Installation of combination light switch outlet
August 24, 2011 1:19 PM   Subscribe

I have a former light switch that I want to convert to a combination plate where the switch toggles power to the accompanying outlet. However, there are some details that leave me uncertain whether or not this can be accomplished without a certified electrician.

* Standard disclaimers apply. I understand and accept that any comments herein is not electrical advice and absolve MetaFilter and its users of liability. *

The switch previously toggled the bedroom light. We had an electrician install a ceiling fan with light that is now controlled by a battery remote, and he replaced the switch with a blank panel. I opened the panel and it looks like he pigtailed the wiring inside. I can only see a white and black wire.

Is it possible to install an outlet in this box? I do not know if the electrician did any sort of rearrangement of wiring, so my guess is that this could still be "live" to the ceiling fan by providing continual current (how can I tell? voltmeter?). If this is the case, could I wire the outlet such that when the ceiling fan light is turned off, the outlet is powered? What would I need to do?

I appreciate any help. I'd like to avoid the cost of labor if I can do this myself with only an average of homeowner handyman experience.

And since I am invariably asked why, the reason I want to install this outlet is pretty superficial. It's because I bought a blue canary night light and since the remote is now the light switch... well. Yeah.
posted by CancerMan to Home & Garden (8 answers total)
Most likely the fan is still powered by those wires and only controlled by the remote. So in a sense your fan is always "on."

My concern is I don't see any ground wire. It may be clipped off right where the Romex insulation is cut but in that case it would be hard to connect to. You wouldn't want to have an outlet that is not properly grounded.

You can look around in there (with the power off at the breaker) for a ground. It will be a third, non-insulated wire.

With no ground, I would call an electrician for this one.
posted by bondcliff at 1:34 PM on August 24, 2011

You need an electrician.

Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch? Who watches over you?
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:43 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

The way this was set up was that the power comes up to the light/fan from your box where (assuming everything was done right and electricians don't make lots of extra work for themselves) the white return was hooked up to the fan. The black hot wire was hooked to another piece of cable which went down to the switch. The other side of that switch went back up to the light/fan and connected to the other power terminal there. Your electrician just spliced the wires that had gone to the switch (essentially installing an always-on switch).

To use the two wires you have to power a nightlight, you'd have to rearrange things up near the fan so that each wire forks - a short hot and return going to the light/fan, and another hot and return (using the wire that used to be your switch) as a hot and return going to your nightlight.

Having once had to debug a misbehaving set of three way switches running to a pendant light I can say that messing with a ceiling electrical box makes a simple wiring task into an amazing pain with impressive efficiency, so unless you exactly follow everything I said here and enjoy suffering, an electrician is probably the right answer.

The missing ground may not be that much of a mystery depending on how old the house is.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:13 PM on August 24, 2011

You basically can't do what you want with that box. You could install a new outlet there, but it would be just as much work as doing it from scratch. You will have to cut holes in the drywall and run new wire. I did something very much like this a few years back and I would not recommend it unless you have a lot of free time and are already comfortable doing complicated home wiring projects.
posted by Mars Saxman at 3:36 PM on August 24, 2011

Kid Charlemagne is exactly right. It is theoretically possible, but if you need to ask this question, you are probably not experienced enough to do the job, especially if you run into any kind of trouble. As to the ground, it may or may not matter. That little light, in and of itself, is no big deal. However, there is no way to tell whether you or the next person who owns this house may want to plug something into this outlet that should be grounded. Better safe than sorry. I suggest you get that electrician back and have him install the right wiring including a ground. Without the ground, it could be done without cutting holes in the wall. With the ground that may or may not be possible.
posted by Old Geezer at 4:58 PM on August 24, 2011

"Is it possible to install an outlet in this box?"

Not easily because as has been pointed out you don't have a neutral in the box. The lack of a ground isn't a deal killer but no neutral is.

However it looks like you have some kind of wiremold product servicing that switch box (IE wire is run on the surface in a race way and boxes are surface mounted). If that look is ok with you then adding an outlet or switch or some combination at that location is fairly straight forward and would require minimal wall cutting or hole drilling. Home depot sells wiremold. If the outlets in the room are wired with this product as well then it would be a simple matter to extend one of those circuits to your wall switch location with additional surface raceway.
posted by Mitheral at 5:31 PM on August 24, 2011

Thanks, everyone. My suspicions are at least confirmed that this kind of project would require considerably more expertise than I possess.

It looks like my little glowing friend will not be watching over me anytime soon. But really it's not actually my friend. But it is?
posted by CancerMan at 10:53 PM on August 24, 2011

This is reasonably doable, here is what has to happen:

Step 1: You need to see if there is any slack in the wire coming into your former switchbox. If there is, you need to pull the wire into the box and check for a ground wire that has been snipped off short. This needs to be exposed enough to attach a longer ground wire to. If you can't get a ground wire, the entire wire will need to be replaced.

Step 2: You need to pull the fan and re-arrange the way the wires are connected in the ceiling junction box. Basically you will tie all blacks and all whites together. This will give you always-on power to the former switch box. Make sure that you have your ground wires connected as well.

Step 3: Install your switched outlet as you normally would.
posted by davey_darling at 6:50 AM on August 25, 2011

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