Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Personal preference took over days and days of my life with this next project. Our condo had the flat, toggle kind of light switches.

I was constantly walking into rooms and throwing my hand up a wall thinking I'd hit the switch and turn the light on, which is what I grew up doing. But no, flat switches meant nothing to hit on the way up.

So, I decided to change them all, and not just because of my constant annoyance (although that alone probably would have done it). Many of the light switch plates were broken, some were caulked to the wall, most were seated improperly, and 6 of the switches didn't turn anything on, which I knew was most likely a wiring issue rather than them not being connected to anything. 

Tools needed: Philips head screwdriver, flat head screwdriver (normal sized as well as teeny tiny), voltage meter, pliers, light switches, light switch plates, and a flashlight (or other light source... more on that in a sec).

This blog is about to get real. Don't judge. Ok, let's face it, you probably won't be able to stop yourself. I am officially turning into my father, which means embracing all of the things he does that I used to think were ridiculous and embarrassing. Really, they're still ridiculous and embarrassing, but I've come to appreciate their value. Specifically, the head lamp. My dad bought me one for Christmas a few years ago and I very reluctantly put it in my car as he suggested. He insisted that the day would come where it would be dark and I'd need not only light, but also both of my hands, meaning I wouldn't be able to hold a flashlight.

I hate to say it, but he was right. He always is and it never gets less annoying! I found myself needing to turn off the power so I could change the light switches without electrocuting myself. During the day it wasn't too dark, but at night I couldn't see a thing. Lucky me, I could walk out to my car and slap on my head lamp.

And yes, that is a tool belt. It was like $.30 at Home Depot and very worth all thirty pennies.

Now that you've (hopefully) recovered from your laughing fit, let's get on with it. We started with the light switches fully installed. I went and turned off power to these switches, and double checked that I had flipped the correct breaker by flipping testing that they didn't turn their lights on. None of them did, so I felt fairly certain they were successfully off.

First, I unscrewed the screws holding the faceplate on.

Then removed the faceplate.

Just as a little proof of the need for the headlamp, this is what the room looked like without the camera flash on.

The only thing illuminated was whatever I was looking at, and each step required two hands which meant holding a flashlight would have made this impossible. Thanks, dad.

Next I unscrewed a light switch from the box.

I pulled it out carefully, making sure I didn't touch both both screws at the same time which would have completed the circuit. If some reason power was still being sent to the switch, completing the circuit would mean electrocuting myself. No bueno.

So, to triple check that the power had indeed been shut off, I used my voltage meter probes to check it out. 00.0 meant it was safe to touch (120 would have meant the power was still on).

Electricians actually do this entire process with the power still on, which I pretty much can't even comprehend, so unless you're certified I would definitely say turning the power off is the only way to go.

Now, these 3 switches were all wired properly, which meant that all I had to do was remove the old switch and replace it with the new, hooking everything back up the same way.

Some wires are held in place by being screwed down, so for the black wire I simply loosened the screw.

Other wires are held in place by being pushed into a little hole in the back which clamps it in place. This method is quicker and easier because you don't have to wrap the wire around the screw and spend time screwing it in, but it can be bad because the wire can work itself out of the hole over time. To release it, you have to stick a very very very small flat object (such as an itty bitty screwdriver) into a little hole next to the wire. I did this for the red wire on the left and the black wire on the far right.

Then I removed the old switch.

For the new switch, I wrapped the wire around the screw as it was on the old switch.

Rather than pushing the wires into the holes in the back of the switch like they were on the old one, I put them under the brass plate that's under the screw and screwed them in. This method is just as quick, but it's much more reliable over time. It's tricky to see in this picture, but the second black wire is going under the metal plate.

Then I did the same for the red wire on the top screw.

Repeated for the other switches.

Screwed them back in most of the way.

Flipped the breaker back on to check that they all worked, and they did, then tried to line them all up with the faceplate.

I found this step to actually be the most frustrating and time consuming of them all. You have to screw one switch all the way in so it doesn't move, then shimmy the other two up, down, left, and right until they fit through the holes on the faceplate. It can take forever. I spent just as much time on this step as I did on the rest of the steps combined for certain rooms. Once they're all lined up, I cried tears of joy screwed the faceplate back in. It's important to not over-tighten it, because this can cause it to break. There's also no need for it to be super tight since the switches themselves are each screwed in and won't budge an inch.

And done!

Now, of all of the switches I changed out, this was the most straight forward one. I had a lot of issues with some of the other ones for a variety of reasons...

The switch that controlled the dining room chandelier was a 3-way switch, meaning that the chandelier could be turned on and off by two separate switches (they call it a 3-way because the fixture, plus both light switches add up to 3). The problem was that I didn't know it at the time I installed the new switch, because the second switch wasn't wired properly which was causing it to not work, thus I thought the chandelier was only controlled by one switch. Once I figured it out, I fixed them and we can now turn the chandelier on and off way more conveniently (from the living room and also the kitchen)! It took some trial and error, but it was sooo worth it.

The biggest obstacle was when we tried to replace the dimmer switch that controlled the living room lights. The one the old owner had was really strange and confusing, so we went and got a new one from Home Depot. When I got home and took the face plate off, this is what I found:

See that green wire? It lead to nothing and was taped off at the end. See that yellow and red striped wire? It lead to nothing, and was also taped. See where those black wires are taped together? Well, they're stripped under that tape. And how that one wire has blue tape on it? All bad. All wrong. All dangerous. Wires should be capped, not taped. So what did I do? I panicked and called my dad, and he of course came and saved the day. Shocker, right? The man knows everything about everything.

He brought over tons of caps he had lying around (which means that his hoarding is now justified and it's one more thing I can no longer make fun of him for) and replaced the switch with me, and also added a ground wire to keep it safe. Thanks dad!

My advice: turn the power off, take pictures before you remove the old one, be patient, and do your research before you get started. Knowing what kind of light switch it is (single pole, meaning one switch to one light, vs. three or four way, meaning multiple switches to one light, or some other kind) ahead of time will save you a lot of work, frustration, and confusion in the end. And find someone knowledgable at Home Depot! Turns out they have a licensed electrician that gives little workshops. I have my dad to answer my constant questions, but if your dad isn't an engineer that somehow knows everything, perhaps a workshop could help you.

And good god, this project is probably not for everyone simply because most people probably don't care as much as I do. For me, it was well worth it, even thought it took forever. It's a pretty inexpensive upgrade, and switching from off white switches in older homes to white ones can make it look much cleaner and newer. Even though the color wasn't an issue here, the new ones look way better because they aren't scratched and broken and falling off!

Now that you've made it through boring post number 2, I promise to have some more fun posts coming! They're much cuter and less technical... although I don't have any more pictures of me looking like a moron so they may lack in the humor department. Is that trade off worth it to you?

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