8 Types of Light Switches and Dimmers (and Which One You Need)

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.

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.

Close up of a woman switching off a light switch on a green wall
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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.

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Single-Pole Switch

single pole switch

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.

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Three-Way Switch

three-way switch

Three-way switches have three terminals (in addition to a ground terminal) and can control one fixture from two locations. Because they're always paired with a second switch, their toggles are 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.

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Four-Way Switch

four way 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.

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Rotary Dimmer

rotary dimmer switch

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.

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Sliding Dimmer

sliding dimmer switch

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.

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Dimmer Switch

programmable timer switch

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.

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Wall-Control Dimmer

wall control dimmer switch

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.

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Occupancy Switch

occupancy switch

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can I run all my lights through the same circuit?

    Most of the time, 8-10 light bulbs can be installed on a 15 amp, 120-volt circuit breaker. Too many lights on one circuit will trip the circuit breaker and turn off everything on that circuit. 

  • How much does installing a new light switch cost?

    A light switch can cost from $10 for a standard model to $100 for a smart light switch operated from an app on your phone. To have an electrician install a light switch will add between $50 and $150 per hour.

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