how do dimmer light switches work

How Do Dimmer Light Switches Work?

You probably already know that dimmer light switches allow you to increase and decrease the intensity of a bulb, but there is a little more to these energy-saving devices than that.

For instance, there are actually 6 types of dimmer switch:

  • Low Voltage Dimmer

Only for use with in lighting systems with a 12-volt transformer. An everyday incandescent dimmer will simply not work, if you’re trying to use it on a low-voltage system. You shouldn’t try to force it either – it can dangerously overheat your transformer.

  • Toggle Dimmer Switch

This type of dimmer switch has a digital touch pad for controlling the illumination level.

  • “Smart” Dimmer Switch

Uses a standard rocker switch to toggle on and off. The light will slowly fade, when you have flipped it off. (Many older people like this option, because it gives them enough light to leave the room safely without fumbling in the dark.)

  • Cord Dimmer Switch

Use this type if you’re seeking “variable level” lighting. It’s easy to install – just plug the dimmer cord into a receptacle, then plug your lamp into the back end of the dimmer plug. You can then control your lamp with the dimmer, as soon as the lamp has been switched on.

Just tuck the dimmer into a convenient spot behind the lamp – or in any place that is easy to reach and out of the way.

  • Touch Point Dimmer Switch

This type of dimmer switch is highly sensitive, responding to your finger on a switch pad. The positioning of your finger on the pad controls the lighting. It comes with a built-in LED locator and brightness indicator.

  • Rheostat

This is one of the earlier types of dimmer switch, commonly seen. It’s possible to replace any single pole switch with one – but do make sure you use the correct dimmer for the load type.

What is a “single pole” switch? A traditional household flip switch, with 2 terminals. Its function is simplistic – it has 2 positions: on and off.

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The Advantages Of Dimmer Switches

In addition to saving a surprising amount of electricity, dimmer switches can help you replace light bulbs less often. They also create a mood, and provide relaxing illumination.

When we think of dimmer switches, we think of dramatically reduced lighting – but the truth is, a dimmer can help both your mood and your electricity bill with very little dimming at all.

The American Lighting Association has produced some interesting statistical information on this – they say that if you dim an incandescent bulb by only 10%, it is barely noticeable to the human eye – however, it will save another 10% off your energy cost.

Can I Get Fluorescent Dimmer Bulbs?

You can find ENERGY STAR certified CFL (Compact Fluorescent Lighting) bulbs specifically designed to dim 3-way fixtures. They do have to say “Dimmable CFL” somewhere on the box, in order to be used on dimmers, timers and photocells.

Safety Precautions

Whatever dimmer switch you purchase, however, don’t just go by the information on the front of the box. Read the fine print on instruction leaflets inside, or on the back of the bulb box – there may be restrictions it’s important to respect, for the sake of safety and energy preservation.

X. Don’t run a chandelier with multiple bulbs on a 600 watt dimmer switch.

X. Don’t use a standard dimmer on a fixture with a fan – the motor will burn out.

Use a proper fan speed control, instead.

That’s how dimmer light switches work.

How to Change a Light Fixture

When your light fixtures become old and need replacing, or if you just need to change your décor, it is possible to do it yourself if you follow a few rules.

First, since laws vary, make sure it is legal in your state to change the fixture.

See to your own safety by making sure your ladder or chair is solid and steady. Make sure you have your new fixture ready and tools at hand. A screwdriver is essential. A circuit tester is handy.

  • Once you are ready, turn off the power at the service panel, then lock it so it can’t be accidentally turned back on while you are still working on the wiring. Use the circuit tester to make sure you’ve turned the right circuit off. If your light still works, you can use it for testing, instead. It will go off when the breaker is off and come back on when it’s turned on – simple, right? But do the on-off thing a couple times just to be sure. Bulbs can blow at critical moments.
  • Once you are sure the power is off, unscrew the light fixture and pull it down to inspect the kind of wiring that is there. The most likely one will be two wires, black and white, with a green or bare one as the earth or ground wire. Mostly you just need to fix white-to-white and black-to-black. If it is more complicated – perhaps there is a red wire, make a colored sketch or label each wire so you know where it came from. It is essential to get it back together the same way.
  • Each light fixture will have its own instructions for installation, so make sure you read them well. Use plastic connectors – called wire nuts – to tie the wires into your home wiring, by twisting it onto the wire. Connect the green or bare ground wire of the fixture – if there is one – to the ground wire of your home wiring. If a metal box is used to support the fixture, there should be grounding screws in it to attach the green wire to.
  • Ready for testing again? Flick the breaker back on and turn on the light. Don’t panic about wrong wiring –nothing major will go wrong. All that will happen is nothing. In other words it won’t work. Check to see if the breaker tripped when you switched on the light. If that is the case, make sure the breaker is off once again before you check the position of your wiring. You may have rewired it all in the wrong position. If you absolutely cannot find anything wrong, check the bulb by fitting it into another light. If there is nothing wrong with the bulb, it may be time to call in the experts.