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Switch ASwitch ASwitch BSwitch BI went to replace two three-way switches in a bathroom. I turned off the breaker and pulled the two three-way switches out. One switch had red, yellow, and orange wires connected to it (with another switch in the same box), and the other box had only three wires in it, black, yellow, and orange. I figured that the yellow and orange were travelers, that the red was hot, and that the black on the other switch went to the light.

I turned the breaker back on and tested to confirm that the red was hot. It was odd that it was not connected to the common. I disconnected all the wires, and connected the new three-ways with the red to common, yellow and orange travelers, and black to the common on the other switch. I turned the breaker back on, flipped the red-yellow-orange switch up and down, and the light turned on and off. Leaving the light off, I went to the black-yellow-orange switch and flipped it up, down, and up. The light went on, off, and on. I thought I was done.

Then I noticed that the red-orange-yellow switch did not turn the light off. Weird, I thought. What could I have done wrong? I turned the breaker off and disconnected the switches from the wires, leaving them free in space. Testing revealed that the black wire was also hot. Each box has a hot wire in it with no switches connected. With the black-orange-yellow wires totally disconnected, and I find that connecting the red and yellow wires make the light turn on.

Is there any way that this could ever have worked right?

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    Can you post photos of the insides of all boxes involved please? Jun 6 at 18:30
  • Be aware that there is an alternate way to connect two 3-way switches from the traditional one. ThIs alternate way is called 3-wire because the commons of the two switches are also connected to each other (as well as the corresponding travelers). The line hot is connected to one pair of travelers and the switched hot to the load is connected to the other pair of travelers. Maybe your bathroom was wired that way? In the traditional US system the line hot is connected to the common of one switch and the switched hot to the common on the other switch. Jun 6 at 20:36
  • @JimStewart thank you! I Googled this and found electrical101.com/optional-3way-switches.html, which seems to match your description. I will try this out. Thank you! Jun 7 at 3:46
  • Can you post photos looking into the backs of the switch boxes please? Also, can you post photos of the inside of the light fixture's box? Jun 7 at 3:50
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    @ThreePhaseEel, yes, the ceiling is drywall. I made the connections as in the link in my previous comment, and the switches work as normal 3-way switches. I connected the line in each box to a traveler on the switch, yellow must go to the light from each switch, which I also connected to a traveler, and the orange goes directly switch to switch, and I connected it to each switch's common. Jun 15 at 3:07
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Starting from my pictures, I disconnected all wires from the switches. Testing revealed that the black in one box and the red in the other box were both hot. Connecting either red to yellow in one box, or black to yellow in the other box turned the light on. I connected the hot wires to one of the travelers on each switch, the yellow (load) to the other traveler on each switch, and the orange to the common on each switch. Then the switches worked as expected.enter image description here

See also https://www.electrical101.com/optional-3way-switches.html

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  • Are you superstitious at all? Do you have any fear of fetishes and voodoos? Because the next person who has to work on this circuit is going to call on every known demon from Beelzebub to Cthulhu to hunt you down and tear your soul to shreds with red-hot pincers forever without end. Jun 17 at 18:22
  • @A.I.Breveleri -- this isn't that bad, really, its merely a Cali/Coast 3-way setup with some funny colored wires involved Jun 17 at 23:23
  • It is an unnecessary California circuit. A simple common three-way would be much easier for everyone -- including Kevin -- to understand. It would even require one less wire in the left-hand conduit. Jun 17 at 23:29
  • @A.I.Breveleri, if I had been able to access the light's junction box, I would have rewired this. Given the existing wires in the two switch boxes, I think this is the best solution. Jun 19 at 1:37
  • In that case I believe you are safe from supernatural torment. The demons will go after the guys who worked on it before you got it. Jun 19 at 2:52

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