How to undo central light switch setup?
April 28, 2005 2:27 PM   Subscribe

In my new apartment, the outlet I have to use for my computer system is hooked up to a lightswitch that also controls the room's lights. Any good ideas on how to undo this situation?

In other words, if I want my computer to be on all night, then the lights in the room have to be on as well. The lights are wall-mounted and have no on/off switch. If I turn off the lights, anything attached to the wall outlet, including my computer system, shuts down. I am wondering: 1) the outlet has two actual sockets, ie room for two things to be plugged in. Is it possible for an electrician or someone smart to disconnect just one of them from the central system, so that my computer could stay on when I turn off the light? 2) if not, does a lightbulb exist that has an on/off switch right on it, so I could leave the room switch always on, and turn off the lights by using a lightbulb switch? OR 3) does someone have a great idea I haven't thought of? Any advice would be appreciated.
posted by edlundart to Home & Garden (16 answers total)
An electrician should be able to either separate the outlet from the lights, or install a grounded outlet just for the computer (probably a good idea anyway.)
posted by schyler523 at 2:46 PM on April 28, 2005

If the outlet has 2 sockets and only one is switch-controlled (THAT part wasn't real clear in your message) then yes, it's a trivial matter to alter it so both are always 'hot.' I'm hesitant to advise you to do it yourself but it's really not very complicated.

Were you to take off the faceplate and then unscrew the socket from its mount and pull it so it dangled out of the wall what you would likely see is two black wires (hot, one switched), one (probably, though could be two) white wire (neutral) and if it is at all a recent installation a green ground wire.

In most wall outlets there are two screw posts on each side and out of the box they are joined on each side so you don't have to connect the black wire to both posts on the right side, for example, only one. In your case the hot wire on one post is always hot and connected to one and the other one on the same side is connected to the other post and moves with the switch.

In theory you can remove that switched wire and put a wire nut or something over it so it doesn't short (electrical fire: bad) and connect the other black wire to that post. In practice... I think anyone can do it with come caution but I think it's best to do it supervised by someone else who has some experience.

The downside to the electrician thing is that nobody's coming to your house for less than $75 even though it's gonna take em less than 5 minutes. I see you're in NYC - if you have a super they probably have the requisite knowledge to do this for you.

If not, you can get something that will screw in between the lightbulb and the socket with a little pullchain on it for about $5 at the hardware store. Put some tape on that switch and consider it done.
posted by phearlez at 2:58 PM on April 28, 2005

If it is a standard incandescent light socket, you can buy a thingy that has a pull chain that will turn off the light even if the switch is on. Crude but it will work.
posted by mecran01 at 3:03 PM on April 28, 2005

If not, you can get something that will screw in between the lightbulb and the socket with a little pullchain on it for about $5 at the hardware store. Put some tape on that switch and consider it done.

This is what I did to solve a similar problem, where the only switch in the room controlled both the lights and an automatic feeder for my cats. It's no good for them to starve when the lights are off, so I got a light fixture with a built-in switch, and then I taped the bottom of an Altoids tin over the wall switch, so it's impossible to turn the lights off that way. It works very well, and the total cost was something like $15 ($2.99 of which came with free minty goodness!)
posted by vorfeed at 3:04 PM on April 28, 2005

by thingy, I meant a socket extender that screws in between the bulb and the original socket.
posted by mecran01 at 3:04 PM on April 28, 2005

You could also unscrew the light bulb, as inelegant a solution as that is.
posted by mischief at 3:06 PM on April 28, 2005

doh! didn't see the end of the above post.

to redeem myself: you could unscrew the lights, leave the switch on, plug in your computer, and attach a table lamp to "the clapper' that you plug into the remaining open outlight.

/too lazy to learn to wire anything

Also, this is a reach, but a quick googling will reveal plans for making solar-charged LED lights that you can slap above the window or elsewhere, allowing you to leave the overhead off.
posted by mecran01 at 3:09 PM on April 28, 2005

As phearlez indicated, it is very common that a duplex receptacle is split so that one outlet is switched for a table lamp and the other is always on, for example for an alarm clock. Check to see if that is the case. If so, then just get a power strip with multiple outlets and plug that into the single hot outlet. You can plug your computer, monitor and printer into the power strip.
posted by JackFlash at 3:14 PM on April 28, 2005

The thingy with a pullchain on it would be great, and I might try it, but it would be better if it had a small switch instead of a pullchain. Does anyone know if this exists? I say this because the lights in question are "protected" by half-domes -- basically the bottom half, so there is an opening facing the ceiling, while no light escapes the bottom. So there's no room for a pullchain to hang down... however, I may be able to just have the pullchain rest inside the dome, and still use it as a crude switch.

phearlez, thanks for your thorough answer, and sorry for any unclarity in my question. To clear it up:
If the outlet has 2 sockets and only one is switch-controlled
No, they're both switch-controlled. I was thinking that if I could get one of them to not be switch-controlled, I could plug my computer into that one. I wish there could be an adapter I could plug into the socket that would override the central system or something...

mischief, I thought about just unscrewing the lightbulbs to turn off the lamps, but I understand it is a bad thing to have "live" sockets that are just open like that...?

on preview: JackFlash, my computer is plugged into a power strip, but the "dual receptacle" is unfortunately not split -- both sockets are "hot."
posted by edlundart at 3:23 PM on April 28, 2005

If both are switch controlled there's a real possibility that the only hot voltage going to that box is switched and there's no monkeying to be done short of pulling more wire.

Which is very doable by an electrician and a lot easier than you might think but probably not worth it for an apartment. If you make a friend with some competency in the future who has a multimeter you can have him/her pop the cover and check to see if there's any always-hot wires.

In the mean time, yeah, you can get those inline devices that have switches rather than pull-cords. I've even seen them with remote controls so you could glue the sucker next to the light switch.

Googling for switch socket bulb came up with a few things, including this very first link:

posted by phearlez at 3:45 PM on April 28, 2005

You know, I can't believe it didn't occur to me but another option could be to replace the light fixture. They're pretty cheap and I'd bet there's a decent chance if you offered to buy it your super would install it. You shouldn't have any trouble finding something with a switch, perhaps even a dimmer.
posted by phearlez at 3:48 PM on April 28, 2005

I would disable the light switch competley so that you don't accidentally turn off your computer by flipping the switch, and then install a pull-chain or wireless XM switch at the light socket. Or maybe just use a desk/pole lamp elsewhere in the room.

To disable the light switch, turn off power at the circuit breaker and then unscrew the switch from the wall. There should be two or three wires running to the switch, usually a black one, a white one, and maybe a bare copper one. Disconnect the wires from the switch, connect the black one and white one together using a wire nut, connect ground to the recepticle box (assuming its a metal box), put the wires back in hole, and cover it with a blank face place (85 cents from the hardware store).
posted by rajbot at 3:49 PM on April 28, 2005

phearlez, thanks for all your input. That link with the "socket with push on/off switch" thing has me hoping I can find just what I need. I tried googling for the devices I was dreaming up, but I don't know all the right terms to use. rajbot, thanks for the tips about disabling the switch as well.
posted by edlundart at 3:56 PM on April 28, 2005

When I moved to a new apartment earlier this month, I had a similar problem. The only 3 pin socket in the room was connected with the light switch. My solution was to unplug the round tubelight on the ceiling, and tape up the light switch with electrical tape so that I don't turn it off by mistake. I opted for two floor lamps to provide lighting in the room.

It's not elegant, but it works for me.
posted by riffola at 4:33 PM on April 28, 2005

I was thinking about trying to draw the solution out, but it is going to take too long...

There are three boxes in question, the switch, the plug and the light. The AC power comes to one or more of them unswitched. If either the plug's box or the light's box gets unswitched AC you should be able to rearrange existing wire to make it work how you want it. If the switch's box gets the unswitched AC you may or may not be able to rearrange the existing wire.

You can determine which box gets the unswitched power with a non contact voltage detector. Turn the switch off and put the voltage detector up to the box of each device, if the detector goes off the unswitched AC is present. (you might have to remove the switch plate cover to get the detector closer to the wires)

Even if you don't want to do the change yourself, getting the voltage detector and figuring out which box gets the unswitched AC will tell you if it is an easy change or a hard change for somebody with more skill.
posted by Chuckles at 8:25 PM on April 28, 2005

Thanks, all. Lots of good advice. I'm going to stop by some stores this weekend to see if I can find the socket thing with an on/off switch. I think that solution is best for my needs, at least in the short term.
posted by edlundart at 10:23 PM on April 28, 2005

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