How To Wire A 3 Way Switch With Multiple Lights
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Wiring 3-way switches is not complicated, but making sure you are connecting the right wires, could be a little tricky. This is where diagrams come in handy and I will include them below along with step-by-step wiring instructions in the video format.
First things first and you need to make sure you’ve got the actual “3-way switch” in your hands!
The main difference between 2-way and 3-way switches is that the three-way switch will have no “ON” and “OFF” markings.
The reason for this is that you don’t really know where will be “ON” and where will be “OFF” since it allows you to turn lights “ON” in one place and turn them “OFF” in another. Very convenient if you have a big house.
Here is an example of a 2-way switch, which is not what you are looking for (notice the “ON” written on it):
For this project, you will need a 3-way switch with no labels and it should have a “common terminal”:
Three-way switches are not expensive and could be UL-listed as this one (paid link). This switch is sold on Amazon.
Materials for installing 3-way switches include:
- Cables (14-3 or 12-3). If your circuit breaker is 20 amps, you will need a 12-gauge wire (12-3) and if you have a 15 amp circuit (like most homes), you will need a 14 gauge wire (14-3).
- The actual 3-way switches (2pc)
- Plastic wire nuts
- Electrical tape
Some important tools that you will need:
- Non-Contact Voltage Tester
- Pliers (needle nose)
- Wire stripper
** Warning! Do not start doing anything until you make sure that no power is going through the wires! Turn the power OFF by flipping the appropriate circuit breaker and double-check it with a non-contact voltage tester.
** Second warning! Working with electricity is dangerous and can be fatal if not done properly. If you don’t feel like you are competent at what you are doing, you must consult a professional.
Identifying the screws of a 3-way switch
There are 4 terminals (screws) on each switch (see photo above), but some older versions of switches may come without the ground terminal.
- Ground terminal (green screw) – 1pc. This part of the switch is not insulated and is connected directly to the metal framework. Usually painted green. This terminal is meant for the ground wire, which is usually green or uninsulated plain copper.
- Common terminal (dark or black screw) – 1pc. This terminal is designed for connecting a hot (black) wire which is coming from your circuit breaker panel.
- Traveler terminals (brass screws) – 2pc. These terminals are interchangeable, and designed for traveler wires (red and black wire from a common cable between two switches).
Here is a good non-contact voltage tester (paid link) for you from Fluke on Amazon.
Identifying the wires of a 3-way switch
- Green wire or bare copper wire (ground wire). Very often this is a bare copper wire that attaches to the green screw (or terminal) of the switch.
- White wire (neutral or common wire). The purpose of this wire is to send electricity directly to the light bulb. The white wire that comes from the switch cable needs to be connected directly to the white wire of the common cable (and then goes all the way to the appropriate terminal of the bulb).
- Black wire (hot wire). There are three types of black wires coming from the 3-way switches (when wiring multiple lights). The first wire is connected to the main energy source and its destination is the common terminal (or the black screw) of one of the 3-way switches. The second wire is connected to the common terminal (or black screw) of the second 3-way switch and its destination is the corresponding terminal of the bulb (black). The third wire is connected between one of the traveler terminals of the two 3-way switches.
- Red wire (Traveler or switch wire). This wire is connected to the main energy source and its destination is the black terminal (or a screw) of the 3-way switch.
3-way switch wiring diagrams for multiple lights
Now, the actual wiring. In order to wire the 3-way switch properly, you will need to use one of the diagrams (that I will post below), and which one you use depends entirely on your need.
Here are some wiring cases:
- The electricity source is connected to the 3-way switch first. Power at the 3-way switch.
- The electricity source is connected to the light fixture first. Power at the light.
- Electricity source and light are connected to the same 3-way switch.
- Electricity source and light are in between switches.
Case #1. Power at the 3-way switch (multiple lights).
If power takes the usual route (light switch first), you can use the following diagrams for reference:
In this example, the power is coming into the switch to the left through a two-wire cable and is going through the three-wire cable to another switch. Two-wire cables are also used to connect the lights together.
This is how the cables are connected:
- The hot source (of the first 2-wire cable) is connected to the common terminal of the first switch (to the left, in the diagram).
- Neutral (or white wire) coming from the same 2-wire cable is connected to the first light. Between lights, another 2-wire cable is used and connected to appropriate terminals. The hot (or black) wire coming from the last light, is connected to the common terminal of the second light switch.
- The ground wire gets connected to the ground screws of both switches and light fixtures.
- Red and black wires (from three-wire cable) are connected between switches to appropriate traveler terminals.
Case #2. 3-way switch wiring diagram (multiple lights) power at light.
If the power goes directly into your lighting fixture, then these wiring diagrams should help you out:
Case #3. The electricity source and light are connected to the same 3-way switch (multiple lights).
Here is another good demonstration of 3-way switch wiring if the electricity source and light is connected to the same 3-way switch:
Case #4. How to wire a 3-way switch with multiple lights between switches.
If you need to put the light between two switches, then you may find the following diagrams very useful:
Here are some PDF files for you (schematics & wiring). If you would like to download ALL schematics on this page, here is the PDF file (3-way switch wiring diagram with multiple lights PDF).
Smart 3-way switch anyone?
In case you are just like me, too lazy to get up, and prefer switching lights OFF with an app, here is a nice ETL-certified 3-way smart switch (paid link) available on Amazon to serve your highness 😉.
Smart light bulbs anybody?
Makes you wonder, how “smart” they actually are… Who knows, maybe they will start “talking” one day 🤨.
Good morning (light bulb), what’s for breakfast? Please turn yourself ON, since I am too sleepy to find my phone and press few buttons…
You, lazy bum!
Not convinced, check them out (paid link)!