Setting the mood

A dimmer switch is an easy way to add dramatic lighting to any room

A dimmer switch is an easy way to add dramatic lighting to any room

March 15, 2009|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

Editor's note: This is the second article in an occasional series of how-tos that you might have missed learning while growing up or in school.

Thanks to the recession, those major home improvements plans have been pushed further down the honey-do list. But something as simple as replacing a traditional light switch with a dimmer switch can add dramatic lighting to a room for a few dollars.

If your skills are in doubt, contact a professional electrician, but this is an easy DIY.

As a junior in the electrical construction program at Washington County Technical High School, Landon Sagi, 16, of Funkstown, has changed a few switches in his day.

"I've replaced at least a hundred," he said.

The hands-on class at the high school, led by electrical construction teacher Jim Murphy, allows juniors and seniors the opportunity to do practical course work, from wiring switches to more advanced work. Murphy said seniors have the opportunity to earn the first year of a four-year apprenticeship with Associated Builders & Contractors Apprenticeship program.


For Landon, the program allows him the opportunity to become a well-rounded employee.

"I wanted to learn to do this because my dad is a contractor," he said. "I can learn construction from him, so I figured I could train to be a electrician."

Murphy said his class currently has 19 students.

To install a dimmer switch, first collect the tools: a straight screwdriver, a Philips head screwdriver, and a pair of lineman's pliers or needlenose pliers. If replacing a single switch with a dimmer switch, the electrical wire nuts can be reused.

The most important step, Landon said, is to make sure the electricity is turned off to the switch. Murphy suggested that homeowners who don't have a tester can use the switch to turn on the light before heading off to the breaker box. "If you turned off the right breaker, the light will go off," he said.

Landon said to first remove the switch plate by unscrewing the screws on the face plate. The face plate can be used again for the dimmer switch. Keep track of the screws; you'll reuse them, too.

Next, Landon said, unscrew the light switch from the electrical box.

Next, on the side of the light switch are two smaller screws, usually Philips-head screws with an "X" on the head. This is the electrical source and grounding wires. Unscrew those screws and remove the wires. This will detach the light switch from wires.

Make sure to keep the wires from the wall away from each other. Don't let them touch. Nothing should happen if the power is turned off.

With the dimmer switch in hand, make sure, first that "on" is in the up position. This, Murphy said, depends on the type of dimmer; not all are marked.

Next, reconnect the dimmer by reconnecting the wires. Make sure the ground wire from the wall (usually the one that is not covered in insulation) is attached to the ground wire (usually green) from the dimmer switch. To attach, twist the tips of the wires together using the lineman's pliers or a pair of needle-nose pliers. Cover the wires with wire nuts.

Attach the each of the two remaining wires from the dimmer switch to each of the two wires from the wall. Use the lineman's pliers to twist the wires together. Cover the tip of the wires with the wire nuts and twist the nut to screw it on.

Carefully, shove the wires back into the wall. Set the dimmer switch in the electrical box and use the screws from the original light switch to attach the new switch to the box.

Detach the handle; many simply pull off. Murphy said some dimmers might not come with a handle.

Replace the switch plate cover with the original screws.

Replace the dimmer switch handle.

Go to the breaker box and turn on the electricity. Test the lighting.

Online video: Watch Landon Sagi show how to replace a light switch

Step 1: Before you begin, turn off the electricity going to the light switch. Unscrew the screws holding the face plate to the wall, remove the face plate and remove the old light switch from the electrical box (use a straight screwdriver, if needed).

Step 2: Detach the wires from the old switch - make sure they do not touch - and replace the switch with a dimmer switch. Before attaching, make sure the dimmer switch "on" position is up. Connect the ground wire from the wall (usually the one without insulation) to the colored wire from the dimmer with a pair of pliers. Do the same with the other two wires.

Step 3: Once the wires have been attached, cover each connection with connector caps and twist to secure.

Step 4: Carefully shove the wires back into the wall. Place the dimmer switch into the box and attach it with screws.

Step 5: Detach the dimmer handle and replace the face plate cover.

Step 6: Attach the face plate with screws.

Step 7: Place the dial handle back onto the switch. Turn the power back on and enjoy your lighting.

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