Types of Electrical Switches in the Home

  • 01 of 05

    Types of Electrical Switches You Will Find in the Home

    Light switches in home
    There are a variety of electrical switch types for home use. ML Harris/The Image Bank/Getty Images

    The electrical wall switch is one of the most basic yet important electrical devices in the home. Although they almost all look the same once the faceplate is on, they can function very differently. There are a few key types of switches you need need to know about and I'll describe them in this tutorial.

    Switches can come in a toggle style (like those shown in this tutorial), but can also come in a more design oriented "rocker" or "paddle" style such as those made popular by the...MORE Leviton "Decora".

    The style makes no difference to the function of the switch. But what does matter significantly is the type of electrical wall switch.

    Switches come in four major types:

    Let's take a look at each type, what makes them different and when you would use them.

    Continue to 2 of 5 below.
  • 02 of 05

    Single Pole Switch

    single pole switch
    Single Pole Switch. © Cooper Wiring Devices 2007

    Single Pole Switch

    The single pole switch is the general purpose workhorse of switches. Single pole switches turn a light, receptacle or device on and off from a single location. A characteristic of a single pole toggle switch is that it has an on and off marking on the switch, something you will not find on a three or four-way switch. Make sure the switch is wired in the correct direction so the words "on" and "off" are facing correctly.

    A single pole switch has two terminals and is wired to the...MORE hot wire (black wire). One brass colored terminal is for the incoming hot wire and the other is for the outgoing hot wire to the device. The switch may or may not come with a ground terminal (green screw). As a general rule, you never wire the switch to the neutral wire.

    Please note, sometimes you may see a white wire attached to the single pole switch but only when it is functioning as a hot wire. In those cases, the white wire should have a wrap of black tape on it near the switch terminal to let one know the wire is a hot wire and not a neutral wire.

    Continue to 3 of 5 below.
  • 03 of 05

    Double Pole Switch

    double pole switch
    Double Pole Switch Handles 240 Volts. © Eagle Electric 2007

    Double Pole Switch

    The double pole switch also has "on" and "off" markings and functions similar to a single pole switch in that it turns something on and off from one location. However, because it has four brass terminals instead of two terminals it can handle switching two hot wires which allows it to switch a 240 volt circuit (or "220/221 whatever it takes..." if you're a Mr. Mom fan (1983)). The switch will also come with a ground terminal (green screw).

    So bottom line, double pole switches...MORE are typically used to switch receptacles and appliances using 240 volt circuits.

    Continue to 4 of 5 below.
  • 04 of 05

    Three Way Switch

    three way switch
    Three Way Switches Control 120 Volt Outlets and Lighting From Two Locations. © Leviton 2007

    Three Way Switch

    The three way switch is always used in pairs and allows you to turn a light or receptacle on and off from two different locations. These switches have no "on" or "off" markings because the on and off positions will vary as the switches are used.

    The three way switch has three terminal screws and here's where it can start getting confusing for most people (but it won't be for you, don't worry). The black "hot" wire is attached to the darkest screw terminal...MORE marked "COM" for "common." The other two terminals are used to wire up what are called "travelers" or leads for the switch. It makes no real difference which traveler wire goes to what traveler terminal on the switch. The switch will also come with a ground terminal (green screw).

    The trick in replacing an old switch is to mark the COM or common wire off the old three way switch before you replace the old switch.

    Please note, you cannot use any other type of switch in a three way application, and again, these switches must be used in pairs.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Four Way Switch

    four way switch
    Four Way Switch(es) are Used With Three-Way Switches to Control From Three or More Locations. © Leviton 2007

    Four Way Switch

    The four way switch is used in between two three way switches to control an outlet or light fixture from three different locations. If you wanted to control from more than three locations, say five locations, you would still use two three way switches (one on each end) but now you'd use three four-way switches in between the two three ways.

    The four way switch looks the same as a double pole switch except that a four-way switch will have no "on" or "off" markings....MORE The four-way switch has four terminals most always brass in color. There is no COM or "common" wire like a three-way switch. The four-way switch simply functions as a switching device for the traveler wires between the three-way switches.