5 Types of Electrical Switches in the Home

single pole, double pole, three way, four way light switches

The Spruce / Claire Cohen 

The wall switch is one of the most common and important electrical devices in the home. There are several different types of switches, and although they may look the same when they are installed with their faceplates intact, the various switches look and function differently on the inside.

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 wiring.

While switches usually are used for lights, they can be used to turn electrical current on or off for nearly any electrical device. For example, switches sometimes are installed to control the current running to an outlet to turn a floor lamp on or off.

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Watch Now: 5 Main Types of Electrical Switches Explained

These are the five most common wall switches you use in your home and elsewhere.

  • 01 of 05

    Single-Pole Switch

    single pole switch

    The Spruce / Claire Cohen

    • Switch description: On/off markings on the toggle
    • What it’s used for/where it’s used: Single location light switch
    • Number of brass terminals: 2

    The single-pole switch is the general-purpose workhorse of switches. It is used to control a light, receptacle, or other device from a single location. Its characteristic on/off markings on the toggle aren't found on other switches. However, some styles of single-pole switches (notably, rocker-style switches) do not have on/off markings.

    A single-pole switch has two brass-colored screw terminals that are connected to the hot, or power-source, wires. These wires are usually black. One brass terminal is designated for the incoming hot wire from the power source, and the other is for the outgoing hot wire to the fixture. Most single-pole switches also include a ground terminal for connecting the circuit's ground wire.

    As a general rule, neutral (usually white) wires are not connected to switches. If two neutrals are present in the box, these wires typically are joined so that they continue through the box without touching the switch. Or, you may see a single neutral wire passing through the box. Sometimes, however, you may see a white wire attached to the switch, and this is when it is functioning as a hot wire. In this case, the white wire should have a wrap of black tape on it near the switch terminal to indicate that the wire is operating as a hot wire and not a neutral wire.

  • 02 of 05

    Three-Way Switch

    three way switch

    The Spruce / Claire Cohen

    • Switch description: No on/off markings since positions vary where switches are used
    • What it’s used for/where it’s used: To control a light or receptacle from two different locations
    • Number of brass terminals: 3

    Three-way switches are used in pairs and usually found at both ends of a staircase, or in garages or basements that have two entries, in hallways, and other places where two separate switches control one light.

    The three-way switch has three terminal screws. The hot wire from the power source connects to the darkest screw terminal marked "COM" for "common." The Common terminal on a three-way switch is also the location where the LOAD or Hot leaving the pair of three-way switches connects. Simply put, the hot comes in on one of the common terminals and leaves on the other common terminal, and the two travelers tie the two switches together.

    The other two terminals are called travelers and are interchangeable. For purposes of safety, it is important to remember that travelers are always hot wires. The switch also has a ground screw.

    The trick in replacing an old three-way switch is to mark the wire attached to the COM terminal before you remove the old switch. Since the other two terminals are interchangeable, it is impossible to get them wrong; they can go either way. If there is a white wire connected to a traveler terminal, it should be labeled with black tape to indicate it is hot. 

  • 03 of 05

    Double-Pole Switch

    Double pole switch

    The Spruce / Claire Cohen

    • Switch description: On/off markings on toggle
    • What it’s used for/where it’s used: Single location light switch
    • Number of brass terminals: 4

    The double-pole switch is commonly used in industrial applications but can be found in some home wiring systems. Double-pole switches are commonly rated for 30 amps, compared to 15 amps or 20 amps with standard switches. This allows the switches to control power feeding higher-demand appliances, motors, and machinery. 

    A double-pole switch differs from a single-pole switch because it has four hot brass terminals, instead of two, plus a ground terminal. This allows the user to connect it to two pairs of hot wires from a 240-volt circuit. 

  • 04 of 05

    Four-Way Switch

    four way switch

    The Spruce / Claire Cohen

    • Switch description: No on/off markings
    • What it’s used for/where it’s used: Controls an outlet or light fixture from three or more different locations
    • Number of brass terminals: 4

    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 looks similar to a double-pole switch but without markings. It has four terminals plus a ground terminal. The four terminals are usually brass-colored. 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.

    Warning

    Use extreme care in replacing a four-way switch. There are two unique layouts for the terminals depending on 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 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Smart Switch

    smart switch on wall

    IGphotography / Getty Images

    • Switch description: On/off mode on device but not always on rocker-style switch
    • What it’s used for/where it’s used: Remote light switch operation
    • Number of brass terminals: Varies

    The smart switch is the newest type of switch that's becoming more popular because of its convenience. The switch allows you to control your lights from anywhere in the house, even from bed. Most smart switches are multi-way switches, or three-way or four-way switches, that are controlled remotely.

    Most smart switches need a neutral connection because they need to have a little power on at all times. Since other types of switches do not require neutral connections, you will need to have an electrician run a new cable.

    Other smart switches do not require a neutral connection and instead connect to the internet 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.