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Switches 101: Important Info About These Simple Devices


There are many important components to your electrical system, with each having its own part to play in allowing you to safely and conveniently utilize this energy for a number of purposes. However, you probably don’t think about them all that often. This can very much be said for the many various switches located throughout your home. Switches give you the ability to seamlessly and easily control the flow of electricity, all while radically improving safety and simplicity.

However, unless you’re a seasoned electrician or engineer, few people know the details of exactly how switches work and what it is they do. These are important things to know, as you might need to replace a switch one day or you might want to take advantage of new switch technology that gives you added control over your home.

How Switches Work

One of the simplest laws of electricity is that electrical current cannot flow if a circuit is incomplete. Therefore, any disruption of a circuit immediately cuts off power and shuts off anything that might be connected. This is the principle that switches operate on—providing you an easy and reliable way to break a circuit and shut off anything that might be connected and powered. When you flip a switch on, an internal mechanism completes the circuit, allowing energy to flow freely. When you flip the switch off, the circuit connection is broken and the power stops flowing instantly. In principle, this same task can be accomplished by disconnecting a wire. However, in practice this can be dangerous to your home and create a tremendous risk for injury.

A simplified electrical circuit has two sides: a “hot” side and a “neutral” side. Switches are typically installed on the “hot” side, as this prevents any current from reaching your circuit after flowing through the controlled device. If the device malfunctions for some reason, this prevents further damage to other components and devices located further along the circuit.

Types of Switches

There are tons of different types of switches out there. While they all perform essentially the same function, the way they do it can vary greatly, and this gives switches a tremendous amount of flexibility for specialized applications. Wall switches are by far the most common type of switch you will see when you look around your home. These devices are designed to fit into standardized electrical boxes and operate within certain electrical limitations (for example, most wall switches can only safely operate on circuits with up to 20 amps of capacity).

However, other switches you might find around your home include things like pressure switches. These are switches that are designed to turn on or off in the presence or absence of constant pressure. One example of this might be the light in your refrigerator. When you open the door, the light turns on automatically, and then shuts off again when you close it. Another fairly common switch that you might have but not think about is a magnetic switch. Magnetic switches either complete or disrupt an electrical circuit based on the presence or absence of a magnetic field. This makes them ideal as door sensors for security systems—when you open the door, the magnetic field disappears, and the circuit breaks, triggering your security system to respond.

Dimmer switches are slightly different from your standard wall switch. In addition to having the ability to break or complete a circuit, these switches use a device known as a potentiometer to adjust the amount of power flowing through a circuit. The more voltage on a particular circuit, the stronger the power, and thus the faster something moves or the brighter the light. However, fluctuating power levels means you need lightbulbs that are capable of operating under a variety of different voltages. Compact fluorescent lights, for example, generally require a certain voltage in order to turn on and then don’t really gain brightness with any further voltage after that (up to their operational limit). Therefore, these types of bulbs generally won’t work with a dimmer switch.

Smart Switches & Modern Home Automation

One of the biggest advancements in modern electrical technology is the modern smart switch. In addition to their standard ability to complete or disrupt a circuit, these switches also connect to your home’s wireless internet connection and talk with other devices as well as receive input from other controllers. This gives you the ability to control lights without ever actually having to touch the switch itself. Instead, you can set timers that turn the lights on and off automatically, turn the lights on and off from your phone, or even control them with your voice with the assistance of a smart home hub like Google Home or Amazon Alexa.

If you’re having trouble with one of your light switches or you want to add increased flexibility and control into your home with a Wi-Fi smart switch, call the team at Mel Carr Electric at (518) 500-3042 today to schedule your switch installation appointment.
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