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Switches: Let there be light

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  • Edison Electric  #46 Street 214, off Monivong
  • PP General Electric  #288 Monivong, off Street 214
  • M&K Lighting Store  #93C Street 63, off Street 178

I went to turn on my bathroom light the other day and was bummed to feel the plastic switch disintegrate beneath my finger.

It's something that I knew was going to happen. It's been fragile and cracked for a while now, but like so many of those things in life, I never bothered to do anything about it until it was completely broken.

I decided that while I was at it I'd go ahead and add an outlet and a dimmer switch for those days when looking at myself under full light can lead to low-self esteem and broken mirrors. Now, changing a light switch is not rocket science, but it does require organisational skills and a bit of analytical reasoning.

Electricity is a scary thing that has been known to kill people, so please start your project while there is plenty of daylight and remember to turn off the electricity at the electrical box. If you are unsure which breaker to switch, turn on all of your lights and see which ones go out. Use this as an opportunity to label your breaker box.

For this project you will need a voltage tester, wire strippers, jumper wire (5-8cm) and a new switch unit. Take measurements of your existing unit with you. Any hardware store will carry these items, but if you're looking for a nicer switch/outlet unit, I recommend browsing these places: Edison Electric on Street 214 off Monivong Boulevard, PP General Electric on Monivong off Street 214 or M&K Lighting Store on Street 63 off Street 178.

Before you start unscrewing anything, remove about a centimetre of plastic casing from each end of the jumper wire using the wire stripper.

Then try turning on the lights. They should not turn on. Once you are sure the electricity is turned off, remove the beauty plugs hiding the screws that hold the switch unit in place. Unscrew these and gently pull the unit away from the box. It is likely, especially if you live in an older house, that there will be a number of mystery wires inside the box. Do not pay any attention to them. If it looks complicated, draw a schematic of the wires that are attached to the existing switch unit - that's what I did. I also sometimes use tape or coloured markers.

Carefully unscrew the screws connecting the wires to the switch unit. There will be four wires, two running to the light and two running to the power source. Use the voltage tester to locate which of the two wires running to the power source is live. If the wires are two colours, write down which colour is live, and if not, put a piece of tape around one. It is vital that you do not mix these two wires up.

Inspect the back of the new switch/outlet unit. There will be two holes behind the outlet part of the unit, one marked "L" for load (live) and one marked "N" for neutral. Behind the switch part of the unit will also be two holes. They are closer together and unmarked, as it does not matter which wire goes where for the light switch.

Take the live wire and one end of the jumper wire and secure them in the hole marked "L" by screwing them in place. Take the other end of the jumper wire and screw it into one of the holes behind the light switch. There should be three wires remaining, two from the light and one from the power source. Screw one of the wires from the light into the other hole behind the switch and finally take the remaining two wires and screw them into the last hole, which should be behind the outlet marked "N". Double check your work to see that all of the wires are where they belong and that they are firmly attached.

Screw the new unit onto the box, turn the power back on, say the magic words "let there be light!" and, hopefully, with the flick of the switch there will be. 

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