If you have lived in your home for a long time, chances are you don’t think about your need to replace light switches very often. As long as they are working, we rarely think about everyday objects that help us perform basic functions. Light switches are one of those items.
As long as the lights come on when we flip them, we don’t think about having to replace light switches. However, if one begins to malfunction, this mundane item gets our attention very quickly. A malfunctioning light switch may cause sparks, work intermittently, or, most often, just not work suddenly. Since you cannot be sure what’s happening with the electrical wiring behind the switch, it’s hard to know if you’re dealing with a fire hazard or simply need to start thinking about replacing light switches. The first step in replacing a light switch is determining what is wrong with the existing switch.
You can try troubleshooting before you set out to replace light switches if you really want to. It's also possible to fix a light switch that has gone bad if you have the electrical knowledge. You could save some money and fix a faulty light switch, but for the purposes of this article, we're going to focus on the task at hand: your need to replace light switches.
Of course, a switch doesn't have to be broken in order to call for replacement. As technology advances and new and better items are invented, you may choose to replace light switches in order to move into more energy-efficient technology. Or, you may want to change the style of a room and the light switches need a different aesthetic. Finally, deciding to replace light switches can prevent damage that is about to occur.
For whatever reason you may be pondering how to replace light switches, this article will show you the basic process in step-by-step fashion.
WHAT DO I NEED TO REPLACE LIGHT SWITCHES?
Before you begin to replace any light switch, you should gather all the tools you will need. It’s very frustrating to be in the middle of a project, perhaps at a point where you cannot move away from what you’re doing, only to realize you don’t have the proper supplies. Let’s look at what supplies you will need to replace a light switch. The main things you’ll need are:
- Replacement light switch
- Wire stripper
- Needle-nose pliers
- Non-contact voltage detector, multimeter, or another voltage-testing tool
PREPARING FOR THE PROJECT
Once you’ve decided to replace a light switch, you need to make a few other choices before delving into the project. One of the first things you have to decide is what type of switch you will use as a replacement. There are various types of light switches available, including dimmers and other specialty switches. For the sake of this article, we’re going to assume you will choose standard switches when you replace light switches in your home or on your work site.
Gather all of your tools together, double-checking that you have everything needed. If the packaging for the new light switch calls for any special tools or parts, make sure you have those in addition to the standard supplies above. Make sure you have adequate lighting to see what you are doing and that you can safely reach the switch you are replacing. Once you have properly prepared, it’s time to move on and replace light switches.
These are the steps you should follow to replace a light switch. This is the most straightforward way to change a basic switch. If you have more complicated switches, you may need to refer to their manuals or seek information online.
Step One: Turn Off the Breaker
Locate your electrical panel. This is typically a gray-colored box on one of the interior walls of your home or business. If you are at a business, it is highly recommended that you seek the help of a building maintenance pro, since commercial electrical controls can be different than household electric controls.
At home, once you have located the panel, find the switch that controls the light switch (or the room the switch is in) and turn that breaker off. If the breakers are not labeled, you may need to switch them all off and on until you find the one that controls the light switch you wish to replace. You can tell which switches each breaker controls by turning the light that uses the switch on; then off. When that switch responds, you have flipped the right breaker.
You may need to ask someone to help you with this step. Please don't ever attempt to replace a light switch without turning off the breaker. If you are not able to turn off the power yourself, call a qualified electrician for help. Once you have found the breaker and turned it off, it’s a good idea to check and make sure the power is definitely turned off by using your voltage testing tool.
Step Two: Remove the Faceplate
Next, you will need to remove the faceplate covering the switch. There should be screws holding the faceplate to the switch mounting. Use the appropriate screwdriver to remove these screws. Set them aside in a safe place. Once you have removed the faceplate, you’ll need to remove the screws holding it to the wall. Once those are removed, you should be able to pull your switch away from the wall.
Step Three: Disconnect the Wires
Once you have separated the switch from the wall, examine the wires feeding into the switch. If the wires loop around with screws on the side of the switch, just loosen the screws and the wires will come free. A new switch, however, may have wires that connect through holes in the back of the switch. (This is a “back-wired” switch.) Remove these wires by inserting a flat head screwdriver into the slot below the hole where the wires entered. Then, gently pull on the wires. Make sure you keep track of where the wires go for later.
In most switches, the black or red “hot” wire either connects to the brass screw or goes into the hole on that same side of the plate. The white “neutral” typically goes to the silver-colored screw or into the hole on that side. There should be a green grounding wire attached to the terminal screw on the light switch. Disconnect it.
Step Four: Attach the Wires
Use a wire stripper to expose approximately half an inch of bare wire on the hot and neutral leads. Prepare the replacement switch, making sure it’s oriented correctly. Starting with the hot wire, attach the wires to the new switch. If you’re connecting to screws, twist the exposed wire into a loop and put it over the brass screw, then tighten the screw. Repeat with the neutral wire. If the switch has a push connector, simply put the wire in the correct opening. Finally, reattach the ground wire.
Step Five: Reinstall the Switch Back and Restore Power
Push the switch back into the opening and secure it to the wall using the screws you removed earlier. Go back to the electrical panel and restore power. Test the switch and make sure it works. If it does, you can reattach the faceplate on the switch.
Step Six: Reattach the Faceplate
Go back to the electrical panel and restore power to the switch. If everything is working fine, you’re done! Sit back and admire your work. If anything is wrong, make sure to turn the power back off before you work on the switch again.
If you are replacing a dimmer switch, remember that you need to purchase a replacement switch with the same wattage as the original. Dimmer switches have more specific requirements than a standard switch. Equally import, always use a correctly sized ladder if you are replacing a switch that's above what you can reach safely.
Make sure no one has access to the breaker panel while you are working on the switch. Never insert a screwdriver into an electrical outlet or touch it to a live wire. If anything looks strange or not as it should be, don't touch it. Leave it alone and call a professional electrician to finish the job.
By following the easy steps we outlined above, you should be able to safely replace old, outdated light switches in your home or elsewhere. Replacing switches is an easy task that you can learn to do yourself, saving you the money you would have spent on a repairman. Learning to do minor improvements such as these can save you thousands of dollars if you are renovating and need to replace all the switches in a home.
Replacing the light switches is just one item on the list of projects you can handle if you learn some basic skills. You could also replace electrical outlets, light fixtures, and outdoor fixtures. You could easily install small appliances, paint the house, or change out plumbing fixtures. There are many things you could learn to do and not have to call a repairman. It may seem a little tedious the first time you attempt it, but once you replace a light switch, you’ll feel like a professional in no time.