Today’s DIY Saturday article was going to be about changing out a light fixture but a little situation in my home changed my plans. A couple of nights ago I flipped on the outside light to my backyard and saw it flickering. Much more alarming, I saw a flickering in the switch itself. Had it not been dark in the room I would never have seen those sparks and would have assumed I had a bad bulb. I immediately turned off the switch and then shut the power down to that circuit. Luckily, no fire started in my wall!
Since I have an old house I assumed there were some frayed wires in there, which were coming in contact with each other. I pulled the old switch out and discovered, to my surprise, that the wires were clean and in their right spots, meaning the trouble was in the switch itself. This morning I took myself off to the hardware store to purchase a replacement. My new double toggle switch cost $5.99 and took about 5 minutes to replace. Since an electrician charges anywhere from $50 an hour on up, knowing how to do this little fix yourself can save you a lot of money.
In addition to malfunctions, you might want to change a switch because you prefer a different color or type. If your house was not new when you moved in, your switches might be paint splattered from a previous owner’s poor paint job. A switch or outlet is easy to change and there is no reason you can’t do it yourself.
For this job you will need a Philips head screwdriver and a pair of needle nosed pliers.
Step One and most important, turn off the power to this circuit. If your fuses are not labeled, they should be! If you can’t figure out which one it is, you can always shut off the master switch. Put labeling the fuse box on your list of things to do! The safest way to test whether or not the power is off is to use a voltmeter. If you don’t have a voltmeter, flip your light switch and make sure the light doesn’t go on!
Step Two - remove the screw from the center of the switch plate cover and set the screw and the cover aside.
Step Three - you will see a screw at the top and the bottom of the switch. These screws hold the switch in the switch box. Remove these two screws and set them aside.
Step Four – pull the switch out of the box and note the position of the wires. The attached wires can (and should) be a fairly heavy gauge and may be pretty stiff.
Step Five – the ends of the wires are formed into little hooks, which are looped around the screws. After noting the position of the wires, unscrew these screws enough to unhook the wires from them. It’s okay if you have to unscrew them all the way because you are going to dispose of this switch. Although you can’t see it in this photograph, there is another wire going to another screw on the opposite side of this switch. If yours has two wires on the other side, don’t worry. Just note down which wire goes where and unhook all the wires. Set the old switch and screws aside.
Step Six – Get out the new switch and loosen the side screws enough to get the wire hooks over them. Try not to unscrew them all the way. Using your needle-nosed pliers, bend the wire loops out enough so that you can slip the hooks over the screws on the new switch. Hook the wire loops over the screws in exactly the same configuration as they were on the old switch. Using your needle-nosed pliers, crimp the ends of the hook together as much as you can to make a loop around the base of the screw. Tighten the screws down snuggly against the wire loops.
Make sure the wire hooks go over the screws in such a way that, when you are tightening the screws, the hooks are pulled around the screws as opposed to being forced back off the screws. This will make more sense when you are actually doing it but, in the following photograph the two visible screws will be tightened by turning clockwise. So, as you can see in the photograph, I put the loops on with the wire going over the top of the screw. When I tighten the screws, the loops will be naturally drawn around the screws. If I had put the wires on going from the bottom, when I tightened the screws the hooks would be unwound.
The wire on the opposite side of the switch goes the other way as that screw tightens counter-clockwise. Don’t worry, this will make perfect sense to you the first time you do it wrong and have a hard time keeping your loop around the screw as you tighten it!
Step Seven – push the wired switch back into the box, lining up the top and bottom screw with the holes at the top and bottom of the box. The wires are stiff so you may need to exert a little force. Tighten the top and bottom screws to secure the switch back into its box. Replace the switchplate cover. Turn the power back on and test your work. If the light comes on – hooray for you! You did it! Great job! Pay yourself that $50 you didn’t have to pay the electrician!
Replacing an outlet works basically the same way as a switch. Turn off the power; test by plugging something in to the outlet and turning it on; unscrew the cover; note the positioning of the wires; remove the old outlet; install the new one; turn the power back on and voila!