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How Three-Way Switches Work
by Marshall Brain

In your house or apartment, you probably have at least one light that is controlled by two separate switches. Whenever you flip either one of the switches, the light changes its state -- if it is on it turns off, and if it is off it turns on.

If you have ever wondered how this arrangement works and how each switch knows what the other switch is doing, then read on. In this edition of HowStuffWorks, we will solve the mystery of three-way switches!

Normal Lights
Let's start by looking at how a normal light is wired so that you can understand basic residential wiring for a light switch. The figure below shows the simplest possible configuration:


In this diagram, the black wire is "hot." That is, it carries the 120-volt AC current. The white wire is neutral. (For more information on household AC current and grounding, see How Power Distribution Grids Work.) You can see in the figure that the current runs through the switch. The switch simply opens (off) or closes (on) the connection between the two terminals on the switch. When the switch is on, current flows along the black wire through the switch to the light, and then returns to ground through the white wire to complete the circuit.

The electrician who wires the house normally uses Romex to run power from the fuse box to the switches and outlets in the house. A piece of Romex is shown here:


Romex

Romex consists of an outer plastic sheath (white in this picture) with three wires inside. The black and white wires are insulated, while a bare, third wire acts as the grounding wire for the circuit. Most normal household applications use 12- or 14-gauge Romex.

Three-Way Lights
To create lights that operate with two separate switches, the electrician uses two special pieces of equipment in the circuit:

  • Special switches known as three-way switches.
  • Special Romex wire that has an extra red insulated wire along with the black and white wires within the sheath.
A normal switch has two terminals that are either connected or disconnected. A three-way switch has three terminals, and the switch connects the first terminal to either the second or the third terminal, as shown here:


In a normal switch, the two terminals are either connected (as shown) or disconnected. When they are connected, the switch is "on." In a three-way switch, the top terminal connects to one or the other of the bottom two terminals. (Note: The actual terminal configuration on a three-way switch depends on the manufacturer.)

You use two three-way switches to control the light, and wire it up as shown below:

In this diagram, a normal piece of Romex comes from the fuse panel to the first three-way switch. The black "hot" wire enters the switch on the left. Three-way Romex (which includes red, black and white wires) runs from the switch on the left to the switch on the right, with the white wire carrying ground and the red and black wires carrying the output from terminals in the left switch. Normal Romex runs from the right switch to the light.


Assume that, with the switch up, terminals 1 and 3 are connected as shown above. If the switch is down, then terminals 1 and 2 are connected. You can see (if you trace through the wires and the switches) that in the previous figure, the light is off. You can also see that if you flip either switch, the light will turn on. And if you flip either switch again, the light will turn off. It is actually a very simple arrangement once you see it all exposed like this!

There are several other ways to wire three-way switches to a light. For example, the power from the fuse box could come in at the light fixture and there could be two switches in series running from there. Or power can enter at the fixture and then two switches can be arranged in parallel from the light.

If you are trying to understand how a set of switches are wired in your house, using an ohmmeter or a continuity detector is the only way to reverse-engineer what the electrician has done (make sure you turn the power off at the fuse panel before doing anything with electrical wiring). The great thing is that, if you know the basic idea behind three-way switches and three-way wiring, it's really easy to figure it out. And if you simply want to understand what's going on to satisfy your own curiosity, well, now you know!

For more information on three-way switches and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information!

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