Ultimate Guide to Light Switches and Dimmers
There's more to light switches than "on" and "off." Check out our guide to light switches and dimmers, including nine different switch types you should know.
Light switches, once a simple decision, are now a home improvement category boasting a number of designs and functions. After you pick the perfect chandelier, pendant, or recessed lighting for your home makeover, take a look at our guide to switches and dimmers to pick the right option for your room.
Types of Switches
Turn a switch on and it completes the circuit, letting electricity flow through it. Turn it off and the circuit is broken; the switch creates a gap that stops the flow.
The most common household switch, a single-pole, has two terminals and simply turns power on or off.
A three-way switch has three terminals; a four-way has four. These control a light from two or three locations, such as in a stairwell, at either end of a hallway, or in a large room with more than one entrance.
A dimmer switch controls a light's intensity. Usually you can replace any single-pole switch with a dimmer. However, for a fan or fluorescent light, buy a special switch rated to control those devices.
In addition to the familiar toggle and rotary switches, specialty switches can do everything from turning on when you walk into a room to varying the speed of whole-house fans. Other special-duty switches can be time-programmed or let you know whether a remote light is on or off. Decorative switches include styles that rock, turn, or slide rather than toggle.
A single-pole switch has two terminals and a toggle labeled ON and OFF. Always connect two hot wires to it, not two neutrals. This light switch is good for small rooms that don't have many light sources.
A three-way switch has three terminals, and its toggle is not marked on or off. You may find these at the top and bottom of a stairwell or long hallway so the user doesn't have to walk in the dark to find a switch.
A four-way switch is similar to a three-way, except it has four terminals and controls three lights. While more uncommon, this is a good option for large rooms with several entrances.
A rotary dimmer switch is the most common type of dimmer switch. As you rotate the knob clockwise and counterclockwise, the intensity of the light changes.
A sliding dimmer with an on/off toggle turns the light back on to the brightness you had set the last time it was on. We love using this switch in the bedroom where we want soft lighting in the morning and night, but leave it turned off during the day.
If you don't like the look of big knobs and sliders, a dimmer switch with a small slider next to the toggle is almost invisible. You get the convenience of having light intensity options without the visual eyesore.
Programmable Timer and Switch
A programmable timer and switch can be preset to turn the lights on and off on an automatic schedule. If you need light immediately, just press the button, and the lights come on regardless of the program.
A wall-control dimmer not only controls and dims several lights, but it also can be programmed to turn on a combination of lights at a given brightness with the touch of a button.
An occupancy switch saves energy. Its built-in motion detector turns the light on when someone enters the room and leaves it on for a predetermined time. This option is ideal for cutting costs on the electricity bill.