I have a setup in my basement where there is a 4-way switch setup, but none of it is run using 3-wire. I've seen the term "California 3-way", so that might apply.

There are 3 switches involved:

  1. At the head of the stairs there is a 3-way switch. That switch has a two-wire running to its traveler terminals, and the common terminal is feeding the stairs light.

  2. In the basement (basically at the bottom of the stairs) there is a 2nd switch, and it is a 4-way. That switch has two 2-wires running to and from it. One goes to switch #3, and the other runs back up to the switch #1.

  3. At the opposite end of the basement is the 3rd switch, and it is another 3-way. This switch provides the power and has one of the 2-wires that run to switch #2.

Each of these switches controls a light on the stairs, and the basement lights (there are two).

There is an additional switch about halfway across the basement that controls the far end light alone. I would like to put the dimmer here.

I would like to replace the current basement lights with can lights, and in process introduce a dimmer. I would love to divide the basement in half and do two dimmers, but since there's just one power loop, I assume this is either not possible or at least would require a ton of re-working the feed.

So I'm starting with step #1...can I introduce the dimmer anywhere on the loop and expect it to work right? Or does it have to occupy a certain place in the power loop?

  • 2
    It would be most helpful if you would carefully pull the switches from their boxes and take good, clear, sharp pics of the wiring behind each (including the wires as they go into the box), and label each as 1, 2, 3 as you've described here. That will go a long way toward getting you a better answer.
    – FreeMan
    Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 22:38
  • Yes, can you get us good photos of the insides of the boxes involved please? Also, is replacing any of the existing wiring an option? Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 23:04
  • @ThreePhaseEel I will try to take some in the morning. I have put it all back together for the night. Some of the wiring, yes. But there are at least three wires inside finished space, some of it above another part of the basement, and some running up the inside stairwell wall. I think most of that connects to the box upstairs, which is a mess. It has 6 wires coming into it, power and five connections. There is another 3way setup for that other basement area, and it shares the common connection to the stairwell light. Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 23:17

1 Answer 1


This is a plain old "bootleg 3-way".

What happened is the installer got cheap and used /2 when they should have used /3. For neutral, they are simply bootlegging neutral off of ground.

This is completely illegal and it cannot continue in this configuration.

Unless you're willing to rewire all these cable runs, you're going to have to get pretty innovative to rescue this one.

Generally it looks like you'll need to re-task both former travelers to be actual always-hot and neutral, except at the very last location before the light. That will be a smart switch "master". The others will be smart-switch "remotes" and you will need to choose products appropriately.

What's more alarming is you may have a houseful of this kind of stuff, and a fair amount of work ahead of you. This stuff is dangerous and should be corrected ASAP.

  • By dangerous you mean the lack of dedicated neutral? Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 10:18
  • I haven't had much luck finding information on a "bootleg 3-way", all I get are "bootleg ground" hits. That is definitely not it. All grounds are mated together in every box, and never to anything else. Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 12:15

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