Dimmer Switch Selection – So Many Choices

While having dinner at a friend’s home the other night something hit me. The evening was great; good food, fabulous hosts, and an overall perfect time. But what finally struck me was the ambient lighting in the dining room. Sure, I had seen dimmed lighting before, but at this moment I came to appreciate what a subtle change in lighting can do for the mood of an evening. So what if you too would like to install a dimmer switch in your home? This article will help you select what style and features to look for in a dimmer. Our previous article addresses dimmer installation, and the next installment sums it all up with easy installation for the right application.

We will cover the choices available here for incandescent or halogen bulbs (most common). You need a specialized dimmer switch for fans, compact fluorescent bulbs, or the tube style fluorescent bulbs and in a future article we can explain those choices. But never use a regular dimmer switch for these applications.

The first step is selecting the style and type of dimmer switch that fits your home. Color choices are similar with white, ivory, or brown being the most common colors. Usually you want to also match the style of switches you already have. Some homes have the traditional small toggle switch that sticks out. Others have the more modern Decora style switches that are large rectangles almost flush with the switch plate that toggle back and forth from finger pressure at either end. These styles are interchangeable given you get the right switch plate cover, so it is a matter of personal taste and typically choosing to match the rest of the home.

In the traditional style, dimmers come in round buttons that you twist to dim the lights and push to toggle the lights on and off. Another style has a regular on off switch but at the side is a small little slide that can be moved to set the light level. Both of these types are nice in that you can set the lights at a level you like normally and then just flip the lights on and off and not have to adjust the dimming each time. One other style is available in this type of traditional switch that looks exactly like a regular switch except it doesn’t snap on and off. When you go to move the switch to turn the lights on, instead of clicking on and off it moves smoothly between the two going from full on to full off and anything in between. My preference with these though is the combination switch and sliders as being most convenient to use.

The Decora style switches have even more options. The simplest have a vertical slider that goes up and down similar to the continuous range from the on to off type described above. Next is my economical favorite which looks like a regular switch but has the added slider on the side. With the help of some additional electronics inside the box, the choices can get even fancier. One just uses the touch of your finger and continuously dims or brightens until you remove your finger. Others you push and hold down either end of the switch and a series of indicator lights on the side will show the power level. Another option that can be handy is a backlight on the switch so it glows orange when the switch is off. This becomes useful when using a dimmer switch to control a night light in the bathroom. You can control how bright the light is and if someone forgot to turn it on before going to bed you can at least find the switch!

Make sure you know how large an electrical load the switch will be connected to and then look at the rating on the dimmer switch you are considering. You might need to get a high watt rated switch. For example if a switch is rated for 350 Watts, you can have a chandelier that has 5 60 Watt light bulbs (5×60=300) but 5 75 Watt light bulbs would require a higher rated switch.

The only other choice you need to be aware of is whether you need a two-way, three-way, or in rare cases a four-way switch. Two-way are the most common and that is when only one switch controls the light. Three-way switches are needed when two switches can turn the light off an on, typically seen when there is a switch for the light at two entrances into the room. Four-way switches are used for a very large room that has three or more switches controlling the same light. If you want to know how to connect up a three-way or four-way switch, you can read our previous article on that topic.

Now you are practically an expert on dimmer switch styles. If simple is what you have in mind, the local hardware store has you covered. I have also had great luck buying dimmer switches online. They tend to offer better pricing and more selection of color and style, and good online stores can help you with the installation over the phone.