Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dim and Dimmer

One easy way to enhance the ambiance and mood in any room is to install dimmer switches. Even if your life isn't full of bubble baths, lingerie, and Sade, consider this: dimmers save electricity and make light bulbs last longer. And dimmers can create lighting that flatters everyone, so you can also save money on that face-lift you were considering. And, who knows, that may lead to rose petals and champagne, after all. Let the romance commence!

Most people (even avid do-it-yourselfers) are a little wimpy when it comes to electrical work- I guess it's something about the threat of painful electrocution (and possible death) that scares them off. Which is why electricians can charge you three months salary for five minutes work, and you'll happily fork it over. And listen, I'm not advocating that you do a full re-wiring of your house in a lightning storm, but there are some very simple electrical tasks that you really truly can do yourself. And this is one of them, my friends.

But first, read this:
DO NOT attempt to install your own dimmer in any of these circumstances:
1. You have fluorescent lights. You can't dim those suckers- you are stuck with that horrible unflattering light, unless you are willing to change the fixture (another easy job, but that's a whole other post).
2. Your switch controls a ceiling fan. You can still do it, but you have to get a special "ceiling fan compatible" dimmer, and follow the directions in the package.
3. Your switch controls electrical outlets, rather than a direct lighting fixture. If you want to dim a table lamp or floor lamp, there are special accessories that you can buy to attach directly to the lamp, that you are better off with. If you plug an appliance (say, a vacuum cleaner) into an outlet that is controlled by a dimmer, it could have disastrous repercussions. I'm not even really sure what would happen, but I do know that it would be bad.

If none of those warnings apply to you, congratulations, and continue!

1. Gather your materials. You will need: a screwdriver, a dimmer switch (available from the hardware store for about $12), and maybe pliers and electrical tape.
2. Go to your circuit-breaker box and turn off the power to the fixture/room you are planning to put the dimmer in. If the circuits aren't labeled, just flip the switches until the fixture goes off (then, for crying out loud, go get a pen and label the switch). Once the appropriate switch is flipped to the "off" position, you are in absolutely no danger of electrocution. Phew.
3. Remove the decorative plate from around your switch (you'll probably need a screwdriver). 4. Remove the screws holding the switch into the wall (again, using a screwdriver), and pull the switch unit out from the junction box in the wall.
5. Count the wires going in to the switch terminals- these are screws on the side of the switch unit (don't count the green "ground" wire, if there is one, though). Two wires terminals indicate a single-pole switch, and three wires indicate a three-way switch (meaning more than one switch controls the light). If you count three, stop- you will need a special dimmer if you have a three-way switch.
6. Unscrew the plastic caps attaching the wires from the wall to the wires from the switch unit. If the wires from the wall connect directly to screws in the switch unit, unscrew those screws and release the wires.
7. Connect the black "hot" wire from the wall to the black wire on the new dimmer switch, using a plastic electrical cap twisted over both wires, and securing with electrical tape. Do the same with the white "neutral" wires. In some cases, your house wires might be different colors- a "hot" wire might also be red, and a neutral wire may also be beige, yellow, or blue. When in doubt, use an electrical tester (also available at the hardware store) to discern between the wires. If your house has a third, green, wire, connect that to the green ground wire from the dimmer. If not, you can cut this green wire off the dimmer, or wrap the exposed wire end in electrical tape.
8. Once there are no bare wires exposed, push the dimmer back into the wall and into place. You may have to shove the wires back deep into the wall with your fingers in order to fit everything in, but just make sure nothing comes loose in the process.
9. Make sure the switch is right-side-up, and then screw the dimmer into the wall.
10. Go back to your electrical panel, and turn the circuit-breaker back into the "on" position. If your light goes back on, it has worked! If not, turn the circuit off, unscrew the switch again, and figure out what you did wrong.
11. Once all is well, reattach the decorative switch plate and put away your tools. Dim the lights to your preferred level, and bask in the warm glow of flattering light and the pride of accomplishment.


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Anonymous said...

Thanks for this info! I installed a dimmer in my bathroom last night and didn't even need to consult my friend Omri, who is an electrician. Now there's soft romantic light when I'm sitting on my throne...