Light switch similarities
January 3, 2009 8:32 AM   Subscribe

Why are all light switches the same shape?

In every city I've been in, all the light switches have had the same size, same shape, same angle to the wall, the same everything. What explains this phenomenon?
posted by LSK to Grab Bag (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Interesting question. I'm pretty sure it has to do with the size of the little box behind the face plate. I guess those boxes are set by the electrician and perhaps it's interior work people that eventually put the face plates on. Those boxes are acquired from a company that has an ongoing, unchalllenged monopoly and hasn't found a reason to change the size. Electrical outlets are mostly one of two sizes as well.
posted by ezekieldas at 8:46 AM on January 3, 2009

The switch generally has an optimum position for a given room, regardless of your location. But you probably haven't traveled enough. Switches in Europe and North America are often somewhat different in design, say.
posted by wilko at 8:52 AM on January 3, 2009

It's a matter of convenience. For example, you don't wanna be stumbling around in your dark hotel room, feeling around for a light switch. That's why most look the same, and are generally in the same location (on the inside wall of a room, opposite the door opening). But wilko is right--light switches are different in Asia, for example.
posted by asras at 9:10 AM on January 3, 2009

Economies of scale. Pretty much all light switches sold in North America are made by Leviton. They crank 'em out and builders buy them up cheap (39ยข!) The style asras links to above is also sold in North America, is called Decora, and is also made by Leviton. They have a few fancier designs but people like sticking to the regular ol' cheap light switch. As far as placement on the wall goes, that's dependent on the National Electrical Code.
posted by zsazsa at 9:24 AM on January 3, 2009

I have been seeing those Asia style switches in the US more and more though; my basement has them, and so do the basement of my cousins (who just moved to the US from Canada).

I'd bet the normal lightswitch is a standard somewhere - official standard or not everyone knows what it is and how to find/use it so in order to reduce problems (and from a business perspective, lawsuits from customers who trip over in the dark) most people would want the same type everywhere they go.
posted by rmathew1 at 9:25 AM on January 3, 2009

If you find yourself in very old buildings that have been continually occupied and maintained, you may encounter a black push-button light switch (perhaps with a little mother-of-pearl decoration). Looks like they're being reproduced now.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:28 AM on January 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are also rotary knob styles for dimmers. Some are press on/off and other are twist on/off.

Looks like they're being reproduced now.
Oooh. Thank you! I have a need for those.
posted by weebil at 9:46 AM on January 3, 2009

Another reason: installing a light switch requires cutting a hole in drywall (or worse: plaster), nailing/screwing it to a joist, and building back towards the flush level of the walls.

If you merely move up in size, you still have to do all those steps.

If you move from a larger box to a smaller box, add in the step of refinishing the plaster to the new edge of the switch box.

Would you buy a nonstandard light switch box a second time, after all that?
posted by IAmBroom at 9:47 AM on January 3, 2009

In my country (the UK) wiring standards define the size of the hole in the wall and the position of the screws - so any standard light switch should fit a standard hole. Hence, any standard light switch will cover a hole at least as large as a standard hole.

So if you're a builder or electrician you can go to your supplier and get various boxes - boxes that screw to the wall, boxes to put in the wall before plastering around them, special boxes for fitting to hollow walls, and so on. You can also get various accessories like light switches, dimmer switches, telephone points, power sockets, etc all of the same size.

You can get light switches larger or smaller than standard holes - it's just uncommon because if you can fit a standard size part in, doing so is easier and cheaper than using a non-standard-size part.
posted by Mike1024 at 9:53 AM on January 3, 2009

They're cheap. I think that's it.

It's not something that most people will choose to change, since there's not a ton of payoff for the work required, so unless you're remodellng, most people stick with the basic kind that the builder puts in by default. I see the fancier ones in the stores, but not usually in people's houses -- do those who live in more contemporary homes choose them, perhaps?

That said, the house in which I grew up had rotary dimmers in almost every room because my dad liked them. For the switches for the fans in our living room and dining room, we used the kind with the wee dimmer next to the standard switch. Because of the way our bathroom is wired, we've got a outlet on the bottom, sideways switch on the top thing next to the vanity.
posted by desuetude at 10:02 AM on January 3, 2009

Data point: we have several different kinds of light switch in our UK house, none of which are the US type. Different sized wall plates, too.
posted by katrielalex at 10:15 AM on January 3, 2009

There are a lot of different kinds of switches that I use on a daily basis. My house has both the flat ones and the skinny-sticky-outy ones. And my dad's house has those, plus the round dimmer switches and the fatter sticky-outy ones that make a loud click sound. My workplace has slidy dimmer switches of various sizes, plus these weird ones that you just push (that work with the motion detector thing that switches them off automatically once you've been gone for a while). Then of course there are the lights you have to switch on individually, like the lamps or the overhead lights with pull-strings. Then while traveling or in older houses I've seen many more, such as the two round buttons where one pops out when you push the other in.
posted by lampoil at 10:23 AM on January 3, 2009

I'm currently in a hotel room (in California) that has non-standard light switches in the bathroom. They look kind of like little flat beige R2-D2s imbedded in the wall. The plate's the same size, though.
posted by lore at 10:42 AM on January 3, 2009

The house I lived in between the ages of 6 and 18 had those "Asian-style" light switches. Everywhere I traveled in India had them as well.

In the USA you generally flip the switch up to turn the light on and down to turn the light off. In India that's reversed. Friends over there would accept that we drove on the opposite side of the street, but refused to believe I wasn't trying to pull the wool over their eyes when I told them that we flip our switches up to turn the lights on.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 10:44 AM on January 3, 2009

My brother's farmhouse has standard size switches, but they are all about 4-5 inches higher than you would expect them to be. Drives me batshit, but it does present extra opportunities to walk into stuff in the dark. Can never get enough of those.
posted by timsteil at 10:57 AM on January 3, 2009

Economy of Scale and practicality. The NEC (National Electric Code) has minimum enclosure box sizes based on the number and size of the wires to be placed inside. You could invent a larger box and larger switch device sizes and get them UL approved and in the case of NYC also get them approved by the NYC DOB Bureau of Electrical Control Advisory Board.

But then who would buy it other than boutique/special high end clients? Builders like standard sizes. Also noting (the wife is an interior designer) that usually the electrical devices are not where people get a Design bang-for-their-buck, thus clean and relatively cheap - electrical device-wise - normally wins the budget battle. Making a larger, or more square one would be in small quantities for special clientele and special made when ordered since it would not be worth creating an inventory of them that no one buys, but it could be done but the profit margin probably would not be worth the effort.

That aside, the placement of switches is usually 48 inches on center or to the bottom of the box (above the finished floor, or a.f.f.), some convention some architect I'm sure figured was empirically convenient.

We have installed many switches at about 28 to 30 inches, on center a.f.f., since no matter how tall most humans are, their hands generally are about the same height from the ground and 28-30 inches is a sweet spot height to smack a switch on/off without lifting your arm while also being more easily accessible to the handicapped.
posted by Kensational at 11:20 AM on January 3, 2009

Well, you learn something new everyday because the Asian style switches are the ones I grew up with and always see in other people's houses and at work so I thought THEY were the norm (I'm in Canada). The newer houses around the GTA started installing lightswitches lower on the wall to be accessible about 15 years ago, which is a great height for children too.
posted by saucysault at 11:34 AM on January 3, 2009

In my old town every house had switches like this...

Boston most light switches are outside the bathroom... some kind of building code.

I think there might be some standards, but variation does exist.
posted by teabag at 12:31 PM on January 3, 2009

Another point about the "Asian" style switches linked above. In 2003, my mom moved into a newly-built adults-only retirement community. The builders made a point of emphasizing all the conveniences they built into their houses for people with physical limitations. One of those conveniences* is that style light switch. Apparently they are easier for someone with limited finger mobility to use than the "regular" style.

Others included handles instead of doorknobs, longer handles instead of round faucet handles, and taller toilets.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 12:37 PM on January 3, 2009

Should have said that my mom lives in suburban Chicago.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 12:38 PM on January 3, 2009

Lots of European light switches will also have the polarity reversed, and some will include an electrical socket as well (though not usually the one nearest the door, except in tiny rooms).
posted by kcm at 1:06 PM on January 3, 2009

You can still get old fashioned switches like this. Or more expensive dolly switches like this. I have both in my house.
posted by rhymer at 3:37 PM on January 3, 2009

The switches in my house aren't, so I'd say the answer depends very much on which cities you've been to.
posted by pompomtom at 5:19 PM on January 3, 2009

spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints writes "In the USA you generally flip the switch up to turn the light on and down to turn the light off. In India that's reversed. Friends over there would accept that we drove on the opposite side of the street, but refused to believe I wasn't trying to pull the wool over their eyes when I told them that we flip our switches up to turn the lights on."

Interestingly while most switches are marked "top" to make this consistent orientation easier some switches are only UL/CSA listed when their "top" marking is on top. But because you can't tell those particular switches from those that are listed with either end up the safest thing legally is to always obey the "top" direction.

Kensational writes "That aside, the placement of switches is usually 48 inches on centre or to the bottom of the box (above the finished floor, or a.f.f.), some convention some architect I'm sure figured was empirically convenient. "

It's because gyproc comes in 48" widths, is hung horizontally, and making a notch in the side of a sheet is a lot easier than making a square hole in the centre somewhere. This is changing though as accessibility becomes more of a feature in the general public's homes. Switches mounted that high are hard or impossible to operate for shorter people who can't lift their arms above their shoulders. Canadian code doesn't require a certain height or range for switches though the box may be limited by head space requirements.

Also the decora style rectangular switches can be pushed and are better for people with limited hand strength although some residents with reduced dexterity will find the toggle style switch better because they can just drag their whole forearm across the switch to activate it.
posted by Mitheral at 6:54 PM on January 3, 2009

zsazsa has it right. builders always buy the cheapest possible switches, which are the Leviton ones.

If you go to Home Depot, there is quite a large variety of different switches - dimmers, the decora style switches, and fancy electronic dimmers made by Lutron (the other big player in the industry).
posted by kenliu at 9:17 PM on January 3, 2009

Sideways rocker switches are common in Asia, too. I've lived in an apartment that had switches like this -- the little red area would be on when the switch is off, and vice versa. It's hard to tell, but the switch rocks left-to-right, rather than top-down.
posted by suedehead at 9:55 PM on January 3, 2009

Just so you all know, the standard American style is known as the toggle switch or flip switch, while the design people here are for some reason calling "Asian" is generally known as a rocker switch, or sometimes a paddle switch or a decorator switch. The Leviton brand name is Decora. These are often preferred for accessibility installations.

I don't think the design limitation is oligopoly conditions. It's much more a matter of deliberate standardization, a great deal of it for electrical and fire safety. Once you have such things as the box size and screw placement fixed, there isn't a whole lot you can do differently.
posted by dhartung at 12:39 AM on January 4, 2009

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