Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Switch Plate 101

As a female, I know a lot about the Real Housewives, gel manicures, and how to route every errand trip so I "just happen" to pass a Starbucks. I also know how many calories are in the grande Mocha Cookie Crumble - and that it's worth it (hands down!). What I do not know a lot about is switchplates. You know - those plastic thingies that surround the light switches and outlets in your home? You really don't even notice them until you update your decor with fresh new paint and have to 1) remove them and 2) discover they stand out way more when the wall is not painted white.

I shouldn't say I don't know a lot about wall plates - the truth is I didn't know a lot about them. But now I do, and it turns out they're not as complex as I thought! I've decided to decode them below, so if you don't know the difference between a "rocker" and a "toggle" you're in the right place.

Basic Switches: Toggle vs. Rocker

• Learn the Difference

The most common switches are "toggle switches" and "rocker switches" (sometimes called "Decora Rocker switches") and it's super easy to tell the difference. Toggle switches are small protruding switches that you flip up and down while Rockers are larger, flatter rectangular switches that you rock up or down. Toggle switch plates have a small rectangular opening and Rocker cover plates have a much larger rectangular opening, as pictured here:

• NOTE: How many switches are controlling a light? 

If you're updating your switches as well as your switch plates, you'll need to think about how many other switches control the same light (or ceiling fan) as the switch you're replacing. If a particular switch is the only switch for a certain light, you'll need a standard switch (known as a "singe-pole" switch). But if you have 2 separate switches (perhaps at opposite ends of a hallway) that control the same light, you'll need a 3-way switch. In other cases, you may have 3 separate switches controlling a single light, and you'll need a 4-way switch.

Outlets: Standard, Decora, and Safety Features

When you say "outlet" you may picture 2 plugs, but you also need to think about the overall shape of the device & whether it has those "reset" buttons in the center. The main things to consider when buying outlets: overall shape, capacity (15 amp vs 20 amp), GFI/GFCI (for outlets near water sources such as a kitchen or bathroom sink) and tamper resistant (for child safety - I, for one, stuck a key into the outlet when I was about 4 years old and it didn't feel so good!).

• Don't mistake the shape of your outlet.

Before ordering a replacement outlet cover plate, pay attention to whether your plate has 2 separate oval openings or a single rectangular decora style opening. Note that the decora plate is the same as the standard switchplate for a decora rocker switch (shown above).

• Amperage: Easily identify how many amps your outlet allows:

The term "amps" refers to the volume of current. Your outlet will be 15A or 20A. Look at your outlet to tell the difference - a 15A outlet has 2 straight slots and a 20A outlet has 1 straight and 1 "T" shaped slot, as shown here:

•  SAFETY FEATURES: Is the outlet required by law to be GFCI?

If you're replacing the actual device, note whether the outlet is currently a GFCI receptacle ("Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter" - also sometimes called GFI for "Ground Fault Interrupter") or whether it needs to be one. GFCI/GFI plugs prevent electrocution by cutting power to the outlet when a variation in electrical current is detected. Your kitchen, bathroom, hot tub, swimming pool areas, wet bar - anywhere near water - should have GFCI receptacles, which is an electrical code requirement. They can prevent death if an electrical appliance, such as a hair dryer, gets accidentally dropped in water. You can easily identify GFCI receptacles - they always have 2 buttons between the plugs (labeled "reset" and "test").

Another important safety feature for children is tamper resistance. When the outlet is not in use and nothing is plugged in, a tamper resistant outlet has little shutters that close off the openings (see image below). This prevents curious little children from getting a shock if they try to stick something into the outlet. The safety shutters only open when a plug is inserted causing both springs to be compressed at the same time.


Sizes: Important Terms to Understand

•  "Gang"

Switch plate width is know as "gang." A single-gang wall plate houses 1 switch or outlet, a wider double-gang plate houses 2 switches or outlets, a triple or 3-gang plate is wider and houses 3 devices and so on.

•  Regular, Narrow, Oversized, Jumbo - know the difference

Switch plate width and height varies depending on whether it's a standard plate, narrow, mid-size or oversized/extra large plate. Make note of any plates that don't match standard switch plate dimensions. Visit Switch Plate Sizes & Dimensions at Kyle Switch Plates for more info on sizing.


Combination Switch Plates

If you need a cover plate with more than 1 type of device, it's called a "combination plate." An example of a combo wall plate is a 3-gang plate with 2 toggle openings and 1 duplex outlet opening. Something to keep in mind is that switchplates can be rotated 180 degrees. If you see a cover plate that's "almost" what you need but the devices are in the "opposite" order, you can simply flip that plate over to fit your situation so keep that in mind when browsing combination plates.


Your #1 Switch Plate Source

Now that you're familiar with some important switch plate terminology and you know what specifically to look for when replacing your switch plates, you can easily find what you're looking for at

Kyle Switch Plates is an online store that specializes in regular and specialty switch plates and electrical devices in regular and unusual colors and finishes.