There's more to these switches than "on" and "off." Select the right light switch for your space with our guide to the types to know.

By Jessica Bennett
Updated February 27, 2020
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Light switches, once a simple decision, are now a home improvement category boasting a number of designs and functions. With different switch styles, wiring needs, and programmable capabilities, the wide variety of light switches and dimmers can be tricky to navigate. However, the basic function always remains the same: Turn a switch on and it completes the circuit, letting electricity flow through it. Turning it off breaks the circuit, as the switch creates a gap that stops the flow. After choosing the perfect chandelier, pendant, or recessed lighting for your home makeover, make sure you pick the right electrical switch for your needs. Take a look at our guide to switches and dimmers to pick the right lighting option for your room.

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Types of Switches and Dimmers

Be sure to select a switch that's compatible with the circuit where you want to install it and your lighting needs. Here are the basic types of switches and dimmers.

Essential Light Switches

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 switch locations, such as at the top and bottom of a stairwell, at either end of a hallway, or in a large room with multiple entrances.

A dimmer switch controls a light's intensity. You can usually replace any single-pole switch with a dimmer. However, for a fan or fluorescent light, you should buy a special switch rated to control those devices.

Special Light Switches

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.

Single-pole switches have two brass terminal screws and a toggle labeled ON and OFF. Most also have a grounding screw that connects to the circuit's ground wire. This type of light switch controls one light fixture (or electrical outlet) from a single location. When installing, always connect two hot wires to it, not two neutrals. One terminal connects to the incoming power-source wire, while the other is used for the outgoing hot wire to the fixture. This light switch is good for small rooms that don't have many light sources.

Three-way switches have three terminals (in addition to a ground terminal) and can control one fixture from two locations. Because it's always paired with a second switch, its toggle is not marked on or off. Often found in stairwells or long hallways, three-way switches mean you don'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 (plus a ground terminal) and controls one fixture from three locations. This type of switch must be combined between two three-way switches to form a circuit. 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. These switches work well in bedrooms where we want soft lighting in the morning and night but leave the lights 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.

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 sensor switch can help save energy and eliminate fumbling around in the dark. Its built-in motion detector turns the light on when someone enters the room and leaves it on for a predetermined amount of time. This light switch option is ideal for cutting costs on the electricity bill.

Comments (2)

August 26, 2019
I think the article needs this correction: A four-way switch doesn't control three lights, it is used when a light is controlled by three switches.
May 4, 2018
I was hoping for more info. I have just replaced a ceiling light fixture. The old one had three bulbs - currently LED. The new fixture is an LED fixture. My rotary wall dimmer switch has a much narrower range with the new fixture. I'd estimate the range as 100% - 40%. Will a different type of dimmer switch give me a greater range?