What Is a 3-Way Dimmer Switch: Here Are the Crucial Details

What Is a 3 Way Dimmer Switch

Lighting has evolved a lot over the years, as has how it is controlled. 

But what is a 3-way dimmer switch really? 

A 3-way dimmer is a switch with three wires that control the brightness of lights simultaneously within the same 3-way circuit typically found in hallways, stairwells, and spaces with two entrances.

(Below) in this article, I’ll cover how to choose a dimmer switch and other topics, including style and types, selecting a digital or electromechanical dimmer. The kind of lighting you want to dim, wattage concerns you might have with dimming, 3-way or multi-location control, and saving energy with dimmers. 

If you are not comfortable with these types of installations, seek the services of a qualified electrician. 

Table of Contents

A Helpful Guide to Choosing a Dimmer

Dimmers come in multiple styles and colors, including: 

Rotary dimmer switch: This is what is called an electromechanical dimmer. 

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The difference between an electromechanical dimmer and a digital dimmer is the ability to dim the light from multiple locations. 

For example, if you wished to turn the light on and off and dim it from both hallways and stairwells, you would need a digital dimmer vs. an electromechanical dimmer. 

You’ve probably seen many electromechanical dimmers in some homes, particularly older ones. 

And an easy way you can tell the difference between an electromechanical dimmer and a digital dimmer is how you physically operate the device. 

So if you’re physically moving the dimmer up and down or clockwise with a mechanical means, that’s an electromechanical dimmer. 

Toggle dimmer switch: The toggle touch allows you to turn it on as you usually would with a standard toggle switch. 

And then, touch the side of the dimmer to adjust it to the light level of your choice. 

When you turn it off, the dimmer will stay at the level you left it at, which is called a preset. 

Touch dimmer switch: A touch dimmer allows you to control it by simply touching the dimmer. 

There is no mechanical mechanism, and as long as you touch it, it will raise the light level to what you want it to be. 

And if you want to turn it off, press and hold the dimmer, which will level the light. 

Most of these dimmers are available in multiple colors and virtually anything to suit your home decor. 

Digital dimmer switch: A digital dimmer works with a simple hand touch; the dimmer will go up or down with a stroke and not by mechanically adjusting the dimmer. 

A great feature of digital dimmers is that they allow you to dim your lights for multiple locations. 

Architectural dimmer switch: These dimmers are elegant and allow you to dim from multiple locations. 

You can adjust the light level with a simple touch of your hand. 

So there are plenty of styles to choose from for almost every home. 

Dimmer Lighting Load: What to Look For 

An essential factor when choosing a dimmer is the lighting load. 

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Most of us are familiar with the typical type of incandescent and LED bulb in various wattages and sizes. 

So when you have incandescent or LED lighting, you want to ensure that the dimmer used is designed for that lighting. 

The second thing that is important specifically for the dimmer is the amount of load or wattage that the dimmer will use. 

Electromechanical dimmer watts: These dimmers typically range from 600 to 1000 watts. 

Digital dimmer watts: When you have digital dimmers across, you must be careful because several digital dimmers have low wattage requirements. 

Therefore, you cannot use digital dimmers on loads that are less than, for example, 40 watts. 

You need to make sure that you do not exceed the wattage capacity of the dimmer you purchase and that the actual lighting load is less than the dimmer. 

For example, if you have a house and a group of five lights in the house, and each lamp is 75 watts, that is a total load of 375 watts. In this case, a 600-watt dimmer has more than enough capacity to control the full load of 375 watts. 

As I mentioned earlier, the dimmer you use is very important. 

Although an LED and incandescent lamps are one of the most popular light sources in the home, several others are out there today in modern homes, including: 

Low voltage lighting: They come in two different primary flavors: 

  • Magnetic low voltage lighting. 
  • Electronic low voltage lighting. 

So make sure that the dimmer you are selecting for those types of loads states in the instructions that they are used for magnetic or electronic low voltage lighting. 

Compact fluorescent and LED bulbs: These bulbs have become a prevalent energy-saving mechanism in the home. 

But I should note that you can not dim a standard compact fluorescent or LED bulb with a basic dimmer. 

And suppose you are going to use compact fluorescent or LEDs. In that case, you need to select a dimmable compact fluorescent or LED bulb, and then you can have the correct dimmer that goes with it. 

Again, there are many choices in lighting loads, but please pay attention to the size of the load and the type of the load used. 

Next, I will cover locations, either a single-pole location or what we call a multiple or three-way location. 

Dimming a Single or Three-way Location: Here’s What to Know 

Another important thing in most homes today is the location of the dimmer. 

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Dimming a Single location: You have a couple of options that usually exist in the house. 

And one may be a single location where you have one dimmer controlling one group of lights. 

Dimming a three-way location: There are other locations where you have three-way applications or, in some cases, multiple location applications, for example, the top and bottom of the stairs. 

You might want to be able to turn the light on and off from both locations and dim it from maybe one place and have a switch in the other location. 

As I mentioned, a digital dimmer allows you to dim from both locations. 

For example, suppose you have a dining room in your home. In that case, you may have one or two entrances to that dining room, so you’ll want to use a digital three-way dimmer. 

So when you choose the right dimmer, ensure that that product is suitable for multi-location or three-way dimming. 

And one of the ways you can sometimes check to see that you have a three-way dimmer is the number of wires in there. 

Identifying a Single Pole and Three-Way Dimmer 

In a basic single-pole rotary dimmer, you can see only two basic wires in this dimmer. 

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And on a three-way dimmer, you can see an additional wire that will make a total of three wires, and that’s used for three-way applications because the wiring between one location and the other has what’s called a traveling wire that’s used to control both ends of that circuit. 

So multiple location dimming provides excellent convenience for you and the ability to control the lights from more than one location. 

Next, I will cover energy savings and how dimmers can affect the bottom line. 

Can Dimmers Save Energy: SOLVED

One of the most critical things today when it comes to lighting is the energy used from lighting. 

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Dimmers provide an excellent opportunity to reduce consumption, reduce the use, and replace lamps, giving you a better green environment. For example, take a simple dimmer and use it on a lighting load just by reducing the light by 25%. You will reduce energy by 20% on the lighting you control. 

It will also eliminate the replacement of lamps, which can help, particularly considering the cost of lights. 

So a simple dimmer, either mechanical or digital, can do the trick. 

Some manufacturers make dimmers with an energy-saving mode feature built-in. You can set it so that every time you operate the dimmer, it only goes to about 80% of the light load, automatically saving 20% on your energy costs. 

And in today’s home, where 25% of the energy is consumed in lighting, it’s a brilliant technique to save those hard-earned dollars.