Learning how to move a light switch is a handy skill to have, especially if you’re a homeowner. You can save yourself time, money and hassle by moving a light switch yourself, but only if you do it safely.
Here we will discuss how to move a light switch the way the pros do it. There’s no magic going on, but attention to safety is critical. Working around electricity can be dangerous, so professional electricians use techniques that keep them safe, as should you.
Working With Electricity
Professional electricians won’t take chances when working with electricity. These pros use a variety of techniques, procedures, and tools to create a safe work environment. As such, they will always verify when the power is connected and when it isn’t.
As a DIYer, always check and recheck that there is no current flowing before working with any wires. Wear the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) for the job. These can include (but are not limited to):
- Insulated gloves and footwear
- Insulated tool handles
- Eye and skin protection
What Are the Basic Safety Rules When Working With Electricity?
Check For Power
When you hire an electrician to move a light switch, they will need access to your main electrical panel. This panel is often found in a garage, and will usually be located in a corner closest to the power pole or underground junction box.
One of the most common mistakes DIYers make when working with a main electrical panel is to assume the markings on the circuit breakers are correct. Never assume the labels are accurate, because work could have been performed since the panel was installed.
The best way to confirm a light switch circuit is turned off is to turn the light switch on and trip the circuit breakers until the light goes off. Still, an experienced electrician will confirm that the power is off by using special tools designed for the task.
Use the Correct Tools
Pros use a variety of tools, such as receptacle testers (for outlets), voltage sensors, and multi circuit testers. When moving a light switch, most pros use a non-contact voltage tester, which resembles a writing pen.
These testers can sense voltage without actually touching the wire, so they are a great option for do-it-yourselfers. However, these tools use batteries, so always check the strength of the batteries before relying on it.
Multi-circuit testers are about the size of a deck of playing cards, and include a red and black probe. These testers can identify voltage, current, and resistance, but they often require a bit of study to use correctly.
Moving a Light Switch
There are a few ways a light switch can be wired. Most light switches are two-way, meaning they turn the power off to the light fixture from one location only. By electrical code, light switches must be accessible from just inside the doorway without having to enter a dark room. As such, verify that your new switch location will be acceptable per the electrical code.
Since we’re discussing moving an existing light switch, as opposed to removing or changing the switch, we will focus on two-way switches for simplicity. Once you have turned off the breaker and confirmed the wires are no longer live, you can disconnect the existing light switch from the wiring.
Step 1. Remove the Cover and Mounting Screws
You’ll need a flat tipped screwdriver to remove the two painted screws on the cover. Once the screws are removed, remove the light switch cover. If you prefer, you can reuse it for the new switch location.
Step 2. Disconnect the Wires From the Switch
Next, you’ll need a phillips screwdriver to remove the mounting screws holding the light switch to the electrical box. Once the screws are removed, pull the light switch out of the box to gain access to the wires.
Most homes use a sheathed cable that contains individual conductors. The color of the sheathing (white, yellow, gray, orange, and black) usually indicates the gauge of the wires inside. However, these color indications may not apply to older wiring, which may be white regardless of the wire gauge.
You’ll only see three screws on the switch. Two will be brass colored and located on the same side of the switch. On the top, you’ll find a green screw with a bare wire under it.
The two brass screws will be attached to one black wire each, and a bare (or green) wire will be attached to the green screw. If the home used #12 wire, turn each screw counter-clockwise to release the wire. If the home used #14 wire, the wires may be inserted into small holes in the back of the switch.
To release this connection, slip a small, flat head screwdriver into the slot in the back of the switch. These are spring loaded, so inserting the screwdriver allows the spring to open, releasing the wire.
In the back of the box, you’ll see two white wires connected together with a YELLOW wire nut. You’ll also find three bare wires connected with a wire nut. Remove the wire nuts from both the white and bare wires.
One of these bare wires will be connected to the green screw on the switch, while the other two remain inside the wire nut. Remove the short bare wire and discard it.
Step 3. Run a New Cable From the Old Switch Location to the New Location
You’ll need to install a new cable between the old location and the new one. Most pros use an old work electrical box in the new location. These do not require access to a wall stud for mounting, which makes the job much easier. Just cut a hole using the old work box as a template and install the new box.
You can run the wire any number of ways, like under the floor or ceiling, or behind the baseboard. Once your new box is installed and the new wire is run, you’re ready to make the connections.
Step 4. Run a New Cable From the Light Fixture to the New Switch Location
Most pro electricians use the attic space to run the new cable. They also attach the cable to the ceiling joists using wire staples to prevent the wire from accidentally contacting another wire. Pros drill a new hole in the top of the wall plates and use a fish tape to run the new wire down the wall to the new switch location.
If the old wire is long enough to reach the new switch location, you can reuse the cable from the light fixture and simply relocate it to the new location. If not, remove and discard it.
Step 5. Make the New Connections
After you have run the new cable between the boxes and a new cable from the fixture to the new box, you’re ready to finish the connections. In the old box, you’ll now have two white wires, two black wires, and two bare wires.
Using a YELLOW wire nut, connect the two white wires together. Do the same for the black wires and bare wires. Now, you have essentially turned the old switch location into a junction box. Install a solid cover (instead of a light switch cover) onto the old box and move on to the new box.
Step 6. Make the Connections In the New Switch Box Location
In the new box, you’ll have two white wires, two black wires, and two bare wires, just as you did in the old switch box. Connect the two white wires together under a YELLOW wire nut and push them into the back of the box.
Take a short piece of bare wire (4” to 6”) and along with the other two bare wires, place them under a RED wire nut.
Now you should have a short bare wire and two black wires, along with the white wires in the back of the box. Just as before, place one black wire under each of the two brass screws on the side of the switch. It doesn’t matter which black wire goes under which screw.
Lastly, connect the short bare wire to the green screw on the top of the new switch.
Before reinstalling the switch and cover, test the circuit. Turn the circuit breaker back on and test the switch. If you’ve wired it correctly, the new switch will control the light fixture. If the circuit breaker trips there is a fault in the circuit. Either a wire is not making a good connection, or a wire is under the wrong wire nut or screw.
Remember, always disconnect the power any time you are making or checking the connections. Never attempt to diagnose a fault with the power on. Once the connections are correct you can install a new light switch cover on the new location.