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Understanding How 3-Way and 4-Way Switches Work

For homeowners who would like to install decorative switches in their homes, problems could arise if you failed to wire them correctly. Although you might initially think that the switches are defective, it is most likely that you have installed a 3-way or 4-way switch and they are not working as they should be.

The 3-Way Switch

If you observe the 3-way switch, you will observe that there are actually different-colored screws – at the top is the brass screw and at the bottom is the black screw. There are two other screws, brass and green, which are not visible. The black screw is connected to the continuous hot wire (wire connected to the light fixture); the green screw is connected to the ground wire and the brass screws are connected to the travelers.

In most homes, the 3-way switch is used for the control of light from two different locations. If you would like to control the light from more that two locations, you will have to connect the three-way switch to four-way switches.

Key Things to Remember

  • Placement of all switches is important. Power should first enter your 3-way switch before your 4-way switch. For this reason, your four-way switches should be placed between your three-way switches.
  • Path that electricity follows between these switches is similar to railroads, where you can observe switching yards.

Distinguishing Switches

It is quite simple to distinguish 3-way switches from 4-way switches. All you have to do is to count the terminals. The three-way switch has 3 terminals while the 4-way switch has 4 terminals. Also, you will notice that screws in 4-way switches are almost always brass-colored while in three-way switches, there is at least one screw that is colored black.

Determining What Went Wrong

If your switches are not working properly, it is possible that you have wired them incorrectly. Before checking, make sure that you have turned off the fuse or circuit breaker. Take off the cover plates from all the switches and then remove all the switches from their respective electric boxes.

Once the switches have been removed, you can determine what kind of switch you are working with. At this point, it would also be wise to check if there are any wires not connected to anything.

Check whether the right wires are connected to the terminals. Remember that the dark-colored terminals should be connected to two wires only: the continuous hot wire and the common wire traveling to the light fixture. It is likely that you have connected the wrong kind of wire to these terminals.

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