Tips for Identifying Light Switches in Your Home

Electrician Replacing A Switch
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Being able to identify the types and designs of switches around your house will help you choose the best replacements. Here’s a quick look at the most common light switches.

Types of switches

Many light switches in your home will come in four varieties:

  • Single-Pole Switch. Single-pole switches are the most common. These switches use a simple on-off toggle to turn lights, devices and receptacles on and off from a single location. Flipping the switch on single-pole models connects or disconnects the circuit. Most single-pole switches are marked with on and off settings. It’s important to wire your switch in the correct direction to ensure the markings match the position of the switch. A single-pole switch will have two brass screws on either side of the switch. These brass terminals house the incoming and outgoing hot wire. Some switches also come with a green ground terminal.
  • Double-Pole Switch. Double-pole switches also utilize an on-off toggle and can only control lights, devices or receptacles from one location. But with four brass terminals, double-pole switches can house two hot wires, which means that double-pole models can switch to a 240-volt circuit. Double-pole models also utilize a green ground screw.
  • Three-Way Switch. Three-way switches come in pairs and allow you to turn lights on or off from two locations. This makes them ideal for controlling long hallways. Three-way designs are more complicated than single- and double-pole switches; the hot wire in three-way designs is connected to the common screw (COM). The remaining terminals are used to wire the leads for switches. Three-way switches also come with a green ground screw.
  • Four-Way Switch. Four-way designs are combined with three-way switches to control lights from three or more locations. You can identify a four-way switch by its four terminals.

Switch Designs

Switches also come in several designs:

  • Push-Button Switches. Push-button designs are less common than others. This design sports a button that connects or disconnects the circuit when pushed. Some models offer spring-loaded designs that return buttons to their original position after being pushed. Other push-button switches stay depressed when pushed and click back to their original position when the circuit is disconnected.
  • Toggle Switches. Toggle switches are the most common. Toggle designs use a lever that’s angled in an on or off position. Moving the toggle up or down connects or disconnects the circuit.
  • Selector Switches. These switches include a rotary knob or lever that allows users to select different lighting settings. Selector switches also come in a two-mode designs. Two-mode selector switches normally only offer an on or off setting.
  • Proximity Switches. Proximity switches use motion-sensing technology to switch lights on or off. Motion-sensing designs are popular in modern and energy-conscious homes and businesses. Proximity switches vary in terms of customization and out-of-the-box features.
  • Photoelectric Switches. Photoelectric switches use a sensor to measure the level of light in a room and adjust the lights accordingly. Streetlights and light posts are common photoelectric applications. But recent innovations have outfitted residential lighting with similar technology. Many homeowners use photoelectric lightings for porches and backyards.
  • Dimmer Light Switches. Dimmer switches allow you to find the ideal amount of light for any setting. The dimmer design is perfect for livings rooms, dining rooms and other areas of your home that call for ambiance. Some dimmers require special bulbs. Be sure to speak to a professional before installing dimmers.

Installing New Switches

Single-pole toggle switches are the easiest to install. Here’s a quick how to:

  1. Cut the power. Turn off the breaker that supplies power to your switch. Flip the power main if you’re unsure which breaker is connected to your light switch. Use a tester to ensure your work area is powered down.
  2. Remove the old switch. Remove the faceplate and unscrew the old switch. Set it aside.
  3. Connect your ground. Your ground is normally a green or bare copper wire. Connect it to the green screw.
  4. Connect the remaining wires. In a single-pole switch, you can connect either wire to either screw. These are located on the opposite side of the switch from the ground.