Wiring a 3-Way Switch


Dear NH,
A switch that controlled the chandelier in my dining room recently broke. I accidentally purchased a three-way switch instead of a single pole switch. I returned the three-way switch but I wonder if I wasted gas! Could have somehow wired it to work correctly?
BB from Tampa, FL

BB,
First, a little background for our readers. Three-way switches are used when a fixture is controlled by more than one switch. A common example would be the switches at the top and bottom of a stairway (or at opposite sides of a room) that control the same overhead fixture. On the other hand, single-pole switches are used when a fixture has a single switch controlling it.

Normally, you wouldn't use a three-way switch for a single-pole application because (1) there are no "on-off" labels on the switch (admittedly a weak argument since the labels are virtually unreadable) and (2) they are a little more expensive. However, in a pinch you can use one IF you wire it correctly.

Three-way switches have four wire terminals. One is for the ground wire... usually indicated by a green "hex-head" screw. The "common" terminal is "differently colored"... usually copper-plated. The other two are what I fondly call the "uncommon" terminals.

To use a three-way switch in place of a single pole switch, connect the wires as follows: 1) Connect the ground wire to the ground terminal on the switch.

Connect either one of the two switch wires to the switch's common terminal. Connect the other switch wire to either of the remaining "uncommon" terminals. Whichever uncommon terminal you choose will determine which switch position is ON and which is OFF. Since vertically mounted wall switches usually are ON in the "up" position, stick to this convention so you don't confuse your visitors... or yourself.

If you were to inadvertently attach both switch wires to the uncommon terminals, heaven would not fall from the sky or fire rain on your head... the switch would just not work! But careless mistakes like this are why only the most conscientious people should do their own electrical work!

It is also interesting to note that some companies are now selling dimmer switches that go both ways... single-pole or three-way. More space on the hardware store's shelves for other goodies! Hallelujah!
NH


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