Rosie on the House: Setting the mood with lighting dimmers

A rotating control switch for a light dimmer.

The flick of a switch or a slow transition, how do you like your light? Dimmers versus traditional light switches create ambiance and can reduce the number of times you get up from the sofa to turn the lights on and off.

What’s the real difference between traditional and dimmer switches?

A traditional light switch simply supplies or cuts the power to the lamp or bulb. A dimmer switch used to work by means of a variable resistor, the more resistance, less energy to the bulb and more heat at the dimmer switch therefore dimmer light. Modern dimmers work differently by rapidly shutting off the light bulb circuit every time the AC current reverses direction — 120 times per second. Depending on where the dimmer is set changes how long the circuit is off in milliseconds. The higher the switch is set, the faster the circuit turns back on. This changes the amount of energy supplied to the bulb, and thus the brightness of the light.

If you are considering changing to a dimmer switch, the first thing to ask is whether it will be compatible with your current lighting system.

There are three primary styles of dimmer switches.

Rotating Switch: This lets the user turn the dial to gradually change the brightness of the bulb.

Rosie on the House: Setting the mood with lighting dimmers

A dual switch plate: traditional on/off switch with a light dimmer switch.

Touch Dimmer: The user simply touches a plate on top to turn the light up or the bottom to decrease brightness until the preferred setting is reached.

Wireless: This allows for controlling two or more different sets of lights by remote control. If you are lounging on the sofa or your favorite chair, you probably don't want to get up multiple times to change the lighting as the sun comes up or goes down, so this is an ideal option. They can be installed anywhere and sometimes without the need for wiring. Some feature wireless controls via computer or cell phone. Oftentimes they can integrate with other smart home systems, such as heating/cooling and security. Voice control is even automated.

Rosie on the House: Setting the mood with lighting dimmers

Control the brightness of the room’s lights remotely from your phone.

Many dimmer switches are not compatible with energy-saving light bulbs. An energy-saving bulb contains glass tubes coated in phosphor. When electricity passes through the bulb, the gas emits ultraviolet rays which light up the phosphor. When used with a dimmer switch, these bulbs simply flicker on and off. We recommend switches that let you choose from two or three fixed levels of brightness.

Additionally, incompatible bulbs will limit the dimming range and cause humming, buzzing and flickering. Unless the manufacturer indicates the bulb is dimmable, do not install any LED or compact fluorescent bulb in a socket controlled by a dimmer.

There are also tabletop dimmers equipped with a cord, plug and socket. Though the bulbs in the fixture must be compatible with the dimmer.

Ever notice interference to nearby televisions and radios when you turn the lights on? That happens because the rapid changes in the voltage supplied to the bulb can cause excessive vibrations in its filament, which is magnetic. Higher quality dimmer switches will include inductor chokes or interference capacitors that can smooth the effects of the changing voltage.

Look for LED bulbs that state they are dimmable. There are several types and color quality available. Manufacturers publish lists of bulbs that are compatible with dimmer products.

Each dimmer switch comes with a wattage rating that tells you the maximum watts of bulbs you can control with it. Follow the instructions, otherwise serious damage or injury can occur. Also, if you will be controlling multiple bulbs from one switch, you need to add up the wattage of each bulb concerned.

When installing a dimmer, it is highly recommended that you hire a licensed, bonded, and insured electrician. Electricity is a safety issue, and should really not be left as a DIY project or to a handyman.

A professional electrician will:

• Inspect the wall box in which the dimmer will be installed and take measurements to be sure the dimmer will physically fit.

• Confirm that the dimmer intended can be used with the type of bulb in your application.

• Check if the dimmer requires a "neutral" connection (a wall box with a ground connection and at least two other wires).

• Help you choose a dimmer with sufficient power capacity by calculating the total wattage of the bulbs to be controlled and choose a dimmer rated for at least a 20 to 30 percent higher power capacity.

• Check the dimming range with a visual test to ensure it is suitable for a given application.

• Check labels or markings on the dimmer, packaging or installation instructions for an electrical safety rating such as UL-1472.

Now that we shinned a light on dimmers, go ahead and set the mood in your favorite room.

For more do-it-yourself tips, go to rosieonthehouse.com. An Arizona home building and remodeling industry expert since 1988, Rosie Romero is the host of the syndicated Saturday morning Rosie on the House radio program, heard locally from 8 to 11 a.m. on KNST-AM (790) in Tucson and from 7 to 10 a.m. on KGVY-AM (1080) and -FM (100.7) in Green Valley. Call 888-767-4348.

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