How to Change Your Light Switch

15 minutes

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It's all coming together. You finished painting the walls that perfect shade. The new rug and carpet look great. But those wall switches look like the vestiges of what they are: beat up, mass market toggle switches from the 1970s.

There aren't many faster ways to update the look of most rooms than to change out the old style light switches with new designer style paddles. Nothing will date a home faster than old, cruddy switches on the wall. Switches may seem like small items but remember that, in decorating, it's all about the details. Since implementing change is so simple and costs just a few dollars, why not go for it?

We replaced the older looking toggle-style switch with a more modern paddle-style rocker switch. A new switch will cost between $5.00 and $50.00. If you shop around, you can find deals particularly if you buy in bulk, like contractors do.

Changing a light switch is similar to installing a dimmer switch.

Now we're ready!

First thing's first--make sure to turn off the circuit breaker that feeds that switch. We understand that working with electricity can be a little scary at first, but once you tackle one project you'll never hesitate again. Once the power is off, there is no danger of getting electrocuted.

If your circuit breakers aren't labeled, you'll have to flip these on and off one at a time to see which one goes to which switch (or set of switches). It's best to do this with someone else in the other room who will call out when the light goes off. Turn it off (and label it now that you know which one it is). If you're working alone, be sure to either lock the breaker box, or put a note telling anyone who might come home and inadvertently turn the power back on that you're currently working on the electrical.

Step 1

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Start by removing the face plate. Then, use an electrical tester (like a penlight tester) to make 100% certain there is no power coming to the line. Once you're sure, remove the screws from the top and bottom of the old toggle switch. Now pull the entire existing switch unit out of the junction box (the junction box is the plastic or metal box installed inside the wall that holds the switch in place.) You'll see the wires from the wall connected to the old switch box. Disconnect the wires from the switch. If your switch has wires coming off of it and joining up with the wires from the wall (attached with electrical caps), disconnect it at the caps. Discard the old switch.

Step 2

If the ends of the house wire are corroded, you can trim the wire a little and then use a wire stripper to strip off about 3/8" of the insulation. This will give you a clean piece of wire for the new connection to the switch. If the wire looks okay, you can leave it as is.

Step 3


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Next we'll connect the wires from the new switch to the house wiring. Review the instructions that came with your new switch again. Often, it's as simple as matching like-colored wires (e.g. black to black and white to white) together. Unfortunately, there is no universal code for the color of the wiring. Hot wires are usually black but can be red and neutral wires are usually white, but can be blue, or even yellow.

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Connect the tips of the wires by twisting them together and screwing on a plastic wire cap (most switches will include these in the package). Make sure that the bare wires are completely encased in the wire nut and don't slide off easily.

Jane Tip: In some older homes, there is no color variation of the electrical wires. So, you may want to begin by studying how your current toggle switch is connected and use that as your guide.

Step 4

The neutral wires should be connected next. Cap with a wire nut as well. Use electrical tape to wrap around the base of the connection if you notice that there is any copper wire still exposed.

Step 5

If your house wiring has ground wires (usually green, found in most houses built since the 1950s), tie them together too. Ground wires are there mainly in case your house is ever struck by lightning, providing a safe alternate path so the strike doesn't blow the entire house's electrical system.

With all the wiring connected (caps tight, no bare wires exposed), you need to push the switch into place. Often, excess wiring will require you to gently bend and bunch the wires to fold up inside the box. Do this gingerly to avoid pulling any wires loose. Push the switch into position.

Step 6

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Reinsert the mounting screws to attach the dimmer switch to the junction box. Before putting the faceplate back on, go back to your circuit breaker, turn your power back on and test your work. If the switch is working just fine, finish attaching the faceplate to the wall and you're done! If it doesn't work, make sure power is coming to the new switch with the electrical tester. If it is, turn off the power and re-check the wiring to make sure you've attached the correct wires together.

Changing out your light switch is a great way to update your home in a matter of minutes. Adding a dimmer switch or changing a faceplate are other easy electrical projects you can tackle in under an hour that can alter the look and feel of a room.

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