A man uses a light switch on a wood-trimmed wall.

6 Types Of Electrical Switches In The Home

Originally contributed by Stacey Nash • last updated 2/9/2021

You can’t have lights without a light switch. (Well, you can, but it would be a lot more difficult to control your lights without one.) They’re possibly the most useful yet insignificant part of the home, if only because of how common they are. Every room has a light switch, and the ones that don’t are probably rooms you should avoid anyway.

A time may come where you’re renovating your home and you don’t like its lighting scheme. That will mean that you’ll want to switch things up and possibly add new switches around the house. Understanding the different types of light switches out there will make this process much easier.

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Switches come in handy for more than just lighting too. You can use a switch to control power to outlets, for example, which make them very handy for rooms with lamps as the light source, or other electronics and appliances that you may want to be able to toggle on and off. It’s all up to you.

There are five main types of switches: single pole, double pole, three-way, four-way, and smart switches. What they do and how they function vary, and each is more suited for certain rooms and applications. 

The sixth kind of switch, the dimmer switch, is essentially any of the other types of switches, but with the added function of dimming lights. Knowing what switch to use, and where they’re typically used, will definitely come in handy.

Always remember to proceed with caution when dealing with electrical equipment and devices. You can change switches on your own, but you need to make sure the power is off or else it can be dangerous. 

When in doubt, you can and should consult a professional electrician whenever making any electrical changes to your home.

Here are six types of light switches you can find around the house:

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Single Pole Switch

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A single pole switch is the simplest type of switch. As the name implies, it only has one pole, which means it can only channel one current. They’re tied to one light source, powering it up through the current that passes between the live switch and the light. These light switches typically (but not always) have on/off labeled on them. You can find a single pole switch pretty much anywhere in a house, but they’re most common in smaller rooms with a single light source, like a bedroom or bathroom.

This kind of switch has two brass screws, or terminals, that connect to live wires. This is how it gets its power and channels it to the light or outlet that it’s connected to. There’s also a grounding screw that keeps it grounded for safety.

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Double Pole Switch

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Double pole switches have two poles, as opposed to the single pole of the single pole switches. This means they channel two currents to a single destination, which results in more power being channeled in. Just like a single pole switch, they may have the on/off label on them, though depending on the style of switch they may not. 

They’re typically used in more industrial settings, but you can also find them around the house. As opposed to a single pole switch which may be better suited for a regular light source, double pole switches are commonly used for large appliances or electrical devices that need more power than the average light.

Since the double pole switch has double the poles of a single pole switch, it also has double the terminals, with four instead of two. This means four live wires will be connected to it, which is how it can channel more power.

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Three-Way Switch

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This type of light switch is used in pairs. Two three-way switches connect to one another to control a light source from different parts of a room or space. They’re called three-way because they channel electricity through three ways: to the light, to each other, and to the power source (usually a breaker).

Three-way switches are most common in places like hallways and stairwells, since you’ll want to be able to control your lights from different ends. You may also find them in larger rooms, like the kitchen or living room. Because multiple switches are controlling a single light source, you won’t find on/off written on them. The on and off positions will change as the switches are used.

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Four-Way Switch

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A four-way switch is like a three-way switch but used to control a light from three or more areas in a room or hallway. They channel power between the source, the light, and each other, this time adding a fourth connection to be used in three spots. You may not find them in stairwells, but their uses are similar to those of three-way switches in that you’re going to want them in a large space with multiple entries. 

You won’t find them with on/off labels because, with three switches controlling a single light source, that would just be way too confusing.

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Smart Switch

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The smart switch is the newest of these types of switches, and has been hitting the market by storm over the past few years. Its appeal is that you can operate them remotely using your phone or a smart hub. You can control lights in one room from a different room, from outside, from work, the store, your friend’s house, abroad, all through the power of Wi-Fi (or data) and a phone app. Or, you could control lights using voice controls with devices like Google Nest or Amazon Echo

There are different brands of smart switches available now and they can replace just about any switch in your home. While they are definitely pricier due to their smart capabilities, they more than make up for the cost in convenience and innovation. Plus, they’ll make you feel like you’re living in the future.

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Dimmer Switch

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Not every light switch needs to be a dimmer switch, but a dimmer switch can go in place of any standard light switch. Instead of simply turning lights on and off, dimmer switches allow you to adjust the brightness or dimness of a light. You can use a dimmer switch just about anywhere, but they’re most commonly used in dining rooms, kitchens, living rooms, and home offices. Pretty much anywhere that may call for different light strengths for precision or ambient purposes.

Dimmer switches can vary in appearances. Some may be rotary, which are large round dials that make a light brighter or dimmer when you twist them. Others could be slider switches, which typically slide up and down, with an on/off switch underneath.

When buying light bulbs, always ensure that you purchase ones that indicate dimmer switch compatibility on the packaging. Some older styles or inexpensive LED bulbs will not work with dimmer switches.

While styles change, these are the six most common types of light switches. This knowledge will allow you to head into your next electrical project with ease.

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