Wall switches are essential electrical devices that control light fixtures, some appliances, and other devices. Most of the common types of switches come in different styles, such as toggle, rocker, slider, or push-button. The style usually does not affect the switch function and electrical wiring, though it can make the selection process confusing. But boiling down the choices to the most basic types of switches makes it easier to choose the right one for your needs.
Below, you'll learn about eight common types of wall switches and what they're best for.
Watch Now: 5 Main Types of Electrical Switches Explained
01 of 08
- Best for: Controlling a light fixture, appliance, or outlet from a single wall location
A single-pole switch is the general-purpose workhorse of switches. You'll know if your switch is single-pole because it will usually have ON/OFF symbols embossed on the face of switch (though the ON/OFF markings might be omitted on rocker-style switches).
Examined closely, you'll notice that a new single-pole switch has two brass-colored screw terminals attached to the body of the switch, plus a green screw that is connected to the metal strap. In normal use, this type of switch is used to control the flow of current through "hot" wires in the circuit (usually black wires).
With single-pole switch wiring, each of the brass-colored screw terminals is attached to a hot wire, and there is generally no neutral wire connection at all. The circuit's grounding wire (usually a bare copper wire) is attached to the green grounding screw on the switch.
02 of 08
- Best for: Controlling a 240-volt appliance or fixture from a single wall location
The double-pole switch is commonly used in industrial applications. But it can be found in some home wiring systems, where it is normally used to control 240-volt appliances, such as an electric furnace or air conditioner, an electric water heater, or a hot tub heater. Compared to single-pole switches, double-pole switches are much less common in the home—it's possible you will have none at all if you don't have appliances that require one.
Because 240-volt circuits operate with two individual "hot" wires, these switches have four brass-colored screw terminals to allow control of both hot wires in the circuit—the incoming wires are attached to one set of screws, and the outgoing hot wires are attached to the other set of screws. These switches are usually rated for 30 or 40 amps, rather than the 15 or 20 amps for standard single-pole wall switches.
Double-pole switches also have a green grounding screw for connecting the circuit's grounding wire.
03 of 08
- Best for: Controlling a light fixture from two different wall locations in the room
Three-way switches are used in pairs and usually found at both ends of a staircase, in garages or basements that have two entries, in hallways, and in other places where two separate wall switches control one light fixture or appliance.
The three-way switch has three terminal screws. Depending on where the switch falls in the circuit configuration, the darkest screw terminal—marked "COM" for common—is connected either to the hot circuit wire arriving from the power source or to the hot wire that runs onward to the light fixture. The remaining pair of screw terminals are attached to "traveler" wires that link the two three-way switches together.
A three-way switch also has a green grounding screw, to which the bare copper circuit grounding wire is attached.
04 of 08
- Best for: Controlling a light fixture, outlet, or appliance from three or more different wall locations
While not commonly used, four-way switches are sometimes found in long hallways and in very large rooms that have more than two entrances. The four-way switch is used between two three-way switches to provide control for an outlet or light fixture from multiple locations. If you want to have control from more than three locations—for example, five locations—you would still use two three-way switches (one on each end) and three four-way switches between the two three-ways.
The four-way switch has four terminals plus a ground terminal. Two of the four terminals are usually brass-colored, and the other two are dark. There is no "COM" or "common" terminal, as is found on a three-way switch. The four-way switch functions as a switching device for the traveler wires between the three-way switches.
Use extreme care in replacing a four-way switch. There are two unique layouts for the terminals depending on the manufacturers. One is IN on top and OUT on the bottom, and the other is IN on the left and OUT on the right.Continue to 5 of 8 below.
05 of 08
- Best for: Controlling a light fixture or appliance automatically or remotely
The term smart switch refers to a new type of wall switch with internal circuitry that allows light fixtures or appliances to be controlled through one of several non-traditional means—such as by a voice assistant (such as Alexa) or by an internet app. Many modern smart switches, for example, can allow you to check on lights and turn them on or off with a smartphone app from anywhere you have an internet connection. Or they can be programmed to automatically turn lights or appliances on or off when you choose.
While smart switches are usually simply swapped into the same location where a standard wall switch is located, most require a neutral wire connection because a small amount of current flow is necessary for their operation. Thus, it's possible that you will require a circuit upgrade to use these switches.
Other smart switches do not require a neutral connection and instead connect to the internet wirelessly through a hub. Be sure to buy a smart switch that's compatible with your hub or voice-automation system and the lights you need to control.
06 of 08
- Best for: Adjusting light intensity
A dimmer provides more flexibility with your lighting, allowing you to change the brightness level of the bulbs. There are several subcategories of dimmers.
A rotary dimmer switch, for example, involves a knob that you rotate to increase or decrease the brightness. You press the knob to fully turn off (or on) the light. A sliding dimmer typically includes a toggle switch that turns on and off the light, along with a sliding control that turns up or down the brightness. Some dimmers have very discreet sliders that practically blend in with the rest of the switch.
Single-pole switch dimmers are wired to control light brightness from only one switch. There also are dimmers available for other types of switches.
07 of 08
- Best for: Conveniently turning on lights/appliances when you need them and shutting them off to save energy when you don't
An occupancy switch involves a motion sensor that detects when someone enters a room and turns on the light. The light will stay on for a preset amount of time. Then, as long as the sensor doesn't detect more motion, it will shut off the light to conserve energy.
The censors usually appear fairly flat and rectangular. And they have some sort of toggle to allow you to switch the light completely off, to set it to be always on, or to use it with the censor mode.
The censors also have daylight detection, so they won't turn on based on motion during the day when you don't need supplemental light. Plus, they can be used with exhaust fans, such as in a bathroom, so you don't have to worry about remembering to turn on and off the fan.
08 of 08
- Best for: Meeting specific needs of a light or appliance
There are several types of specialty switches that go beyond simply turning on and off a light or appliance. For instance, some switches have timers that will turn on and off the light or appliance at the same time every day. This is a good option for outside lights, allowing you to turn them on after dark even if you’re not home and turn them off right after sunrise to avoid wasting energy. Similarly, there are time-delay switches that will leave a light or appliance on for a preset amount of time after it’s turned on and then shut it off automatically.
Other switches also include an outlet to allow you an additional place to plug in electronics. Moreover, besides toggles and knobs, there are also touch switches that involve a flat touchpad that you push to control the electric current.
Furthermore, some speciality switches are meant specifically for LED and CFL bulbs and often must be used if your fixture has dimmable energy-saving bulbs. Plus, there are specialty switches that can control the speed of fans, along with their light components if they have them.
Choosing a Wall Switch
Choosing the right wall switch depends on how the light fixture or appliance is controlled within the electrical circuit, on the type of circuit being controlled, and on the degree of automation or remote operation you desire.
Standard single-pole switches, three-way switches, and four-way switches are all designed for standard 120-volt household circuits. And your choice will depend on whether you want to control a light fixture from one, two, or three or more wall locations.
Double-pole switches are specialty devices that are used only when you need to control 240-volt circuits that provide power for major appliances. A smart switch can be used where you want the flexibility of automating the operation of the switch or appliance or controlling it remotely via the internet.