Install a Dimmer Switch: DIY for Earth-Friendly Savings
Remember the “clap on, clap off” jingle for clap-sensitive lights? For years, we’ve been honing and perfecting our lighting systems, including finding ways to control a room’s brightness from bed.
These days, the truly devoted can hook all of their lighting (and even the coffee maker, for that matter) into remote systems controllable from a smartphone. Apart from switching to more efficient bulbs, however, the simplest and most affordable way to take a big bite out of your lighting energy usage is simply to install motion-sensitive light switches.
Who hasn’t opened a closet, bathroom, or guest room door to discover that a light has been left burning unnecessarily for hours, days, or even weeks? That wasted power costs us on our monthly bill, and it unnecessarily draws from an electric grid that, depending on where you live, may still rely on carbon-generating coal as its source.
Automatic sensor switches turn on when a person enters a room and off soon after they depart. Many are programmable to allow a manual override or to set the amount of time without motion before turning dim. These switches range in cost from around $20 to $50 models with elaborate programmable settings.
Making the ‘switch’ will require a small upfront investment, but you’ll end up saving money in the long run through the power you save.
Gather Your Tools
With your new switches in hand, gather the following tools:
- Flat head and Phillips head screwdrivers
- Wire stripper
- Electrical tape
- Wire nuts (these typically come with the switch, but check)
- Voltage tester (these are inexpensive and worth having for future projects as well)
11 Easy Steps
Our first step is the most important!
- Turn off the power to the switch at your circuit breaker. If you’re not 100 percent positive that you’ve done this, shut power to the entire house, turn off multiple rooms, or put down your tools and hire a handyman. It’s a simple step but it can save your life!
- Remove the wall plate at the switch.
- If your circuit breaker includes fuses, remove that too, and leave a note to let anyone else in the house know not to flip the switch back to “on.”
- Check (one more time) that the power is off by using the voltage tester.
- Remove the screws that mount the switch to the wall. Go ahead and take a picture of the back of the switch, just in case you need to refer to the wire placement later.
- Remove the wires from the back of the switch.
- Strip ¾ of an inch of insulation from the end of each wire.
- Reconnect the wires to the new switch. Automatic sensor and dimmer switches usually have splice connections instead of the screw-on terminals on a standard switch. This shouldn’t make the connection of your new switch any more difficult, but it’s important to note.Begin with the ground wire (usually green), using the pliers to twist the ends together before screwing on a wire nut (the little plastic caps that likely came with your new switch). Do the same thing with your two house power wires, for a total of three connectionsIf there’s an extra wire behind your switch that you don’t know what to do with, it’s for the installation of a 3-way switch, the scenario when multiple switches control one light. Don’t be deterred by an extra wire or different colors — follow the directions that come with your switch to make the proper new connections.
- Use electrical tape to wrap the wire nuts securely and ensure that the wires are not exposed.
- Remount the switch into the wall, replace the screws, and replace the wall plate.
- Check your work by turning the power back on and testing your new switch.
Lighting accounts for 14 percent of all U.S. home energy consumption. By eliminating waste from our usage (and switching from incandescent to CFL and LED bulbs), it’s possible for most households to dramatically reduce that percentage, translating to triple-digit savings each year. That’s extra money for your next trip exploring our amazing blue planet.
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Since 2000, Chris Long has been a store associate at a Home Depot in Illinois. He also contributes to the Home Depot blog, and is interested in electrical topics ranging from solar panels to home automation.