So I am trying to replace an old light switch that has 3 actual switches on it. The top and bottom switch control normal 2-way switches that control one fixture. The middle one is a 3-way switch controlling a fixture. The problem is, the top and bottom switches say they are 3-way on the light switch and the whole thing is wired really strangely.

What I'd like to do is eliminate the 3-way and put in a double toggle normal switch. Any idea how to decipher the current wiring, shown below, and accomplish what I'm looking for? Let me know if you need to see anything else.

Thanks in advance!

Right side of switch

Left side of switch

  • 2
    You cannot analyze a home electrical circuit by examining the contents of only one junction box. You have to find out where all those wires go and what they are connected to. Apr 6, 2018 at 2:55
  • 1
    To Daniel's question, they all control one fixture. the middle functions in a 3-way switch and the other two function as normal 2-ways (despite saying 3-way on the right side of the switch as you can see in the picture). And I'm in Ohio.
    – Connor G.
    Apr 6, 2018 at 3:08
  • 1
    That appears to be a “Despard triple switch” (google that). It was common during a time period in the past. There is nothing special about how the switches work, they are just like other single pole and 3-way switches. What is unusual about despard is the ability to mount up to 3 devices in a single gang. It’s still pretty easy to buy replacement switches and plates.
    – Tyson
    Apr 6, 2018 at 3:11
  • 1
    While you might not be trying to figure out where and how the wiring is hooked up.. do you think that might be important to know in order to change the switch out to all normal switches - you say it goes to the same fixture but controls more than one light ? Picture of fixture and wiring, what other device does it control in that single fixture? Is it light, Fan, (Fwd / Reverse)? Top and Middle are connected like a 3way, bottom is like a 2 way. More details are needed, what does top switch control, middle switch, bottom switch, any other switches around that control those same things etc..?
    – Ken
    Apr 6, 2018 at 7:17
  • 1
    Complicating matters is that your wiring colors are fairly unusual, and that makes it very likely this work is in conduit. That means you won't see the usual black-white-red triplets most people talk about. It looks like the guy who wired this was fond of double-red for travelers. That helps if you know what you're looking at... otherwise it is very confusing. Apr 6, 2018 at 13:09

1 Answer 1


Further information is obviously needed here. Maybe this can help you at least find out what the crap is going on how it is currently wired. Don't unhook anything yet because it needs to still be working for this. Here's how I would approach this "discovery phase" of your project.

First the stuff needed:

  1. A tester or meter capable of showing whether a wire is energized or not. The simplest blinky light on a stick that tells you which christmas bulb has killed your whole string might do the trick, as long as you can be sure the other wires don't interfere with its operation. If you can probe the metal conductor of each wire without disconnecting anything, then a cheap multimeter would be your best bet.

  2. Something to label each wire with. Think small flags of masking tape and a pen to write on them - a pen that won't smear. (Important. Trust.)

  3. Paper or pad to take notes and keep track. Use pen from above. Or hey, use pencil, get a marker. You do you, friend.


    0.  Step zero, Test your test. If you're using a multimeter to probe voltage, make sure your probes are in the correct positions, and your meter is in the correct mode and range (AC, Volts, 200, for example).

    Then test known a known live against a known ground, like a 3-conductor outlet's ground conductor. (For polarized outlet, you can use the larger of the two slots, which is neutral, as ground.) For sanity's sake, trust me. Make sure you can get a correct reading of live to the ground reference you'll be using.

    If you're using a bulb tester or other non-contact voltage detection, make sure you can independently detect wires when some switches are on.

    Only then proceed below, otherwise you might risk zapping the ever living crap experiencing some serious frustration. This way you can be confident your testing is sane, you can trust your ground reference is not live, and you can trust your results.

    Actual (non-zero) steps to test the switches :
  1. Identify Live. With all switches turned fully off, test which wires are energized.

  2. Label as "HOT" all wires which are energized. Hopefully these are your red ones, but you can't know until you test. Sometimes the last guy in there didn't even know either, don't assume anything. Especially if your brother fixed it last time. If they are not simply "both of the black ones" consider finding a highlighter or something else super obvious for those labels.

  3. Turn the first switch to the first position.

  4. Identify with the tester/meter every wire that becomes live. Test every wire, even if you've gotten it already in a different switch position.

  5. Label each energized wire if you haven't already. ("A, B, C..." is what I use but it's up to you. "Donkey, tomato, granite... " is equally valid.)

  6. On the notepad, record for each energized wire: 1) The switch(es) and its position(s) when it is live, and 2) the thing that it turns on (porch light, outlet, etc)

  7. Advance the switch to the next position. If you're done with the switch, turn it off, turn the next switch to the first non-off position,

  8. Go back to step 4 if you haven't run out of switch positions. If you're done, you're done.

  9. You'll now have a methodically produced set of labeled wires, and a reference sheet for what they power. Armed with this knowledge you will be able to hook up each one to the live through your new switches.

Except ...

IF: you find that more than one switch energizes a single wire AND/OR the link between two switches is controlled by any of the switch positions (instead of always being live or always being neutral) THEN: well tough cookies! hahaha I'm sorry but those cases are beyond this answer.

Although this answer only applies to a one-to-one mapping of switch positions to wires energized, in other cases you will still already have crucial information to dig further into it.

I hope this helps! It's my basic method for approaching all kinds of unknown wiring arrangements.


  • Wow, thank you for the detailed response! I have a multimeter, and it looks like most, if not all, of the wires have exposed conductor, so I will try to do this tomorrow. One question though; what exactly do you mean when you say switch positions? Perhaps I should have included a front on picture; it's 3 toggle switches, so just on/off.
    – Connor G.
    Apr 6, 2018 at 4:15
  • I thought you had some 3-way switches on there that did odd stuff? The side of them all say 3-way so i'm picturing "Light, Fan, Light + Fan" or something. But if it's just "on" that's so much better to figure out. Also -- I read back through and edited this quite a bit more, maybe take another trip through. Half of it came from an email I wrote last week so why not share here too!
    – Nate
    Apr 6, 2018 at 4:51
  • By 3-way I mean there should be 2 switches in different locations that operate the same fixture. Normally there would be a hot wire (the common) and 2 "travelers" that run to the other switch (I am really inexperienced, but those are the terms I have figured out researching how to replace a different 3 way). The weird stuff that I reference is the fact that 2 of the 3 aren't actually 3-way in that sense; there is only 1 switch for each fixture. So I'm wondering how they wired 3-way switches in that way.
    – Connor G.
    Apr 6, 2018 at 4:59
  • Thanks Nate for writing all of that out - perhaps the op will provide more details so we know how to inform the op on wiring it up.
    – Ken
    Apr 6, 2018 at 7:19
  • Connor -- OH that sort of 3-way. Yeah ok. I can't picture the setup. I hope you've figured it out by now 5 months later! The steps in my method are general enough to work for replacing just about any switches I think. I hope it was useful info for you. :o)
    – Nate
    Sep 8, 2018 at 0:28

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