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Choosing Electrical Switches & Outlets - Tips & Suggestions

How to choose switches and outlets while avoiding pitfalls.

By Kyle McKeown Mansfield

Choosing electrical switches and outlets for a remodeling project or new home addition can be daunting. There are so many features to consider including style, color, finish and usage. The last thing you want to do is to select the wrong devices and delay the completion of your project. Here are some useful tips and important considerations to keep in mind when making your choices: 

Make A List 
In each room requiring devices sketch and list each device location and shape. Alternately, put a numbered sticker on each one and add to a list. Miscounting is a VERY common mistake so carefully review your totals and discuss it with your electrician. Make sure you haven't forgotten a switch around a corner that would look odd if not coordinated with the rest of the devices in an adjoining room, or missed an outlet hidden behind a piece of furniture. You might not see it now, but that device may be visible in the future if you redecorate or move. 

Print this Free Switch Plate Shopping List:

Free Switch Plate Checklist

Be Familiar With Device Descriptions 
When choosing devices, have a clear understanding of what terms mean. Often people will select an outlet not realizing that these come in several variations. Do you need a Decora outlet (the large, block style rectangular opening for two receptacles) or a duplex outlet (for two slightly rounded plugs on one device)? Is your electrician installing Decora rockers or toggle switches? A "switch" could refer to either. 

See our Glossary of Switch Plate & Electrical Device Terms

Consider Updating Your Current Devices 
The trend in devices is to use "Decora style" decorator switches, outlets and dimmers. There are several benefits to selecting these. First, all devices fit into the same size opening, limiting the variety of plate shapes needed. A light switch, an outlet or a dimmer could easily be interchanged allowing more flexibility if last minute changes are required. Decora rocker switches are also easier to use for the elderly or mobility challenged. Visually, Decora devices give a more cohesive look because of the standardized shape. 

Access and Usability 
If it would be convenient to turn on a light from more than one location, then a 3-way or 4-way switch would be required. Devices that control a single location are referred to as single pole devices. A three way device allows a light to be controlled from two switch locations. A four-way device allows control from three separate switch locations. Be sure to confirm with your electrician whether multi-pole devices can be installed in the desired locations. Another popular option is to install dimmers that allow lighting to be adjusted according to mood. Many dimmer switches have preset buttons to easily retain desired settings. 

Colors and Finishes 
Look around your room to determine what colors would best blend. If you'll be updating the colors in a room, would the current devices seem out of place? For example, if you have white devices on a dark wall, consider replacing the switches, outlets and other devices with a coordinating color. Perhaps switching to black devices with matching black plates would better complement your current decor. Consider gray devices to go with stainless steel plates and appliances to achieve a cohesive look. Devices are not manufactured in metal finishes (a safety hazard as metal devices would conduct electricity), so select the color the best matches the switchplates you intend to use. You should be able to find many device options in white, almond, ivory, black, brown and grey. Most device colors have both gloss or satin options so you can select the finish that best coordinates with the switchplates in which they'll be installed. Satin devices tend to hide fingerprints better. 

Most residential devices are 15A, but on occasion a 20A device may be appropriate. Keep in mind how many appliances will be plugged in at a certain location and how much power each of them draws. 15A devices can be plugged into a 20A outlet, but not visa versa. Some homes are wired for low voltage devices which must be specifically requested. 

Safety Considerations 
A GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupt, or sometimes just GFI) outlet device is usually required if it is near a water source. These devices have a reset button and are designed to cut the power if overloaded. Check your local building codes to confirm where they may be required. 

Current Requirements 
In an effort to improve safety and efficiency, local building codes are continually updated. Any changes you make may need to meet current requirements, so be sure to confirm choices with your electrician and planning department first. 

Order Devices After All Decisions Have Been Made 
Wait until the project is nearly finished before ordering switches, outlets and dimmers. Many companies selling electrical devices are able to ship quickly, so there is no need to buy too far in advance of the date required unless you are needing very large quantities. Kyle Switch Plates stocks electrical devices in many colors and finishes. Last minute changes are often desired after you see the true location of electrical boxes. Discuss usability and convenience and confirm any changes with your electrician. 

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Article copyright Kyle Switch Plates 2007. If you enjoyed this article, please do not copy it but instead link to it. Thank you, Kyle

Next: Understanding Electrical Devices in Your Home

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