How to install a smart switch

The process of installing a smart switch is no different than replacing any other type of electrical switch in your home. You’ll want to take the proper precautions (we’ll help you with that, too), but you don’t need to hire an electrician, and you won’t need any special tools. You can do the job with a screwdriver and a pair of pliers or wirecutters. A non-contact voltage tester is handy if you want to be extra safe, but you can buy one of those for less than $15 on Amazon.

There are many types of smart switches, and while this story isn’t intended to help you decide which smart switch is best for your needs, it will guide you through the process of installing any one of them. That’s because they’re all essentially the same in terms of their wiring.

There are a few important distinctions you’ll want to keep in mind. First and foremost, an on/off switch will do just that: In one position, it will send electricity to the socket your light bulb is screwed into, turning it on. In the other position, it will stop electricity from flowing to that socket, turning the bulb off. A dimmer switch can also vary the amount of electricity flowing to the socket, so that you can brighten or dim the light bulb as well as turn it on or off.

If you want to change the color of your lighting, you’ll need a smart bulb, not a smart switch. Unfortunately, smart dimmer switches and smart bulbs typically don’t work together. That’s because smart bulbs are equipped with radios that depend on a steady supply of electricity to operate, and a dimmer varies the amount of electricity flowing to the bulb.

Do you need a single pole switch or three-way?

Single Pole vs Multi-way Switches.  Turn breaker to switch off. Daniel Masaoka / IDG

Single-pole switches are the easiest to replace, since only one switch controls the circuit. In a three- or four-way circuit, more than one switch can turn the bulb on and off.

Next, you’ll need to determine if you need a single-pole or a three-way switch. If only one switch controls the flow of electricity to that bulb you want to control, you have a single-pole switch. If two switches can control it—for example, switches on opposite sides of the room—you have a three-way switch (if more than two switches control the same light, it’s described as a four-way circuit.)

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If you’re replacing a dumb switch on a three- or four-way circuit, you’ll typically need to replace the other switch or switches on that circuit with companion switches from the same company that made the smart swtich you’re installing. (The latest Wemo WiFi Smart Light Switch 3-Way is an exception to that rule, and it can also be used in a single-pole installation. It cannot, however, dim a light.)

In this how-to, we’ll replace a single-pole switch with a C by GE Start Smart Switch Motion Sensing+Dimmer, but the process isn’t radically different for a multi-way circuit. (And if you don’t need all the features this dimmer offers, GE Lighting offers four simpler and less-expensive alternatives.) The first step—and the most important—is to identify which circuit breaker controls the electricity flowing to that switch and to turn it off.

Smart switch installed Daniel Masaoka / IDG

You’ll find instructions for installing a C by GE C-Start Smart Switch Motion Sensing+Dimmer on a multi-way circuit here, but the upshot is that you’ll need a C by GE smart switch on all the other legs of the circuit.

The next step is to remove the cover plate so you can access the switch itself. Waving a non-contact voltage tester inside the junction box is the best way to confirm that electricity is not flowing to the switch. The battery-powered tool should beep and light up if it detects current. If there’s more than one switch in the box, make sure they also don’t have electricity flowing to them.


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