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Help! I'm replacing some light switches for my kitchen light and I can't seem to get the circuit to work properly with the new switches. I assumed I just needed to buy two 3-way switches, but I can only seem to get it to turn on/off using one switch at a time. The wiring has hot wires coming into both switches - do I need to use a 4-way switch somehow? Unfortunately, I didn't take pictures of how the original switches were wired. Hopefully the images below are helpful - I verified each wire by testing them individually and connecting the hot to the other two wires at each switch.

Update: I think the switch by the outdoor light was a 4-way switch. Still can't get it to work with using the old switch.

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    Are you sure there isn't another switch somewhere? Because normally you will have the travelers (and two of them, not one) the same color in both 3-way switches. But you show orange & yellow on one switch and red & black on the other. Which means either there is another switch involved or there is another junction somewhere. – manassehkatz-Moving 2 Codidact Dec 26 '20 at 23:11
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    One of these houses is wired in EMT conduit, the other one in Romex with plastic boxes. I can't believe they're the same house let alone the same circuit. Generally people use EMT in houses because they have to due to local codes... which means they have to in the addition also. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Dec 27 '20 at 1:28
  • Thank you both for the insight. The house was built in 1955 and I'm pretty sure the boxes in the second picture were added in an update. Not sure why they didn't do it right by swapping the two boxes for one bigger. The hole is also too big, so I'll have to fix that eventually. – Tyler J Dec 27 '20 at 1:59
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This is two three-way switches from the looks of things, but wired in a nonstandard fashion

From the wires you have, this does appear to be a fairly basic three-way switch circuit with both switches on loops from the light fixture, but with the way the second switch is wired, and the way you were able to get it working, it's not a standard three-way switch. Instead, it's what's called a "California" or "Coast" 3-way setup that brings always-hot to a traveler terminal on both switches and switched-hot to the other traveler terminal on the switches, then connects their commons together. This yields a working 3-way switch arrangement, as depicted below (illustration courtesy of Wtshymanski/Wikipedia), and has the advantage of providing always-hot and switched-hot at both switch locations, but has the downside that you can't add another switch to it.

California or Coast 3-way illustration

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  • Thanks for the comment. Shouldn't a normal 3-way switch circuit have two travelers between the switches? When I have all the wires disconnected, the black wire on switch 1 is hot and the white wire on switch 2 is hot. In other words, power is coming into both boxes. – Tyler J Dec 26 '20 at 23:48
  • @TylerJ -- what are you using to determine which wires are hot? – ThreePhaseEel Dec 27 '20 at 0:03
  • Just a voltage tester pen. I got it working and I'll post that below. – Tyler J Dec 27 '20 at 2:02
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Thanks for the help to those who commented. Here's what ended up working.

Switch 1: Orange (connected to red at other switch) to common, yellow to traveler on same side as common, black (measured hot) to traveler on other side.
Switch 2: Red (connected to orange at other switch) to common, white (measured hot) to traveler on same side as common, black to traveler on other side.

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  • I'm glad you got this working. But this seems really, really strange due to the color changes. That means either some very unusual extensions to switch from conduit to /3 cable, or another switch in between. – manassehkatz-Moving 2 Codidact Dec 27 '20 at 2:29
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    Agreed. I'm planning to replace the light soon, so I might learn more of the story when I open that up. – Tyler J Dec 27 '20 at 2:39
  • The way a set of 3-way light switches work, the wiring is essentially panel->switch 1->switch 2->lights or panel->lights->switch 1->switch 2. Which is why I think there may be a switch 3 (or rather, that switch 2 here is switch 3 and another switch ("4 way") is switch 2, because that would have orange from one and red to the other, etc. – manassehkatz-Moving 2 Codidact Dec 27 '20 at 2:41
  • @manassehkatz-Moving2Codidact -- I think they have a situation that where switch 1 and switch 2 form two branches of a "T" configuration, with the light at the center and the stem of the T being the incoming power feed – ThreePhaseEel Dec 27 '20 at 3:27
  • @ThreePhaseEel That could be, with the light as a junction box. Not a typical 3-way, as I understand it. – manassehkatz-Moving 2 Codidact Dec 27 '20 at 3:27

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