Different Types of Electrical Light Switches (and How to Replace Them)

Your home has dozens of switches that you use to turn things on and off. Lights, appliances and devices all need electricity to work, and need to be up to scratch to work properly. The most common thing that goes wrong, and needs replacement are light bulbs and switches. Sure, you’ve changed the odd bulb now and then, but there are times when you need to check the switches themselves.

Light Switches
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Telltale signs of faulty switches are when you hear a grinding, buzzing noise from a light switch, or when they’re hot to the touch, and when there’s a delay between turning switches on and the light. Common problems include faulty wiring and worn-out connections, something you’ll need to tend to if you want to avoid sparks, fires or even the risk of electrocution.  

Types of Light Switches 

There are a few types of electrical switches around the house. Here, I’ll focus on the different kinds of light switches you’ll find in your home, how they work in an electrical circuit, and the different varieties and styles to choose from when you need to replace them.  

Single Pole Switches
Source: mrelectric.com

Single Pole Switches 

By far the most common type of light switches are single pole. A single pole switch has one input and one output to switch one electrical circuit, or ‘pole’ – ON or OFF. You flip the switch to turn the lights on and you flip it back down to turn it off. There are two types of single pole switches – single pole single throw, and single pole double throw. A throw is the number of positions in which the circuit can be activated. With two throws, single pole double throw switches also have a ‘standby’ mode besides the ‘on’ function, something you’ll see on many appliances. Three-way switches consisting of two single pole double throw switches can be found in hallways and stairs to turn a set of lights on or off from either end of the hall or staircase.  

Double Pole Switches 

Double pole switches operate two poles or circuits from a single switch. A double pole single throw switch has two inputs and two outputs, meaning two circuits are simultaneously turned on or off. A bathroom switch that operates the fan and light at the same time is a typical example. Four-way switches or double pole double throw switches are a series of three or more circuits operated by one switch. An example is turning on three or more lights from a single switch.  

Double Pole Switches
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Depending on how they’re operated, light switches can be toggle switches, push-button switches, dimmer switches, sensor and sound-activated, and smart switches.  Simple single pole single throw toggle switches are the ones you’ll use the most. They use a lever that is moved up or down to open or close a circuit, or turn a light off or on. Older designs are push button switches, where you push the switch for the light to turn on and push it again for it to turn off. Bedside lamps have this feature. 

Dimmer switches change the voltage of the current, and the light intensity from dark to light. They’re good for creating the ambience you want, for example, dimming lights in home cinema rooms. They can also help in getting lower electricity bills. Lights that use motion sensors to turn on when approaching, like proximity lights in a driveway, or when entering or leaving a room are also available. Like dimmer lights, they’re also good for efficient power use. Then, there are sound-activated lights that turn on or off by voice command. And lastly, there are programmable smart switches that are controlled by apps on your phone, so you can switch lights on or off and not necessarily be at home. 

light switches dimmer
Source: pocket-lint.com

Replacing Faulty Light Switches 

Replacing a faulty light can be an easy DIY job with some basic understanding of wiring. You’ll need a flat or Phillips screwdriver, a non-contact voltage tester, and a pair of pliers. Once you’ve established that the light is the issue and not another problem, like a blown fuse, you can change a switch in these few simple steps: 

  1. Cut the power to the house with a quick flip of the main circuit breakers to the ‘OFF’ position 
  2. Unscrew the light switch cover with the appropriate screwdriver 
  3. Check for live wires, by using the non-contact voltage tester on the wire terminals 
  4. Once you’re sure there’s no power coming through, unscrew the screw holding the old switch in place, then remove the wires from the terminals. You might need pliers to patch up any frayed wires
  5. Attach the new light switch, connect the wires the same way you removed them, and screw the new switch back in place 
  6. Attach the new light switch cover with the appropriate screws 
  7. Turn the power back on, by flipping the main circuit breaker to ‘ON’ and switch on the light.  
Close Up Of Electrician Repairing Domestic Light Switch
Source: shutterstock.com

Safety is of utmost importance. You can also switch off the individual circuit breaker for the room where you’re replacing the switch instead of cutting off power to the whole house. If you’re not comfortable doing the work yourself, call an electrician. 

Buying Light Switches 

You can change an individual switch, or replace all the switches in your house with new ones. There are different switch cover styles and colours to choose from that will fit perfectly in any room. You’ll find switches, bulbs, lighting bundles and necessary tools in all electrical shops.

smart Light Switches
Source: lektronlighting.com

Check for the right type of electrical light switch before replacing the old one. Keep in mind that when changing between different types of light switches, for example from a single pole light switch in the hallway to a double pole switch that turns on more lights, you’ll also need an electrician to update your wiring.  

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.