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How to Replace a Toggle Light Switch with a Rocker Style Switch
An easy and effective upgrade you can make to your home is replacing an old single-pole toggle light switch with a newer style rocker switch, such as the Leviton Decora®.
Rocker Style Light Switches
Single-pole light switches to control power to light fixture(s) or power receptacle(s) from one location and are the most common type of switch found in the home. The most common style of switch is the toggle switch but it can look pretty tired and dated, lacking any sense of style.
In this tutorial, we... will review how to replace and upgrade the toggle switch with a sleek rocker-style switch and discuss some of the issues you may encounter in the process—for example, how to remove an old painted-on cover plate without damaging the painted wall, or what to do when a new cover plate does not cover the gap or old paint line from the original cover plate. Of course, there is also the issue of how to safely and properly wire the switch.
All these issues covered for you in this tutorial!
Needed Tools and Materials
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- New rocker-tyle single-pole switch
- Cover plate
- Multi-head screwdriver
- Combination tool
- Needle nose pliers
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Turn Off Power and Prep The Cover Plate For Removal
Turn Off Power
- Turn off power to the circuit feeding the switch. You do this by going to your electrical service panel and either removing the fuse or turning off the circuit breaker feeding power to the switch.
- Go back to the switch and flip the switch to confirm that the power has been turned off.
Prepare for Cover Plate Removal
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- If the existing cover plate is painted on (the plate does not easily remove when unscrewed) then you need to prepare it for removal.
- Run a razor blade or sharp utility... knife blade CAREFULLY around the perimeter of the cover plate, scoring the paint at the edge of the cover plate. Don't let the knife edge slip and score the wall. By scoring the paint at the edge of the cover plate, you will allow a clean separation.
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Remove the Old Cover Plate
Remove the Cover Plate
Once the old cover plate has been scored, carefully pry it up using a thin flat blade screwdriver. As you remove the old cover plate, you'll probably find it leaves a paint ring. We will address this issue later by using a special new cover plate.
If you find that paint peels up when you lift the cover plate, cut the paint to fully separate the cover plate from the wall. If you pull the plate up without scoring the paint fully you may lift the paint from the wall,... causing paint damage that will need to be repaired.Continue to 4 of 10 below.
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Remove Switch Fastening Screws
Extract the Switch from the Wall Box
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- Remove the long, small mounting screws at the top and bottom of the switch strap that secures the switch to the electrical box.
- Once the screws are removed, gently pull the switch body out away from the electrical box so you can access the wires and the back of the switch body.
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Remove the Old Switch
Remove the Old Switch
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- Once the switch is pulled from the box, check the wiring for condition and proper markings. Single-pole switches always connect to two hot wires. One wire will have black insulation, and other is probably white, in some cases with the end taped black denoting 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 it... should be marked as a black wire. Wrap the end with black electrical tape after disconnecting it.
- Disconnect the old switch by disconnecting the two hot wires that connect to the switch. Usually, this will involve loosening the screw terminals and removing the switch. Or, 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 remove the wire.
- The easiest way to remove the old switch, if you have enough length, is to simply cut the old wires off close to the switch. Just make sure to leave enough length to attach the new switch. Typically, you should have at least 6" of free wire.
- Once the old switch is disconnected, make sure to strip about 3/4" of insulation away from the black wires, using a combination tool. 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.
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Ready the New Switch
Get the New Rocker Switch Ready for Installation
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- Make sure to properly orient the switch to the top. The switch will either be marked "TOP" or it will have a brass plate or some other distinguishing mark. This proper orientation is important. Although the switch will still work upside down, it makes for a confusing and unprofessional installation.
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Connect Wiring to New Rocker Switch
Connecting the New Switch
- If the switch box wiring has a bare ground wire, connect it to the green terminal screw on the switch. An exception to the National Electrical Code allows for a switch to be installed without connecting the ground wire if no ground wire is found in the electrical box—a situation sometimes found in older homes.
- Bend the exposed copper ends of the hot circuit wires into C-shaped loops, and hook them around the screw terminals on the switch in a clockwise direction. This... will cause the loops to tighten up when the screws are tightened.
- Tighten the screw terminals down onto the wires firmly; tug on the wires to make sure they are secure.
NOTE: Although your switch may have push-in fittings, most electricians avoid these, as screw terminal connections are more secure and less likely to loosen over time.Continue to 8 of 10 below.
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Install New Rocker Switch in Electrical Box
Attach New Switch to the Electrical Box
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- With the switch wiring connected, the next step is to install it into the electrical box. Holding the mounting straps, gently push the new switch body back into the box.
- Fasten the switch to the box with the two long mounting screws at the top and bottom of the switch mounting strap.
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Checking the Cover Plate Size
Checking the Cover Plate
Once the new switch is installed, test fit the cover plate. As shown in the photo, the cover plate may not completely cover any gaps in the wall or previous paint ring marks. If that is the case, proceed to the next step to select the right size cover plate.Continue to 10 of 10 below.
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Selecting a Standard, Preferred or Oversized Cover Plate
Selecting a Cover Plate
Although there is a standard size for most cover plates used for new construction, the remodeling market has created a need for cover plates a little larger than standard. These larger cover plates literally "cover" a multitude of problem situations, such as gaps and paint rings.
Wall cover plates for switches and outlets come in three sizes (from smallest to largest): standard, preferred (also called midsize or midway), and oversized (also called jumbo).
Typically,... the "standard" size plate is used for new construction where construction tolerances are tighter. In situations where drywall workmanship is sloppier, creating a large gap between the electrical box and the drywall, or in cases where removal of an old cover plate leaves an old paint line, then use the "preferred" or even the "oversized" cover plates.
The standard size plate is nominally 2.75" x 4.5", the preferred size plate is nominally 3.13" x 4.88" and the Oversized plate is nominally 3.5" x 5.25".
Use of a larger wall cover plate can save time and effort in non-standard applications, where you would otherwise have to patch, sand and / or repaint the wall around an outlet or switch to using a standard wall plate.
For this tutorial project, the oversized cover plate fit the bill just perfectly and created a nice clean installation.