Fix-It Friday: Let There Be (Flattering) Light! How To Install A Dimmer Switch

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My girlfriend Suzanne used to say, “There’s no such thing as ugly people, only bad lighting.” And I don’t know anyone who’s a fan of bad lighting. So if you’d like to be able to go from surgical room bright to get-you-in-the-mood sultry, all from the same fixture, let me shed some light on the world of dimmer switches.

Installing A Dimmer Switch

Changing a standard switch to a dimmer switch is a piece of cake. You’ll probably spend more time picking one out than installing it! There are many colors and varieties of dimmers—rotary, slide, preset, etc. The one thing you have to make sure of is that you are replacing an ordinary single-pole switch with a single-pole dimmer.

A single-pole switch can only be turned on in one location. If a light can be turned on in two different locations, like at the top and the bottom of the stairs, it’s called a three-way switch. For that project, I suggest tackling it with a friend that has experience with three-way switches.

What You’ll Need

  • Wire strippers
  • Phillips head screw driver
  • Voltage indicator or electric tester
  • New dimmer switch

The How To

  1. Shut off the electricity at the main service panel.
  1. Remove the screws from the switch plate cover (don’t lose those little suckers) then gently pull away the switch plate. You may need to persuade the cover off if it has been painted over—use a small screwdriver to pry it off.
  1. Use a voltage indicator or electric tester to ensure that the power is off. CAUTION: Never touch the terminals until you are sure the power is off.
  1. Now that the switch itself is exposed, unscrew the top and bottom mounting screws and pull out the switch (you may have to tug on it).
  1. Unhook the wires from the terminals by unscrewing them and then slipping them off the terminal. Some switches my have the wires inserted in holes behind the switch. If that’s the case, insert a nail or small screwdriver into the “release” slot next to each hole and pull the wires out. It’s very possible that other wires will be joined in the box—just ignore them. In the event your old switch has a ground wire screwed to it as well, unscrew it like you did the other two wires. The old switch will now be free—remove it.
  1. To install your dimmer switch first join the ground wire from the dimmer to the ground in the box (if there is a ground wire). Hold the exposed tips of the wires side by side and slip a wire cap (a.k.a. wire nut) over them and turn it clockwise until it is tight. Then join the two wires from the dimmer to the wires coming out of the box (the two that were once joined to the old switch) using a wire cap. Make sure you have at least a half-inch of wire for proper contact.
  1. Gently push all the wires back in the box and mount the dimmer with its screws. Make sure the dimmer is in the off position before restoring power.
  1. Turn on the power at the service panel. Verify the dimmer is getting juice by using your voltage indicator or electric tester. If it is, test the dimmer itself by turning the switch to the “ON” position. In the event it doesn’t work, turn off the power again and retrace your steps, making sure all your connections are tight. If it still doesn’t work… call your favorite electrician!
  1. Once you’ve verified the dimmer is working screw on your new plate cover and voila—lighting that’s as bright or as dim, flattering and romantic, as you like!

Note: If you are using CFL bulbs (compact fluorescents)  on your dimmer switch fixture, be sure to only use ones that are labeled “dimmable.”

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Fix-It Friday is an exclusive Women You Should Know® editorial series authored by seasoned veteran of home improvement, Norma Vally, the former host of Discovery Home Channel’s series “Toolbelt Diva” and a show on Sirius Satellite Radio by the same name. The weekly column is designed to inspire women – weekend warriors, aspiring handywomen, and even seasoned DIYers – to take on home repairs and maintenance projects with confidence and gusto.