Where's the Light Switch? - Light Switch Locations & Smart Home Options
Updated: Jan 13
One of the wonderful creature comforts of being at home is knowing where the light switches are and which switch operates which light source. It can be a frustrating dilemma when staying in a hotel or as a guest in someone's home. "Where's the light switch?"
Smart phone flashlights have certainly helped. What also helps is standardization of switch locations.
During the early part of our Construction Documents phase we lay out all the outlets, lights and switch locations on floor plans and review these with clients. Many of the rules for switches are defined by building codes. These include the minimal number of switches and their locations relative to stairs. An example of this type of code rule is that 3-way lights (lights that can be operated by 2 separate switches) are required at the top and bottom of staircases. Beyond the code requirements, there are standard practices for placement and height. For example, while it is not a code requirement that a light switch be placed 4 ft. high on the swing side of a door upon entering a room, it is a standard practice, and people generally expect to find one in those locations. If the switch is located anywhere else it can cause someone to have to feel around on a wall in a dark room.
Beyond codes and standard practices, there is a lot of subjectivity and customization available. I have often gravitated towards customization with multiple switches, dimmers, and 3-way lights. Thankfully, our firm's lead designer has a more conservative approach to the number of light switches with very logical locations. Sometimes, what seems like a logical customization option may not work as well in practice. It might seem like a great idea to have all the bedroom light switches right next to the bed. This was the case in the home I recently purchased. Unfortunately, even after a year of living here, I still get confused about which switch operates which light. I am quite happy with my simple bedside lamp. I know what light will turn on, I don't have to reach as far back to turn on the wall switches, and the lamp produces just enough light to navigate an otherwise dark room. For our projects, we like to provide both options: as switch and an outlet for a lamp.
For homeowners embarking on home remodeling or new construction, I strongly recommend a walk-through with their contractor at the point after the walls have been framed but before any wires have been run and boxes have been installed. It is important for them to understand, feel, and walk-through the space where all the switches and outlets will be going. What seemed like a good idea on the electrical plans may not feel right to a homeowner once they are walking though the space. I recommend using a large Sharpie marker to physically indicate on the wall studs where switches should go. The marks will eventually be covered by drywall but will provide the electrician with clear direction about desired locations. If the walkthrough happens after wires have been run and electrical boxes installed, moving things will be more difficult; if this happens after drywall is installed, moving thing will be even more difficult, possibly requiring a change order from the contractor.
The new world of home automation has revolutionized light switch wiring. Today, with smart lightbulbs and smart home devices, dimmer controls and complicated 3-way wiring are not necessary. New technology essential replaces the switch and dimmer with voice-activation or a smart phone. This removes the errors of 3-way lighting installation which I see so often. Here is a photo of my in-laws with an incorrectly wired 3-way light. When "off" it actually stays "on" at a very low level, like a nightlight. They have accepted this situation, as my mother-in-law loves the nightlight. My father-in-law is less pleased as he pays the electric bill.
I recently caused an issue at my mom's home. I was in Brazil explaining to my friend in Memphis how my mom's smart home system in Arkansas was working so well for her. My own Google Mini overheard me, linked with my mom's device and turned her lights out. We now use the acronym "HG" rather than the all-powerful "Hey, Google" when explaining functionality.
Clearly, there will be growing pains with this smart home technology, and it will take electrical building codes a while to catch up. Yet, for ease-of-use, technology is painting a very bright horizon.