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Guide to Types of Light Switches and Dimmers

Did you know that there are more than 67 light bulbs in the average home? Every room in your home probably has at least one light switch affixed to the wall. Did you know that there are many different types of light switches and dimmers? They all look fairly similar with small variations for style and color, so why are there so many different types?

History of the Light Switch

The modern light switch, also known as a quick-break switch, wasn’t the first incarnation of this device. But it has been the safest and most successful. The quick-break switch was invented in 1884 by John Henry Holmes. Before this innovation, light switches would make a visible arc every time the circuit was opened or closed. This type of arcing caused a build-up of damage over time, and replacing it with the quick-break switch was a significant safety improvement.

The quick-break switch is the basis for how nearly all modern light switches are designed. The outside mechanism, or toggle switch, that the user flips to open and close the circuit was invented in 1916 by William J Newton.

Types of Light Switches

Have you ever put much thought into how the lights work in your home? Probably not, unless they stop working. There are five types of light switches commonly found in residential homes.

  1. Single Pole Switch
  2. Double Pole Switch
  3. Three-Way Switch
  4. Four-Way Switch
  5. Smart Switch

A single pole switch is a standard light switch with two terminals (one for incoming and one for outgoing). This type of light switch is the most common and likely found in most homes. A double pole switch is a single-location light switch with four terminals. While a single-pole switch is commonly rated for 15 or 20 amps, a double-pole switch is usually rated for 30 amps. These switches are used for high-demand appliances.

Three-way and four-way (less common) switches allow circuits to be manipulated from multiple access points. The most common use of this type of switch is at the top and bottom of a staircase. It is inconvenient to travel back up or down to turn off the light, so a three-way switch allows for a pair of switches to control the same circuit.

Since the early 1900s, we have seen these first four types of switches widely adopted. And now, a new type of switch is on the market that is controlled by technology and acts like a multi-way switch. It is called the smart switch, and these are actually wired a little differently than other types of light switches─earning them their own category.

Types of Dimmers

Dimmers are a special type of light switch that allows the user more control over lighting level compared to the simple on and off positions of a traditional quick-break switch. And much like light switches, dimmers come in many different types, including:

  • Single-Pole Dimmers
  • Three-Way Dimmers
  • Multi-Location Dimmers
  • Plug-In Dimmers
  • Smart Dimmers

The first three describe how man access points are involved. A single-pole dimmer has one switch, while a three-way or multi-location dimmer has one dimmer and one or more switches connected to the same circuit.

There are also a variety of different dimmers created to work with different lightbulb technologies. For example, an LED-compatible dimmer is slightly different than a traditional incandescent dimmer. And at an increasing rate, smart dimmers which offer full control over lighting levels and even colors are becoming more common.

The Takeaway on the Different Types of Light Switches and Dimmers

Light switches and dimmers are a common fixture, found in nearly every room of a residential home. These switches control electrical current on a circuit, usually for lighting purposes. Although you can wire a switch to control an outlet, it is less common to do so. Our current light switch technology has been serving us well since the early 1900s, and today we are seeing the rise of smart switches and dimmers that are revolutionizing lighting for the future.

For help installing a light switch, always leave it to the pros. Electricity can be dangerous, for help with big and small tasks, get help from a licensed electrician.

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