Single-pole light switches are used to control power to light fixtures or receptacles from one location and are the most common type of switch in the home. The most common style of single-pole switch is the well-known toggle switch, but it can look tired and dated over time. Changing a light switch by upgrading to a new rocker-style switch takes just a few minutes and requires no extra wiring or special connections.
What Is a Rocker-Style Switch?
A rocker-style switch is significantly wider and flatter than a traditional toggle switch. It functions in the same way to turn power on and off, but it requires less hand pressure to operate.
If you are changing the light switch cover and the new plate is smaller than the original, you can make it easy on yourself and cover the old plate's outline with a slightly oversized new plate—no wall repair or touch-up paint required.
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Equipment / Tools
- Utility knife
- Non-contact voltage tester
- Wire cutters/strippers
- Needle-nose pliers
- Black electrical tape (as needed)
- Single-pole rocker switch with cover plate
How to Change a Light Switch From Toggle to Rocker
Turn Off the Power and Prep the Cover Plate
Turn off power to the circuit feeding the switch by switching off the appropriate breaker in your home's service panel (breaker box). If the old cover plate has been painted on, carefully score around the perimeter of the cover plate with a utility knife to cut through the paint.
Remove the Old Cover Plate
Remove the cover plate screws, then pry up the plate with a thin flat-blade screwdriver. Be careful not to touch any wires inside the electrical box.
Confirm the power is off by touching the screw terminals on the switch with a non-contact voltage tester. If the tester indicates voltage, return to the service panel and turn off the correct circuit breaker, then retest the wires. If you can not identify the correct breaker to turn off, you'll need to switch off the main breaker, which will cut power to your entire home.
Remove the Switch Screws
Remove the mounting screws at the top and bottom of the switch mounting strap that secures the switch to the electrical box. Gently pull the switch body out and away from the electrical box so you can access the wire connections, which may be on the back of the switch body.
Check the Wiring
Check the wiring for condition and proper markings. You can also take a photo with your smartphone at this point to help you remember where everything goes.
Single-pole switches always connect to two hot wires. One wire will almost certainly be black. The other hot wire may be red or white. If it is white, it should have a band of black or red electrical tape near its end, indicating that it is serving as a hot wire. In other cases, the white wire may be connected to the switch with no tagging indicating it is hot. If that's the case, the prior electrician did not properly mark the wire, and you should mark it as a hot wire by wrapping it with a band of black electrical tape after disconnecting it.
The switch also should have a bare copper or green insulated ground wire connected to its ground screw (old wiring systems may not have a ground wire).
The electrical box may also contain white neutral wires that are connected together.
Remove the Old Switch
Disconnect the old switch by removing the two hot wires that connect to it. Usually, this will involve loosening the screw terminals and removing the switch. Alternatively, the wires may be connected with push-in fittings. For push-in fittings, there is usually a slot or opening into which you can push a small screwdriver blade or nail to loosen the connection and pull out the wire. In this case, you can also remove the old switch by cutting the old wires close to the switch, using wire cutters. Just make sure to leave enough length to attach the new switch. Typically, you should have at least 6 inches of extra wire.
Strip the Wire Ends (as needed)
The new switch has three wires, including two hot wires and one ground wire. Strip about 3/4 inch of insulation away from the two hot wires and ground wire, using wire strippers, if necessary. If the existing ends of the wires are nicked or otherwise damaged, clip them off and strip off 3/4 of insulation, leaving clean wires. Bend the exposed copper end of each wire (as needed) into C-shaped loops, using needle-nose pliers.
Orient the New Switch
Note that the switch will either be marked "TOP" or it will have a brass plate or some other distinguishing mark noting the top end. This proper orientation is important. Although the switch will still work upside down, it makes for a confusing and unprofessional installation.
Connect the New Switch
Take care to make sure the wires go where they should when installing the new light switch. Hook the ground wire around the ground screw terminal on the switch so the hook wraps around the screw in a clockwise direction. This will cause the loop to tighten up when the screw is tightened. Tighten the screw with a screwdriver.
Connect each of the two hot wires to one of the two main screw terminals on the switch, and tighten the terminal, as with the ground screw. The two terminals are interchangeable and either wire can go to either terminal, but only one wire can be under each terminal. Tug on the wires to make sure they are secure.
Mount the Switch to the Box
Gently push the new switch into the light switch box, folding the wires neatly into the box behind the switch. Fasten the switch to the box with the two long mounting screws at the top and bottom of the switch mounting strap.
Check the Cover Plate Size
Test-fit the cover plate by placing it over the switch. if the new plate does not completely cover the outline of the old plate, buy a larger cover plate that fits the switch model.
Install the Cover Plate and Test the Switch
Install the cover plate, using the provided screws (some rocker switches have a base cover that screws into place and a top cover that snaps onto the base). Be careful not to overtighten the screws, which can bend or crack the cover plate. Turn on the power by switching on the circuit breaker, then test the switch for proper operation.
Can I replace a light switch myself?
Do you have to turn off the electricity to change a light switch?
Yes, you will need to turn off the power while doing any electrical work. Do not change a light switch with the power on. If you cannot access the power to turn it off, hire an electrician to handle the project.
What are the types of light switches?
Push-In Connectors on Receptacles. Journal of Light Construction.