At the bottom of my (unfinished) basement stairs, there are three switches in a three-gang box: one is a 3-way switch controlling the stairway lights, the other two are for different lighting zones in the basement.

Is there a general rule (or code requirement) for the switch order? Should I:

  1. Locate the stairway light switch closest to the stairway, since this puts the switch and lights closest together, or

  2. Put it away from the stairway, so that somebody approaching the stairs from the basement will encounter this switch before the others?

  • 1
    Probably number 2, but in the pitch dark, most people will flip all three and then worry about it.
    – crip659
    Commented Feb 4 at 23:29
  • 11
    My personal preference would be the switch closest to the light it controls. But the fact is, residents will learn whatever the arrangement is, and non-residents will experiment.
    – keshlam
    Commented Feb 4 at 23:56
  • 3. move the other two switches in some way that makes their relationship to the zones controlled more obvious, if posible, and just leave one switch at the bottom of the stairs. Bu that's only personal preference, not anything like code.
    – Ecnerwal
    Commented Feb 5 at 0:49
  • There are lighted switches which can be ehlpful to locate the right switch in the dark. Not sure that fits your case, though.
    – Toffomat
    Commented Feb 5 at 8:39
  • 1
    @Criggie Both! Three switches in one plate at the bottom of the stairs, one of which (for the stairway lamps) is a 3-way switch tied to another 3-way switch at the top of the stairs. My question is regarding the position of the 3-way at the bottom of the stairs.
    – bitsmack
    Commented Feb 5 at 12:03

5 Answers 5


No rules. I wish there were.

The closest thing I have in my house is 3 switches by the front door. First (closest to the door) switches the outside light. Middle is a 3-way switch with upstairs. Last - closest to the stairs going down - is a 3-way switch with downstairs. All makes sense.

On the other hand:

In my synagogue there is a set of 3 rooms in one - i.e., there are movable partitions (though 100% of the time the left partition is open and 95% of the time the right partition is closed). There are three sets of lights. Each room has three switches next to the door. The middle switch in each set controls the middle room. But the left switch in each set controls the right room and the right switch controls the left room! I'm not sure whether it was bad specifications from the architect or an electrician who wasn't thinking.

TL;DR Anything goes.

  • Thanks for the examples! I kinda figured that was the case. I ended up putting the switch closest to the stairs.
    – bitsmack
    Commented Feb 5 at 21:09

My preference would be to use the location closest to the stairs for the 3-way switch for the stairs.

Whichever choice you make, affix a color coding label to the 3-gang plate under the switch for the stairs and a label of the same color to the plate under the paired switch at the top of the stairs. Put the color label on the top switch plate even if it is a single gang box and the switch could not be anything other than for the stairs' light. A circular 3/4" label is a good choice.

You could even label at least one of the other two switches with different colors. If necessary, stick labels on the fixtures to indicate which switch goes to which fixture. For an additional visual cue you could trim the label to a semi-circle or square.

You could also use colors which might be asociated with the location or function of the other two switches or write symbols on them.

  • Yeah, I ended up putting the switch closest to the stairs. Labelling is a great idea, made more complex by having to run NM into a junction box, then THHN through conduit to the switches :)
    – bitsmack
    Commented Feb 5 at 21:12

Not determined by code...

My personnel recommendation if you really don't know where to put it... put the unconnected switches in the box, go to walk up the stairs and reach for the switch that makes the most sense to you to turn the stair light on.

that is the switch that should control the stair lightning... Most likely it is the switch right next to the stairs.

  • 1
    Thanks, Questor! I did just this, and ended up putting it close to the stairs :)
    – bitsmack
    Commented Feb 5 at 21:13

My electrician said that the usual guideline is that the left switch = more important so he will default to that; but also that he will put switches the way I ask him to if I have special wishes. So, you probably can do whatever you want.

In my case, all stairway lights are sensor lights, so I didn't have that particular problem - and that solution could make sense for you as well. It isn't like you need to have stairs lit when nobody is near them. Also note that you will get used to either of your arrangements, and hopefully your guests don't get sent to the basement so they won't encounter either one.

The set with 3 switches I have is where the leftmost switch controls the light above the switches; the middle is the main living room light and the right switch is for the other living room light. In your case this would mean the closest alternative is your option 1, which also makes the most sense to me from your description.


Noone says you're stuck with a single plate. Put the stairwell switch on its own plate and put the ceiling lights on a 2 gang plate.

If you want to make it fancy, use a motion sensor on the stairwell's ceiling or wall, so that it covers the approach area and all the stairs. This lets both wall switches stay on permanently to power the sensor. Set so sensor turns on light as you approach the stairs and stays on until there's no motion in the stairwell for a configurable time (2 minutes?)

I'd avoid those IR "occupancy sensors" which replace a single switch plate, on one stairwell light switch, that will be super-confusing to wire up unless you use one at each end AND they are designed to be used in a three-wire/two switch setup.

  • 1
    I was with you 100% till I got to that last sentence. Not sure how a PIR occupancy sensor differs from the motion sensor in the paragraph above. I've got active mmWave occupancy sensors that would know you're there even if you laid down on the stairs for a nap (and thus, wouldn't turn the lights off - annoying). Is that what you're talking about? If not, every standard "motion sensor" switch I'm aware of Is PIR...
    – FreeMan
    Commented Feb 5 at 11:55
  • @FreeMan Might be talking about subtly-different things - I'm referring to a replacement wall switch which has a PIR motion detector, sometimes found in disabled bathrooms. They work fine there, but if there's a traveller wire between the two switches at the top/bottom of the stairs then its going to be messy. I have a ceiling motion sensor in the ceiling, and we leave the wall switch switched on all the time. Can't just have one sensor because it would have difficulty seeing people at the other end of the stairs, and you want the light to switch ON before you start to descend/climb.
    – Criggie
    Commented Feb 5 at 21:57
  • Not one of these: d3e54emdgoy1fq.cloudfront.net/uploads/product/image/420302/…
    – Criggie
    Commented Feb 5 at 21:58
  • 1
    Maybe it's a northern/southern hemisphere difference. Every wall-switch I've seen is a PIR motion detector. I put one in my shed (so I don't have to worry about the wife forgetting to turn the lights off after she's been out there rummaging through her shoes) - it's on the same wall as the door and turns the lights on pretty much the instant you step into the shed, then off 5 minutes after it's no longer occupied. If one had 2 of these in a 3-way configuration (of course, they'd have to be internally wired for that), one at the top & one at the bottom, I can't imagine that not working.
    – FreeMan
    Commented Feb 6 at 12:06
  • 1
    Again, though, I think we're talking about the same thing, just using different words...
    – FreeMan
    Commented Feb 6 at 12:07

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