new doorbell button. This time I went to my local hardware store. He connected the button.

I now have a new and wired doorbell!

I want to thank all of you who gave me good advice here. The grunt work that I did helped in locating the transformer and the doorbell wires from the buttons in the basement.

Below is a photo of my new doorbell baby.

    Bookmark   August 23, 2014 at 4:34PM
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For the record, the pictured item is a chime.

For those who might think that the distinction is not meaningful, in most cases, a chime and a bell would use different transformers. And if ordering components by mail or online, the terminology would be important.

Here is a link that might be useful: Bell

This post was edited by bus_driver on Sun, Aug 24, 14 at 13:53

    Bookmark   August 23, 2014 at 4:41PM
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Awesome news!! You probably saved yourself a bunch of $$ in exploratory work the electrician would have probably had to do. Great JOB!! Congrats!! DING DING!

    Bookmark   August 24, 2014 at 1:43AM
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One of the things that I found out was that one transformer is being used for 6 if not 9 doorbells (I cannot tell for sure as I only have access to 2 of the 4 basements in the building. Each basement has 3 doorbells. I definitely saw a wire going from the transformer to 3 basements.

The building is very old and the doorbells were put in many, many years before it became condos.

When the electrician tested my doorbell wires near my condo on the 3rd floor, he said they only had 10 volts of electricity.

Does anyone know what is the ideal power the wires should be giving out?

    Bookmark   August 24, 2014 at 3:20PM
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Thanks for the info on the bells vs chimes.

This is the first time I'm hearing that bells and chimes require different transformers.

I forget what the electrician said was the wattage on the transformer.

I try to check back with him.

    Bookmark   August 24, 2014 at 3:25PM
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Today's chimes (in the USA) use 16 volts. The chimes of the late 1930's-- and some period earlier-- used 10 volts. Having not searched for such, I do not know if 10 volt chimes are presently available.A 16 volt chime on 10 volts power will be incredibly weak.
It is possible that the electrician installed a separate 16 volt transformer for this project if the existing transformer was 10 volts. It certainly seems that the electrician was competent for this project.
Troubleshooting and diagnosis is not the forte of every electrician.

    Bookmark   August 24, 2014 at 6:19PM
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