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I know this borders on a shopping question. But I don't care about the brand. I am wondering about solutions and abilities.

I have (at least) 7 different 3 way switches in my house. The upstairs has an open balcony, the 1st floor is open and the basement a walkout. Just the kitchen/garage-entry has 3 and it is mind numbing and almost impossible if you don't live there. I have multiple three ways on the same plate in at least 4 places. (on a similar UX sidenote I have 4 rooms that don't have a lightkit on fan but presumably a "middle switch" doing nothing right now)

As I replace the switches and receptacles in the house what can I do without getting "goofy" to help people understand how to turn a light off or on.

  1. Lots of 3 ways.
  2. 5-6 switched outlets.
  3. 4-5 switches (dead) that will soon have light kits installed). And on each of these is the fan blade operation (working) and a switched outlet.

I do understand that I could buy "blue" switches for one things and "green" for another... but the house is pretty modern and large and will be fully renovated over the next 3-4 years. So the constraints are solving this, making things safer, and staying within what you would expect to see in a more modern design.

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    The fact that a switch is three-way should not matter from the perspective of a user standing at one location wanting to turn a light on or off. Can you explain (perhaps by adding to the question) why that matters? What seems to matter most is multi-gang switches that don't have an obvious physical alignment with the lights they control and that is a universal problem. Which leads us to ... can you also explain what's wrong with the vanilla solution, ie, "labels" ?
    – jay613
    Jul 22 at 22:15
  • The solution for the switched outlets depends on what they're used for. Is it lights? The solution for the fan IMO is something stronger than labels, ie don't use standard decora paddles. There are options. Also are you willing to spend lots of money on this? Another approach is scene controllers.
    – jay613
    Jul 22 at 22:21
  • Sometimes physical arrangement helps - or hurts. In my house there are 3 switches next to the front door - 1 is a simple switch and 2 are 3-way, but they are arranged logically and easy to remember. On the other hand, my synagogue social hall has 6 switches for a 2x3 array but they are arranged 4 on one row and 2 on another and so make no sense whatsoever. And another room has 3 sections with 3-way (4-way) switches for each set and they are reversed - left switch in each group controls right section and right switch controls left section - totally backwards! Rearranging may help in your house. Jul 22 at 22:46
  • You may want to review our primer on changing switches and receptacles for a variety of gotchas and lookout's. Jul 23 at 2:31
  • @jay613 - there are too many scenarios to list. I have three switches on an east wall - 2 for main kitchen lights (3way), 1 for entrance hallway (3way)... I have a the two kitchen switches on a plate on the south wall... I have three way switches in 2,3,4 gang... I have a 3way switch in the middle of a 3 gang upstairs that turns off the front chandelair downstairs... Some I could put a "label" or a sign... but that might be tacky. Also I would have a hard time labeling some things... what do I call the 2 kitchen lights - east/west... i'm the only person that knows the compass location.
    – DMoore
    Jul 23 at 17:47
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I feel your pain. In my house I have many panels with multiple switches. In one location I have three 2-ways, two 3-ways, two hot outlets, one switched outlet, and a pilot light. I often stand there and flip sundry switches until I get the result I need. And I'm the person who wired it.


There is no widely recognized vocabulary of symbols or colors to indicate the information your users need. Even if you try to label all the switches with descriptive phrases, how are you going to unambiguously refer to the various loads and locations?

"Kitchen Lights" -- OK, but there are three separately controllable sets of lights in the kitchen.

"Kitchen Can Lights" -- Did your cat write that? I know they can light, but how?

"Kitchen Lights West" -- Great, now I need a compass. Which I couldn't read anyway because it's f'k'n dark in here.

"Hall Outlet" -- Look down that hall. Seriously. Just count the outlets.

"Upper Half of Second Hall Outlet on the Right" -- Now we're looking at "goofy" in the rear view mirror.

I didn't label my switches with words because no one in my house can agree on what anything is called. And my family already has enough "goofy" to deal with in this 130 year old ark.


I have allowed a little bit of nerdy goofiness into my design: I added color to some of the switches.

My cover plates match or coordinate with the room colors. All the switch levers match their cover plates. All the constant-hot outlets match their cover plates. No semiotic coloring there.

Where I added color is in rings around the switched outlets and some of the switches. In the shop and craft room, where slightly more garishness is allowed, the color is applied to the entire outlet or switch (except the lever).

I applied the same color to all the switches in each multiway group, with each group having a distinct color. Similarly, each switched outlet half shares a color with its switch.

There's only a few colors I like, so I re-used colors where there's no possibility of confusion, such as on separate floors. Going through the Pantone chart to insure absolutely unique colors throughout the house ends up looking kind of "goofy".

This color coding sometimes helps me remember which switch is which. I think it helps others in the house too, but they'll never admit it. They all like to pretend that it's "silly" and "overkill" and "lame".

And no amount of colors and symbols can make my biggest panels easy to use. I still have to flip switches until I get the result I need.


I think you'll find that the real problem is not coming up with a working label scheme. The real problem is that whatever you develop, you will have to explain it to an impatient and unappreciative audience.

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  • The real solution, then, seems to be ganging fewer switches together. Also, since you've got switched ceiling lighting, getting rid of the switched outlets.
    – FreeMan
    Jul 23 at 15:49
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I find considerable usefulness in neatly printed labels for light switches that are otherwise non-obvious in function. The most puzzling one I actually sorted out (as opposed to various switches to nowhere I've encountered) was a humidistat in a kitchen with no humidifier that turned out to be the control for the stove hood exhaust fan. I labeled that with utter glee.

Of course, I can read. And if I turn on "kitchen lights west" and it's the wrong set of lights, I can turn on "kitchen lights east" and soon I'll know which side of the kitchen is which without a compass being needed...

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    You should have labeled it "stove ventilator". If I saw a switch labeled "utter glee" I would be afraid to touch it. Jul 23 at 12:40
  • The label reads "Stove Fan", brevity being the soul of not wasting overpriced labelmaker supplies, and the odds of it producing an enthusiastic spectator of the stove rather than turning on the extractor being deemed adequately low. The creation and application was done with utter glee.
    – Ecnerwal
    Jul 23 at 13:29
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    @A.I.Breveleri The glorious ambiguity of English grammar. Jul 23 at 14:16
  • FWIW, my wife won't let me label our switches except in the basement and garage which she inexplicably regards as outside her decorative authority. I haven't found a solution. :-O
    – jay613
    Jul 23 at 17:48
  • ha just commented on that. I think I am the only person in my house that would know the compass locations of where things were facing... We have a entry light and a sub-entry light. I will be replacing 50-60 switches soon... I honestly think it is funny and wife thinks I am going to solve this.
    – DMoore
    Jul 23 at 17:49

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