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Our home is about 3 years old. New construction. New parts. The main lights in the kitchen are a 4-way circuit (3 switches, + lights). Since we primarily come into the room from one side, one switch sees most of the use. All in all, it's probably the most popular switch in the house.

As a recent development, sometimes flipping that switch doesn't turn on the lights. Yes, the switch flips, properly and completely. If we wiggle it, the lights will come on, and so far stay on. Sometimes there will be brief bits of arcing sound come from inside the switch, either when we flip it, or when we're wiggling it to get the lights to work.

So I'm thinking I need to replace the switch. If nothing else, the arcing seems very NOT SAFE. And this is where I run into some concerns...

First, I've been around lots of light switches in my life. I've never seen a switch fail. Certainly not in 3 years. So I want to know why this happened, and how to prevent it. Is it a cheap switch (seems unlikely, considering the attitude and work quality of the electricians)? Is it a random fault, and just something I need to shrug off? Is the circuit overloaded slightly (10 bulbs), or is there some other situational thing I should check?

Next, is this likely to happen to other switches? This seems more likely if the concept of "cheap switches" is valid somehow, but should I anticipate spending the next 10 years replacing all our switches in the order of frequency of use? And more particularly, should I replace the other switches for this fixture now?

Finally, is there something I should be looking for (or avoiding) when shopping for a replacement switch? Honestly, I didn't think "light switch" was something that came in significant quality grades. It feels a bit like asking for models of hammers appropriate for hitting things. But, now I worry. I don't like arcing in my walls, and want my switches to last. So, how do I avoid doing this again in 3 years?

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3 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Besides an arcing switch, there are 2 other common 'loose wire' scenarios to consider.

  1. Loose wire wrapped around a side screw terminal. Turn off the breaker and tighten the screw. The wire should wrap under the screw head nearly 360 degrees (clock-wise). The insulation should cover the wire to within 1/8 inch or less.

  2. 'Back stab' connections are notorious for arcing connections. I cut them off (if there is sufficient spare wire and side wire them. The 2 round holes (in the right device) are the Quickwire connections (to be avoided) Much better are 'screw and clamp' devices that allow 2 secure connections per terminal (left device in photo) enter image description here

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While the images are outlets, the same principles apply to switches. –  bib Oct 10 '13 at 11:54
    
Totally agree with 2! NEVER, have I ever, seen an electrician who doesn't want to come back to a simple job use stab-in connectors. –  Mutmatt Oct 10 '13 at 12:53
    
They did use the quick-connect slots, where all the electrical work I've been around prior to my house has always been screw-wired. The main frustration I've had with stab-ins is they're a pain to take apart to change something, I've very limited experience with other problems. Could this just be the wiring connection used? I think I'll write up another question about screw connectors vs stab connectors... –  Scivitri Oct 10 '13 at 17:46
    
There's no doubt the d@mn quickwire are faster, in the installation phase. There's just not enough contact area; if the device gets any stress in putting it back into the box, the connection can loosen. –  HerrBag Oct 11 '13 at 11:44
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Big box stores definitely carry different grades of light switches ("standard duty", "heavy duty", "commercial grade", "medical grade"...), but I can't attest to their relative endurance. For what it's worth, I've seen several light switches fail, so it's not like this is some freakish event. 3 years seems a little quick to me but of course these things are somewhat random and "the plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data'".

I would tape the switch off so that nobody uses it until you can replace it. Once you get it out of the box you may be able to see what the problem is... could be faulty wiring / a loose wire nut. If that's the case, you might want to give your electrician a call to scold them. Otherwise I would just write it off as an earlier-than-expected failure.

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Unless somebody specifies otherwise, most new houses are outfitted with "builder grade" switches and outlets. These outlets are very cheap, and it wouldn't be surprising if one of them failed quickly.

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Can you provide any sources to support this claim? I'm not sure manufacturers are in the business of intentionally creating products that fail quickly, though they may produce products with defects from time to time. –  Tester101 Oct 10 '13 at 9:35
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