I just finished replacing all of the switches and outlets in my apartment, after fighting a long war with a weird 3-way switch. Needless to say, I won, but I'm still trying to grasp the concept of how it works. I know how a single pole switch works, like so:


But how does a 3-way switch work? I know that we have 3 wires coming into the switch, 1) black hot in, 2) black hot out, and 3) red runner, but how does the switch actually work? What does it toggle? When I held up an electricity sensor to the wires, it seemed that wire 1 of course was always hot, but wire 2 and 3 were sometimes hot and sometimes not.

So, how does it actually work? What's being toggled and how?

Also, if you're wondering how to wire a 3-way switch, here's how: connect the black hot in wire to the only black screw, then connect the red runner wire to the brass screw on the same side as the black screw, and the hot out goes on the opposite side on the only brass screw. Just a tip :)


1 Answer 1


Here's a diagram. On the left the hot wire comes in and is switched to one of two wires going to the othe switch. The right switch selects eithe the on or off wire from the other switch. So either switch can be toggled to turn the light on or off. alt text

  • 3
    To extend your answer: a 4-way switch has two connections (red + black) on each side. You can wire as many of them in a row as you want. If you keep a 4-way switch on hand, you use it as a drop-in replacement for a broken 2- or 3-way switch, by jumpering screws together.
    – Jay Bazuzi
    Commented Jan 18, 2011 at 19:36

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