Is Your Light Switch Worn Out? How to Tell and Fix It

Light switches are easy to take for granted. Most will last for decades, and other than an occasional cleaning, they’re essentially maintenance-free. But time and wear will take their toll, and eventually you might find that a light switch in your home is showing telltale signs of failure.

There are a couple of reasons to not overlook something as seemingly trivial as a light switch: there can be risks to an old switch and there can be advantages to getting a more modern light switch. Below we share how to tell if a light switch is possibly a fire hazard or just about done working, as well as tips on getting modern light switches and smartphone apps.

Is Your Light Switch a Danger?

When something seems suddenly different with a light switch you’ve been using for years, don’t ignore it. The best-case scenario is that it’s a helpful early warning sign that you’ll need to replace the switch soon, but the worst-case scenario is that it’s a fire hazard.

One difference you might notice is an unusual sound, often a crackling, popping or hissing sound when you flip the switch. These sounds usually come from live electricity arcing inside the switch, which could pose a hazard.

If there are no unfamiliar sounds, you might still notice a problem through your sense of touch. If the switch or switch plate feels hot, that’s a serious indicator of an electrical problem and a fire risk. There may be excessive voltage coursing through the switch or upstream problems with the wiring in your walls.

It’s normal for light switches to feel slightly warm, especially dimmer switches, which have additional components right behind the switch plate that generate a small amount of heat. There’s no need to call an electrician if the heat is mild. But if it’s so hot you wouldn’t want to keep your fingers there for more than a few seconds, shut off the light switch and call an electrician right away.

A final sensory warning comes from your eyes -- if there’s suddenly a delay between the moment you flip the switch and the moment the light comes on, there’s a good chance that the electrical contacts in the switch are wearing out after years of use. This usually is not a fire hazard, but it’s likely that the switch will eventually stop working altogether. It’s time to have it replaced.

Modern Light Switch Options

If you have a light switch that is going bad, don’t get too stressed out about it. It only takes a few minutes for a licensed electrician to replace it with a switch that’s just like the old one. But you might also think about light switch failure as an opportunity for an upgrade.

Light Switch Types

Before we explain the choices in light switches, let’s review some vocabulary:

  • Toggle switch: much like a single-pole switch, this is a single piece that is used to turn a light off or on.
  • Push-button switch: the push button will have two buttons in one plate; one is for light off, the other for light on.
  • Slide switch: this is a type of dimmer switch that is simply moved up or down for preferred lighting.
  • Single or double-pole switch: these are the common switches, probably the ones in your home. It’s a small lever to manually turn a light on or off.
  • Rocker switch: also called a decorative switch, these are the nearly flat switches that click a light on or off manually.
  • Dimmer switch: with a knob or lever, these adjust how much light is emitted. Sometimes used for “mood lighting.”
  • Sound-activated switch: clap on, clap off. These switches can also work with a knock or snap and are handy if you don’t want to get back up to turn off a light.
  • Motion-activated switch: the switches are good for exterior security lighting or you might have noticed them in public places such as restrooms or libraries, where they come on when you enter a room.

These are certainly not all of the types of light switches, but the most common in the United States. The duty of a light switch has certainly changed since John Henry Holmes first invented the light switch in 1884!

Dimmer Switches

Dimmer switches don’t cost much more than traditional single-pole lever switches, but they add a whole spectrum of light levels that can transform the way a room feels.

It used to be a dimmer switch was just a simple knob that you rotated clockwise for brighter light and counter-clockwise for less light. Now there many choices for this lighting style--there are push-button switches, knob switches, slide switches, and more that may give the room a little more character in terms of lighting ambiance.

When it’s time to update your light switches, see if you would prefer to have the option of a dimmer.

Don’t Forget the Light Switch in Your Redesign

After spending on a remodel or single room renovation to make your home more stylish or valuable, don’t just put the same old plain white switchplate back on after painting or wallpapering.

There are switches and plates for every style—get one to match the décor in the nursery, one to match the vintage finishes, classic chrome for kitchen and bathroom, and much more. A switch can become a style element of the home that isn’t just utilitarian.

If you could use more electrical outlets in the room, ask your electrician to replace your old switch with a light switch and outlet combo.

Smart Home Switches

Light switches are another way to modernize your home. Talk with your electrician about a sophisticated switch, such as models with built-in timers or smart switches, which you can program and control from anywhere in the world using your smartphone.

This TechHive article breaks down some recommendations about preferred remote light switch dimmer apps, touch panels with more than just light switches to access, and other smart switches for home use. Keep in mind that a sleek, sophisticated look may require some initial wiring be done in the walls or ceiling for some of these smart switches and apps, and it’s best to hire professional smart home installers for optimum results and safety.

Check out our Smart Home section for more information about choices to use “green” electricity—the pros, the cons, and the choices.

There’s no need to make a big change, but when a light switch is telling you it’s on its way out, there is a need to listen! Call in your local Mister Sparky electrician to take care of this small problem before it turns into a big one.