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How To Create Mood Lighting With A Dimmer

Updated on February 27, 2010

You've slaved in the kitchen, preparing a sumptuous meal. The food is placed on your best plates as artfully as any French chef. You serve it in the dining room to your awaiting guests, and you notice something isn't quite right. That's it! There's so much light when you turn on the overhead fixture that it looks as bright as a stadium. There goes the mood, up in lights.

The solution is actually quite simple. Install a dimmer switch. The good news? It's easy to do, and the parts won't cost an arm and a leg. It might be as simple as running down to the hardware store, buying a dimmer switch and putting it in. But there are a few things you must know.

Incandescent and fluorescent. Standard dimmers are intended for incandescent lights only (the type most people think of as a regular bulb). Most fluorescent lights are dimmable only with equipment made expressly for them, though new dimmable fluorescent bulbs are coming onto the market. Most of the energy saving CFL bulbs are useless with dimmers. So, let's say your fixture uses the old fashioned incandescent bulbs. How do you replace the light switch on the wall with a dimmer?

Single pole or three-way? If only one switch controls the light, you have a single pole. If two switches will turn it on, you have a three-way. When you buy your dimmer switch, make sure you get the correct one.

Which switch is which? There are several popular types. One has a round knob that you turn to change the light intensity. Another has a fader that slides up and down. Each can handle lights up to a certain wattage. Make sure your  dimmer is rated higher than the wattage of light it will be controlling (in other words, if you have a 600 watt dimmer and a 300 watt fixture, that's OK). They are all pretty similar to install. Here are the steps.

Very Important! Turn off the circuit breaker. Find the circuit breaker on your breaker box that controls the power to the fixture on which you want to replace the switch.

Remove the wall plate by unscrewing the visible screws. Then, unscrew the screws that hold the switch in the wall. It's better to be safe than sorry; if you have a neon tester, double check that you really turned the power off at the circuit breaker by putting the probes on the wires leading to the current switch.

 Take the wires off the existing switch. Some unscrew from the sides, others pull out. A single pole will have two wires. A three-way will have three. Remove the switch completely. (On a three-way, use a piece of tape to mark the "common" lead, usually the one that is attached to the darkest screw on the switch). Always make sure to be gentle with the wiring. Straighten out the ends of the house wires with pliers.

Connect the dimmer wires to the house wires using wire nuts (those plastic things that screw on to the ends of the wires). Most dimmers have wires that come out of them; some have screws to which you attach the house wires, and others have holes into which you push the wires.

Single pole dimmer. Connect the two dimmer wires to the two house wires that were attached to the original switch. Firmly screw wire nuts on the connections. (If the dimmer has terminals, connect the house wires to them.) It doesn't matter which wire goes where.

Three-way dimmer. A three-way dimmer has three wires. Connect the common lead (which you marked when you took out the old switch) to the (usually) black wire on the dimmer using a wire. Then, connect the two other dimmer wires to the house wires with wire nuts. (If the dimmer has terminals, connect the house wires to them.)

Carefully push the wiring and switch back into the box. Screw it back into the wall, then screw the wall plate back on.

Turn the circuit breaker back on. Make sure your dimmer works.

 If you want to dim plug-in lamps, you can buy a dimmer that plugs into the wall and has a plug receptacle into which you plug the lamp. You can also buy a dimmer switch that installs in the cord itself. Make sure the wattage rating of the switch is high enough to handle the lights you are trying to dim.

Now with a twist or push of the switch, you'll have instant mood lighting.

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