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How to Replace a Light Switch

How to Change a Lighting or Appliance Toggle Controller

© 2008 by all rights reserved; content may not be copied, rewritten, or republished without author’s written permission

A light switch with finger

A light switch with finger

This article was updated on 04/30/21.

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Electrical switches, whether on a ceiling fan, garbage disposal,lamp, or a 3 way switch, will eventually go bad. This article explains how to remove the faulty switch in a safe manner and install a new one.

Replacing an electric light switch yourself will save the money that hiring an electrician costs and it is an easy DIY project. But how do you know when a gradually degrading toggle is getting dangerous and need changing?

Sometimes it simply fails to power up the light, fan, or appliance that it controls. Otherwise, the toggle feels sloppy or loose. Time to roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Tool List

Minimal tools are needed for this project. They are:

  • Side cutters (Klein electrician pliers or similar)
  • Screwdriver
  • Voltage tester (analog or digital multi-meter, Fluke VoltAlert, or something similar)
  • Long-nose pliers (needle-nose pliers; I use my Leatherman Wave Multitool); its got both the pliers and multiple screwdrivers.
  • Wire strippers

3 Types of Electrical Switches

You don't really have to understand everything about your home's electrical system for this project but you need to determine which type of switch you are dealing with before buying a replacement.

  • Dimmer switch: A dimmer does what its name says it does; it lowers or intensifies the light output. Is a dimmer appropriate for a ceiling fan? Not a standard one. However there are ones engineered specifically for fan lights. Check with your manufacturer.

  • Single-pole switch: This is the one most frequently encountered. How is it identified? It is equipped with 2 wire terminals plus a ground wire. Its toggle is clearly marked On and Off.

  • Three-way switch: This model isn’t marked On and Off. It has three wire terminals plus a ground wire. It works in conjunction with another three-way so electricity can be toggled off and on from two different locations. These are commonly used in kitchens and other pass-through rooms. Their convenience is well worth the expense.

How to Replace an Electric Light Switch

Whichever type you’re replacing, the same basic steps apply. Typical Circuit Breaker Box

  1. Isolate electricity to the switch by flipping off the circuit breaker that powers it. How do you determine which breaker it is? With any luck, it will be labeled on a circuit map in the circuit breaker box.

    If not, and the switch still functions, turn the switch on and put a circuit breaker in the Off position. If the light or appliance didn't turn off, flip the breaker back on and try the next one. If the switch doesn’t function, go to the next step.

  2. Remove the switch cover.

  3. Test for electricity using the voltage tester.

  4. Unscrew the switch and gently pull it out of the box.

  5. Label all wires. This is a very important step that many people skip.

  6. Loosen the terminal screws and remove the wires from the device.

  7. Examine the old switch to ensure that the new one is the same type. If you haven't bought a new one yet, be sure to take the old one to the store to be sure you get the right one.

  8. Secure the wires onto the replacement switch and tighten the terminal screws. If a wire is accidentally broken, strip off enough insulation to make the connection.

    If the wire is not long enough to do this, use a short piece the same gauge wire and 2 appropriately-sized wire nuts (not just electrical tape) to make a pigtail connection.

  9. Carefully push the device into the switch box and replace the screws.

  10. Ensure that no bare wire is contacting anything.

  11. Secure the light switch cover. This is a perfect opportunity to upgrade to a fancier model and ditch the ubiquitous ivory white one!

  12. Flip the circuit breaker back on and try the replacement switch.

  13. If your light or appliance performs properly, your task is complete! If not, flip the circuit breaker back off and retrace your steps.

Ready to get started? Did this article on replacing defective electric light switches help? If so, feel free to share it.

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About the Author:

Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at Considered Opinions Blog where he muses on many different topics.

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