Switches, outlets and fixtures are the gateways through which your electricity flows. Here’s the lowdown on what they do and some ideas for upgrades, repairs or replacements.
Switches open and close electrical circuits, allowing power to flow through lights and appliances. The most familiar of these, the common light switch, is referred to by hardware dealers and electricians as a single-pole switch. A switch that operates lights from two locations (the ends of a hallway, for example) is called a three-way switch.
Some switches are operated with keys, timers, or photoelectric eyes that sense daylight. Some switches are paired up with outlets (a combination switch) and others have their own indicator that lights when the switch is on. Outdoor switches are mounted in a special box, and operated with a lever. Special dimmers are needed for fluorescent and neon lights and loads greater than 1,000 watts.
Switches should match the amp and voltage ratings for the circuit. If your home has aluminum wiring, the switches should be designated CU-AL for compatibility.
Outlets, sometimes called receptacles, provide a place to plug in lamps, toasters, and other electrical appliances that are not “hard wired,” which means permanently wired to the electrical system.
In the United States, most standard home electrical circuits are on a 120-volt line. Conventional outlets have two places to plug in devices and are called duplex outlets. Contemporary outlets include a half-round hole that receives the grounding plug on an electrical cord. A wire leads from this hole to the system’s ground to provide protection against shock when an appliance is plugged into it.
Some outlets in older homes don’t have grounding plugs; they have only the paired slots. If your home’s outlets are like these, you’ve probably discovered grounding adapters, those little plugs that convert the end of a three-pronged plug to two-pronged. If you use one of these, be sure to attach the adapter’s grounding metal flange to the wall receptacle’s center screw, which must be grounded. Otherwise, you’ll defeat your electrical system’s safety grounding.
Although some older homes still have single light fixtures placed squarely in the center of each room’s ceiling, many of today’s houses employ a much more sophisticated lighting scheme. A variety of fixtures, thoughtfully placed, add to the function, comfort, beauty, and drama of a house.
Experts group lighting types into three categories: general, task, and accent. General or ambient lighting provides overall illumination by way of ceiling or wall-mounted fixtures, chandeliers, recessed lights, or track lights. Task lighting is more specific, supplying direct light for reading, sewing, and cooking. Accent lighting can add drama by spotlighting objects or highlighting interesting aspects of a house.