Electrical

Zen and the art of installing a light switch

It all comes down to a willingness to stand back, take a good look, and have a little confidence in yourself.

When you were in high school or college, you probably read a book called “Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert M. Pirsig. In case you didn’t, it’s about a guy who rides his motorcycle across the country. As things break on his motorcycle and he fixes them, he learns that the pleasure of a job well done, no matter how small, is in the doing – not necessarily in the rush to completion.

Which brings us to Zen and the Art of Wiring a Light Switch. Of all the problems The Hardware Guys see on any given day, this is the one they say customers find most frustrating.

Mike Frentz says this particular situation requires The Hardware Guys to be on best behavior, because they don’t want customers to feel foolish. To avoid a potentially awkward situation, they engage in a delicate discourse that eventually leads to either self-discovery on the part of the customer, who attains enlightenment (so to speak), or to the customer saying something we won’t print here and thumbing the “Electrician” listings in The Yellow Pages.

Of all the things in your house, Mike Frentz says light switches – particularly the popular three-way switches – baffle the heck out of do-it-yourselfers. That’s because unlike a regular switch that is either on or off, a three way involves connecting not only to a light, but to another switch. A good example would be a switch at the base of your stairway, with a light and another switch at the top of the stairway.

If Mike knows that, he’ll draw a diagram for you, explaining exactly what to do, and in what order.

One thing to remember is, on three-way switches, the common screw – which is the most important of the three – can be in different places from switch to switch, depending on where the manufacturer put them. The common screw is always the odd-colored screw ( black or copper colored). It doesn’t matter where it is. Mike says not to fall into the trap of thinking “well, it was in the lower left on the old switch, so it must be in the lower left on the new switch.”

Morale of the story
Wiring a switch isn’t hard. Actually, wiring a switch incorrectly is harder and you’ll know when you’ve done because it just won’t work. Rely on your own powers of observation, go with the common screw on the new switch wherever it is, and follow Mike’s diagram. He’s had people call him elated with the success they had. There’s no reason that can’t be you.