How to Replace an Electrical Switch in Your Home

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If a light switch is broken, old or just the wrong color, it's easy to replace it with a new switch. Replacing all the light switches in your home is a low cost way to update the look of the home and improve its safety.

Things You'll Need

  • screwdriver
  • needlenose pliers
  • wire stripper or cutter
  • flash light
  • There are a couple of different kinds of light switches that might be in your home. A single switch basically is one switch that can turn the light off or on. A dimmer switch can raise or lower the power going to the light to allow you to adjust the amount of light. There is also a type of dimmer switch that is specially made for ceiling fans. There is a three-way switch that allows two switches to work together, for example, in a stairway, you can flip the switch at the top of the stairs to turn on the light, then flip the switch at the bottom of the stairs to turn off the light. Also, different switches may be designed for certain types of wires but, not for other types of wires, and may be rated for certain types of loads (heavy duty, light duty) These steps will tell how to replace a single switch.

  • First, turn off the power at the breaker box. You will need to determine which circuit breaker operates the switch. An easy way is to turn the light switch on, then try a breaker to see if the light goes off. Put a note on the breaker box, so no one goes behind you and turns the power back on.

  • Next, go to the switch and remove the switchcover. There are usually two small screws holding the cover on. Use the flashlight to see what you are doing. Then, loosen the two screws holding the switch in place. After several turns, the switch will come free, but usually there is a paper catch on the screw, so it will stay with the switch and not fall out. Now look at how the switch is wired. A single switch will have two wires connected to it, plus an optional ground wire. (If there are more wires, then you probably are looking at a three-way switch.) Carefully remove one of the wires. If the wires are soldered to the switch (looks like its welded to the switch), then you will need to call an electrician for a replacement -- This is pretty uncommon, but it's beyond the scope of this how to article, sorry about that. If the wire is wound around a screw, then carefully loosen the screw to remove the wire. If the wire is inserted into a hole in the switch, then there will be a a small slot that allows you to release the wire. Carefully, insert the end of a small slotted screwdriver into the slot, and the wire can then be pulled out easily. There will be another slot for the other wire. As you remove each wire, place a piece of tape on it with a note about where it came from, for example, "top of switch". Lastly, remove the ground wire. This wire is usually held on by a screw and might be a bare wire, a green wire or could just look like the other wires. Usually the ground wire will be set apart from the other wires on the switch.

  • Take the switch and the cover to a hardware store for a replacement. If you are unfamiliar with electrical switches, then ask for help. There may be several new switches that look exactly like your old switch, so choose wisely. Ideally, you can match the model and type from the old switch with an exact replacement. If not, then the store personnel can help you with getting a good replacement. It's also a nice idea to get a replacement switch cover as well to keep things clean. Do not discard the old switch until you are done with this project.

  • When you return home, check the circuit box again to ensure that no one has activated the breaker while you were gone. Go to the switch opening and place the switch up to the opening to make sure that it will fit, is the right color and design, etc. Next start by attaching the ground wire. Simply wrap the ground wire clockwise around the screw and hand tighten the screw. Then use a screwdriver to snug the screw down firmly, being careful not to strip the screw with too much pressure. Next, orient the switch so that "on" is on top and "off" is at the bottom. Take the wire that you removed from the top of the old switch and attach it to the new switch. If the wire can be inserted in the capture hole, then simply push the straight wire into the hole. Once inserted, if you pull on the wire, it should not come loose. If it does pull back out of the capture hole, then try reinserting it farther, it should take about an inch or so to catch. If the wire is not straight (For example, because it was wound around a screw on the old switch), then I would not try to use the capture hole, and instead would attach the wire to the screw and tighten the screw snugly. Do the same for the other wire. When you are done, there should not be any bare wires touching anything (except that the ground wire might be a bare wire). Inspect that none of the insulation around the wire is torn or cracked, and that the new switch has not been cracked or damaged while you were attaching the wires. Carefully, push the switch in place and tighten down the two holding screws on the switch to fasten it to the wall box. It may take a little muscle to get the wires to push back into the box, just be careful not to damage anything. The screws on the switch can also be adjusted in and out, so that the switch doesn't slip or move when you turn it off and on, but also so that the switch isn't too far in or out once the switch cover is attached.

  • Before placing the switchcover on the wall, visually inspect the switch again for any problems. If all looks good, then go out and turn on the breaker. If the breaker immediately clicks off, then there is a problem with the switch, go back and recheck it. If the breaker stays on, then return to the switch and use the flashlight to look in at the wires without touching anything. Try flipping the switch off and on a few times to make sure everything works. If it does then replace the new faceplate and carefully screw it in place. Only gently snug down the screws or else the faceplate may crack.

Tips & Warnings

  • It will go easier if you have someone to help with tools and with holding a flashlight, etc.
  • You can get "contractor's" packs of 10 or 12 switches and packs of faceplates to replace all the switches in your house. Just remember to check each switch to make sure you have a good replacement switch because your house may have several different types of switches.
  • Don't work on electrical systems in the rain or in wet or damp areas. Always wear shoes with a rubber sole.
  • If you find old wiring, frayed wires, wires with the brittle or cracked insulation, or if you are unsure of what to do, it's time to call in an electrician.
  • Check your local building codes to see if an electrician is needed for your job or if a permit or inspection is required.
  • Don't rush. Take your time and be careful to do a go job.
  • Photo Credit Thanks to clipartguide.com
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