Do any of you nerds know about electrical wiring?

ManBearPig

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Sep 5, 2000
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I'm utterly confused and annoyed right now. So I buy some basic switches and go to change the light switches in the living room since one of the switches doesnt work correctly and we want to make them look a little nicer. Except...the way the switches are wired makes no sense to me. Our house was built in 1987, and whoever did the wiring was obviously retarded.

The first switch (1) controls one outlet (this is the broken one) where a lamp is, the second switch (2) controls a set of three lights in the ceiling, and the third switch (3) controls a light in the hallway that another switch also controls.

I could be wrong since I have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about, but shouldn't that mean the first two are one way switches and the last switch is a three way switch?

  1. The first switch (1) has four holes in it, and in the top two holes are two black wires, and in the bottom two holes one white wire, and off to the side there is a threaded screw holding the ground wire.
  2. The second switch (2) also has four holes in it, but in the top two holes there are two black wires, and on the bottom no wires, and off to one side is the ground wire, and off to the other side there is a third black wire threaded through a screw.
  3. The third switch (3) again has four holes in it, but the top two holes are occupied by one black wire and one white wire, and the bottom two holes are occupied by a single red wire, and then off to the side there is a threaded screw with the ground wire.

So I have no fucking idea what to do, and I went and bought three three way switches since I'm assuming they're all three way switches and I'm gonna tackle this tomorrow. Please help me before I go nuts. :(

Thanks! :awe:

Edit: Here's the album, plz dont be mad. I'll try making a paint diagram also. :(
 
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drnickriviera

Platinum Member
Jan 30, 2001
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pictures please. sounds like they are backwire devices and instead of using wirenuts, they just use the switch to connect the hot wires to send the power to another device
 

olds

Elite Member
Mar 3, 2000
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People that post threads like this and no pics or paint drawings should be kicked in the nuts.
 

ManBearPig

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Sep 5, 2000
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pictures please. sounds like they are backwire devices and instead of using wirenuts, they just use the switch to connect the hot wires to send the power to another device

Arghhh...it's a mess in that little box. On top of that, the lights were off and it was dark (by the time i went to the store again and came back). I *did* get a couple pics back there, and a pic of the old switch, but I'm warning you, they're awful lol :oops:. I'll post them all in hopes someone can maybe see something.
 
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Kwatt

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Jan 3, 2000
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You may have 4-way switches.
If you don't know what you are doing and it is does not sound like it.
I predict an electrician in your future for many expensive hours.

If you do one at a time there is a small chance you will get it right.

If you disconect more than one switch at a time it can take several hours of testing in order to get it back right.

Mutipile 4-ways in one box takes pratice when you are the person that installed the wiring. Because they are in the middle of a 3-way switch circuit.

I have had to trouble shoot similar cicuits for people who did not understand what they were getting into.

Good Luck

.
 

ManBearPig

Diamond Member
Sep 5, 2000
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It appears you have 4-way switches.
If you don't know what you are doing and it is does not sound like it.
I predict an electrician in your future for many expensive hours.

If you do one at a time there is a small chance you will get it right.

If you disconect more than one switch at a time it can take several hours of testing in order to get it back right.

Mutipile 4-ways in one box takes pratice when you are the person that installed the wiring. Because they are in the middle of a 3-way switch circuit.

I have had to trouble shoot similar cicuits for people who did not understand what they were getting into.

Good Luck

.

Yikes, maybe i'll have to go return these three ways and get four ways. Any ideas on why they'd wire it like this?
 

Kwatt

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Jan 3, 2000
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Yikes, maybe i'll have to go return these three ways and get four ways. Any ideas on why they'd wire it like this?

Yes




3 or more swiches for one device.
With a 4 way there are 2 pairs of 2 wires each. One wire in each pair will always be energized when the circuit is powered up.

But, I cannot be sure from your description and the pics that is what you have. Whoever wired it may be using 4 ways as a standard switch.

A 4 way used as a 4 way will always have 4 circuit wires plus a ground wire.

Look at the installed switches and see if they are marked with ON/OFF.
If they are they are single pole switches with multiple connections.
If not they are 3 way or 4 way switches.


.



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ManBearPig

Diamond Member
Sep 5, 2000
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On the light switch itself, the middle switch has on/off. The others do not. They all look the same otherwise though. Wonder why they'd use a 4 way when the switches only control one light/set of lights (with the exception of the one that controls the hallway light, which another switch also controls).

Would there be any downside to using a 4 way switch that only controls one device? Since there are no more than 3 wires going to each switch, maybe I could just use the three way. I dunno. Argh...
 

DrPizza

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This is a lot simpler than you think.

If the switches are identical, remove one, electrical tape or cap the wires. Take that switch to the hardware store and say, "I need three of these." Remove wires, put in new switch. Most people I've ever talked to with experience avoid those backwiring things - they suck. There's just a thin piece of metal making contact. A little corrosion in there & they stop working - which may be exactly what your problem is. If possible, connect the wires to the screws on the side. The backwiring is for lazy electricians getting a job quickly, and who know it'll probably lead to more work for them 15 years down the road.
 
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Kwatt

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Jan 3, 2000
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On the light switch itself, the middle switch has on/off. The others do not. They all look the same otherwise though. Wonder why they'd use a 4 way when the switches only control one light/set of lights (with the exception of the one that controls the hallway light, which another switch also controls).

Would there be any downside to using a 4 way switch that only controls one device? Since there are no more than 3 wires going to each switch, maybe I could just use the three way. I dunno. Argh...


The one with the ON/OFF is a single pole.
If you can test it to find the correct way to wire it you can use a 3 or 4 way as a single pole.

All of them are for one device the 3 way and 4 way are for more than one switch to the device.

Example:
Power source then 1st 3-way then last 3-way then device.
Either 3 way can turn the device ON or OFF.

Example:
Power source then 1st 3-way then 4-way then last 3-way then device.
Any of the 3 switches can turn the device ON or OFF.


The 1st and last switch must be a 3-way. You can have any number of 4-ways you want between them. And any of the switches can turn the device ON or OFF.


.
 

drnickriviera

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Jan 30, 2001
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The far right switch looks like a 3 way switch. I only see 3 screw terminals. Easy one to replace.

Can't tell on the others, How many screw terminals do they have and what color are they? black or brass?
 

Paperdoc

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Aug 17, 2006
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A bit of a mess, but I think I understand your box. You have not noted a few other things, so look again to check what I post.

First, DrPizza is correct - those holes in the back do NOT provide a really solid connection, I think. I realize, however, that designers and regulators think they are OK, so maybe I'm just too cautious. I prefer to use the screws on the sides to make connections to the switch. HOWEVER, where I live you are NOT ALLOWED to use the screw terminals (or holes) on any device to make junctions between wires. You MUST make your junctions of wires with wirenuts in the box behind the switches. The only wires attached to the switches are for the switched circuit itself. Also where I live you can only have multiple devices in one box if they are ALL fed from the same circuit breaker (so you can't leave wires live inside by mistake by turning off one breaker and leaving another on). So I am assuming ALL the live wires inside that box are from ONE circuit breaker, and hence only ONE black lead entering the box brings power in.

Color convention: Black is Hot, White is Neutral, and Bare is Ground. Red is a different Hot lead. It happens that White normally will never appear to have a voltage on it, because Neutral is connected to Ground back at the breaker panel. BUT White must NEVER be treated as Ground - it is for return of current from the powered device (light bulb).

WARNING: It is acceptable to use White as a "Hot" lead in some cases, and I believe that is what you have on TWO of those switches, so do NOT assume White is "safe".

HINTS
(A) Inspect the CABLES where they enter the box, and sort out which Black, White and Bare wires come from which cable. (One will also have a Red in it.) Each CABLE is a supply to the box or an output to a load device.
(B) Inspect all the WHITE wires. Some of them are joined together with a wirenut, but I bet TWO of them are not - on Switches #1 and #3.
(C) ALL of the Bare wires should be fastened to a Ground Screw in the metal box.

OK, down to details.

Switch 1 (One-way): I expect ONE of the two Black leads on this switch is the incoming Hot supply line for the whole box. The other is just a jumper taking power over to Switch #2. The White wire on this switch probably is part of the same cable that provided the Hot supply Black. I suspect it is being used to take the power output from this switch back out to the load - an outlet. This is one White wire I suspect is NOT connected to any others like it.

Switch #2 (One Way): One of the top Blacks is the jumper bringing power over from Switch #1, and the other is another jumper taking power over to Switch #3. So both Switches 1 and 2 are being used to make junctions of Hot wires, which I believe is wrong. But the third Black wire on this one (attached to a screw) is probably the switch output to its load, the ceiling lights.

Switch #3 (3-Way): A 3-way switch distributes incoming power from one wire onto either of two different output wires, and hence this switch normally is connected to a cable with THREE covered wires in it - Black, White and Red. The Black may be coming from Switch #2, or it is possible it is actually direct from its own cable. Both the White and the Red on this switch are output wires, and only ONE of them is powered at any time. (That cable with the red wire in it goes to the other switch that helps control the hallway light. That second switch chooses between either the White or the Red wire coming to it, and in that way determines whether power is fed on the the actual light socket.)

DrPizza gave you a very good idea. I assume you got two 1-way switches and a 3-way from the store. Shut off the circuit breaker and make sure the box wires are all "dead". Now operate on ONE switch at a time. Unscrew it to pull it out, disconnect its wires, then connect those wires to the same locations on the new switch and re-fasten it with screws. On to the next. Then the last. Check that the connections are solid and there are no stray wire bits shorting anything. Turn on the breaker and check that all switches do the proper thing. Even if you don't understand the details of the circuits, direct swaps one at a time should do the job.

This last comment has NOTHING to do directly with your job - just a pet peeve of mine. A 1-Way switch connects a Hot lead to ONE output, or not. So then a switch that connects that Hot lead to either of TWO outputs is a THREE-Way SWITCH???
 
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ManBearPig

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Sep 5, 2000
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The far right switch looks like a 3 way switch. I only see 3 screw terminals. Easy one to replace.

Can't tell on the others, How many screw terminals do they have and what color are they? black or brass?

Here are the first two terminals in order:

http://imgur.com/a/ZQyrb

I think the first has 3 holes but only 1 has a screw, the second seems to have 2 holes and 2 screws, and the last one seems to have 3 holes with 3 screws.


Dude, you are the man! Thank you so much! :eek: Seriously, this is amazing.

Also, I have got to agree on that last point. I was very (very) confused by this at the store. I'm gonna have to read your post a couple times while looking at it to get everything right. At this point, I have three three way switches. So I guess I'll go return a couple of the three ways sometime tomorrow if i get time. I didn't really understand anything at the store, both because of the way they are labeled (like you said!) and because of the way ours are attached (holes vs screws). Thanks again!

Anyone else have any info, I'm all ears. :D Pretend like you're talking to a 6 year old. :awe:
 
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Kwatt

Golden Member
Jan 3, 2000
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OK

Do not count the screws with the green head or that are connected to the switch frame those are for grounding.

If there is 1 screw (or screw hole) on 1 side and 1 screw (or screw hole) on the other side that is a 1 way. This one will be marked ON/OFF!

If there is 1 screw (or screw hole) on 1 side and 2 screws (or screw holes) on the other side that is a 3 way. This one will NOT be marked ON/OFF!

If there is 2 screws (or screw holes) on 1 side and 2 screws (or screw holes) on the other side that is a 4 way. This one will NOT be marked ON/OFF!

Forget about the holes in the back for now.


EDIT: A 1 way may have 2 screws (or screw holes) on 1 side and none on the other.


.
 
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Red Squirrel

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May 24, 2003
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The trick is figuring out what the "common" screw is, and what the common wire is. Lookup 3 way and 4 way diagrams online so you can understand exactly what's going on in such a circuit. A 4 way switch is when you have 3 switches controlling the same light. It almost sounds like they used a 4 way when they should have used a 3 way. or do you actually have 3 switches for that light?

You can try tracing each wire to find out where each one goes, individually then map it out, will make it easier to figure out where to connect.

Or you can do the brute force method, make them stick out in a way where they wont touch, turn power back on, start connecting them to the switch with crocodile clips, test each wire for 120v first so you arn't making a short. Once you figure out where each should go, turn power back off and then connect them properly. Sometimes power from a junction box (where the switch is) is tapped to feed something else, so it's possible there's extra wires in there that are going somewhere not related to the light. This is what often confuses people.

Also NEVER use the backstabs. They're considered amateur practice, and sometimes even fail. Ask any electricians what they think about them.
 

drnickriviera

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Jan 30, 2001
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ok, the 2nd switch is a standard 1 way switch. I think paperdoc has the right setup, but the 1st switch doesn't make sense. Looks like they used a 3 way switch there.

need a few last pictures. with the power off to everything, unscrew the switches from the box so that you can see the backs of the switches and where the wires go. does a black wire go from switch 1 to switch 2?

if the power comes up from the outlet, fed back down the white wire and then used to power the 2nd switch, then where are all those neutrals you see in the back coming from? (that big red wirenut in the picture seems to have white wires)

I think you'll need to do up a paint diagram for us to be sure. pull out all 3 switches and rotate them to the floor so they sit horizontal. Now you should be able to see all incoming wires and where they go. do you have a multimeter where you can check continuity?
 

ManBearPig

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Sep 5, 2000
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I'll try to get it opened and take pictures and explore a little more!

If it helps any, the lights controlled by those three switches need three different switches at the breaker to be off before they're all unable to be turned on.

I've got no multimeter, just a voltmeter (so I don't kill myself lol). :(
 

drnickriviera

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ok, that helps, so then there shouldn't be a wire going between switch 1 and 2. Switch 2 and 3 are easy, i'll tell you how to wire them up when we get it all figured out. Switch 1 is still the odd ball
 

ManBearPig

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Alright, so I went back and looked at then since its actually light outside. I'm an idiot and counted the ground when I should not have (good call kwatt :awe:). You guys may have already caught this though.

The switches, in order, not counting the ground have 3, 2, and 3 screw holes.
 
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Kwatt

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Jan 3, 2000
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Alright, so I went back and looked at then since its actually light outside. I'm an idiot and counted the ground when I should not have (good call kwatt :awe:). You guys may have already caught this though.

The switches, in order, not counting the ground have 3, 2, and 3 screw holes.

Now (not counting grounds) how many wires are connected to the switches?

Switch 3 - is a 3 way - easy hookup 1 wire per screw. The black is usually hooked up on the side with only 1 screw. USUALLY!

Switch 2 - is a single and is using the switch as a splice point for the "hot".
I never do this because you have to use the push in connections on the back. It is allowed per NEC but it can cause problems.
I always pigtail and never have more than 1 wire to each point and only use the screws. You can only put 1 wire under a screw per code except for switches designed for 2 wires per screw. EDIT: It maybe that the "hot" is not spliced and the "load" is being used as a splice point. Cannot be sure from PICS!

Switch 1 - is there another switch that can turn the device ON/OFF?
If not then it is being used as a single. And it is wired like Switch 2.


PIGTAIL: All wires going to the same point are spliced with a wire nut with a short ~6-8 inch wire that is then connected under the screw of the terminal point.


If you can post pics of switch 1 and only switch 1 both sides and back.
It may help.

When I look at the pics you have posted I cannot be sure that I am not confusing the pics. My old tired eyes saw their better days 40 years ago.



.
 
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ManBearPig

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Sep 5, 2000
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Got the pics you guys requested! Tried to take good ones and organize them sensibly. Btw, if I haven't said it, I really appreciate everyone's help! I know it's tough trying to help me since I know next to nothing about wiring and electricity.

http://imgur.com/a/GxQUH

need a few last pictures. with the power off to everything, unscrew the switches from the box so that you can see the backs of the switches and where the wires go. does a black wire go from switch 1 to switch 2?

if the power comes up from the outlet, fed back down the white wire and then used to power the 2nd switch, then where are all those neutrals you see in the back coming from? (that big red wirenut in the picture seems to have white wires)?

I dont see any wires going directly from one switch to the other, and I'm not really sure about the neutrals. :oops: Also, I lied to you: one switch on the fuse box controls switch 1 and switch 2, and another switch on the fuse box controls switch 3. Sorry! :oops:

Now (not counting grounds) how many wires are connected to the switches?

Switch 1 - is there another switch that can turn the device ON/OFF?
If not then it is being used as a single. And it is wired like Switch 2.

Question 1: finally was able to take some good pics, so it should be clearer. I think 3 wires each (not including ground). Question 2: only one switch (switch 1) controls that outlet where the lamp is, no others. So I'm pretty sure you're right. My brother in law made that observation too.
 
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