How to Choose a Dimmer Switch – 5 Steps

Last Updated on April 2, 2020 by The Tutor

how to choose a dimmer switch

How to Choose a Dimmer Switch

All dimmer switches are not the same and learning how to choose a dimmer switch is a critical step in transforming any room into something spectacular.

Lighting is more than just screwing in a light bulb and flipping a switch. It really is an art and the lighting you choose will differ not only from room to room, but also within each room depending upon the mood or look and feel you are going for.

You may want to have your family room well lit when the kids are playing but then prefer the lights dimmed down when watching a movie or when you have an adult party at home. Dimmers will play a huge role in helping to fine tune the type of lighting that you need for each situation. Learning how to choose a dimmer switch will be critical and will make a huge difference.

If you do not select the right dimmer for the bulbs you are using then you may get a buzzing or humming sound when you dim them.

What Does a Dimmer Do?

A dimmer allows you to regulate the amount of lumens the bulbs will give off rather than just the full strength of each bulb.

How Do Dimmers Work?

Dimmers may vary in how the operate internally. Think about the current of electricity as a solid stream or flow similar to what you get from a faucet. When you adjust the dimmer control, it starts to chop up that signal. The stream of electricity will break up in shorter increments as you slide the dimmer control. This signal chopping essentially reduces the amount of electricity that the bulbs will receive which causes them to dim.

Dimmers will work a bit differently depending upon which bulbs you have which is why it is important to learn how to choose a dimmer switch for your particular situation.

When or Why Would You Want a Dimmer?

A dimmer switch is a great way to add mood lighting to a room. Dimmers can also be set in a place where you prefer to have a certain amount of light in a room at all times. The desired number of lumens you want from a bulb may not exist and using a dimmer is a great way to fine tune that to where you want it every time.

We have seen dimmers also used to control ceiling fans instead of lights. This is a great way to slow the fan blades down to exactly where you want them without pulling a chain to get a pre-set speed.

Five Factors to Consider

There are five factors to consider when deciding how to choose a dimmer switch.

  • Dimmer Type
  • Which Bulbs the Dimmer Will Control
  • Total Watts
  • Dimmer Control Style
  • Smart Technology

Walking through these steps will help you to figure out which dimmer type is best for you. Then, I can help you choose from a list of our recommended dimmers.

Dimmer Types to Choose From

There are various dimmer types to consider when deciding how to choose a dimmer switch. However, this is likely the easiest part of your decision making process. The answer is based upon what you have right now in the room. If you are remodeling and have options when it comes to wiring, then you may want to give this a little more thought.

Single Pole Dimmers
This is the most common and likely what you will need in your home. A single pole dimmer is one that controls everything from one switch location. This dimmer switch must turn on the lights and also dim them. No other switch is involved.

Three Way Dimmers
Having a three way switch is not uncommon especially in a room where you have multiple entrances. At each entrance to a room, you may have a light switch to turn on the lights. They are called three way switches because there are 2 switches + the light = 3.

A three way dimmer switch will be positioned at one location and a regular light switch will be at the other. You will not have two dimmer switches controlling the same lights. In this scenario, it is best to just have the dimmer that does not rely on the slide to turn the lights on.

There are also four way dimmers which require one dimmer, plus two other light switches. This is much less common.

Companion or Multi Location Dimmers
This is when you have multiple dimmers controlling the same lights. Companion dimmers are much less common and in fact I have never seen it. Just know that this option exists if you find yourself wanting to use two dimmers to control one set of lights.

Wall Plug-in Dimmers
Plug in dimmers have also come a long way in their technology and options. This is the easiest and best way to have a dimmer that is attached to a lamp or any light that plugs into an outlet versus being controlled by a switch.

There are so many different types to choose from now. In one scenario, you plug your lamp into the dimmer which rests on your table, then plug that into the wall. You then control the light from the dimmer switch that is laying on the table. Some of them also come with remote controls or even smart technology to control it with your phone. See my recommended dimmers to view your options.

Choosing the Dimmer Bulb Type

Selecting the bulb that you may use is absolutely critical. The most important thing is to be sure that the  bulb you select is compatible with the dimmer you choose. Basically, you need to have a bulb that can be dimmed. I will take you through the bulb types but in reality, you are going to be using an LED bulb since the other bulb types are phasing out. The other important thing to understand is if you are selecting an LED bulb, then you must also choose an LED dimmer.

LED Bulbs for a Dimmer
LED bulbs are the most efficient and can be a great option to use for a dimmer. They must be compatible with the dimmer and if paired correctly, you will have great lighting for years. If you do not use an LED dimmer, you may get buzzing or humming. Like any other bulb, using them with a dimmer may shorten the overall life span. See my recommended LED Dimmable Bulbs

*keep in mind that LED bulbs will not dim down as low as other bulbs.

Low Voltage Bulbs for a Dimmer (MLV and ELV)
Low voltage bulbs that are often used for things like outdoor lighting or even under cabinet lighting. Low voltage systems have a transformer which will transform your current into low voltage. Those transformers will either be Magnetic Low Voltage (MLV) or Electronic Low Voltage (ELV). It will require a special MLV or ELV dimmer to control them. See my recommended MLV and ELV dimmers if this is what you need.

Incandescent Bulbs for a Dimmer
Incandescent and also halogen bulbs are yesterday’s technology. They are not energy efficient and they also add more heat to the room. The one benefit they offer is the ability to dim them down to a very low light. Other than that, there is no other benefit. I do not recommend this at all.

Total Watts to Be Controlled

The third step in determining how to choose a dimmer switch is to calculate the total watts to be controlled. Each dimmer will have the ability to control a maximum number of watts (all bulbs combined). This is about the dimmer’s ability to manage that current and not about whether your circuit coming from the panel can handle the watts.

Each dimmer package will tell you what the maximum watt capacity is for that particular dimmer. For example, it may say 300W LED and 600W Incandescent. A dimmer like this can handle (40) 7 Watt LED bulbs and just (10) 60 watt incandescent bulbs. Therefore, if you are using LED bulbs virtually any dimmer should be fine from a wattage perspective because very few people will have 40 bulbs controlled by one dimmer.

Double check the total watts you plan to control with your dimmer and make sure you are covered.

Dimmer Control Style

The 4th step in figuring out how to choose a dimmer switch is dimmer control style. The dimmer control style is probably the most fun when learning how to choose a dimmer switch. This is where the personal touch comes in now that you have chosen the bulbs and dimmer type. This is where you should take a little more time.

Think about how you will be using the lights that the dimmer will control. Will they typically be left on at the same brightness level all of the time? Will you dim them to different levels often? Do you want them to switch on right at the desired dimmed level every time? Here are your dimmer control style options.

Toggle Dimmer
A toggle dimmer is one where you have the dim level preset usually small slide lever on the side of the switch, then you can toggle the light on and off as you would with any light switch. This allows you to always switch the light on at a particular level and that is usually what someone would do with this switch since the dimmer control is very small.

Rotary Dimmer
A rotary dimmer switch is one where you push the switch in to turn it on and off and then you use the knob to dim or brighten the light. These are extremely hard to find in an LED option. The photo below is the only one that I have found. These were your grandfather’s dimmers that he used with incandescent bulbs a long time ago.

Slide Dimmer
Slide dimmer switches are very common and effective. You can leave the slide in the dimmed position and then use the switch to flip it on and off at that position. I have this one in my family room. They also come in a version where you slide it up to turn it on and continue sliding it to brighten the lights. Then, to turn off the lights you slide it to the bottom again.

The slide dimmer may be the best one to use if you plan to change the dim level often.

Rocker Dimmer
Rocker dimmers are similar to a toggle dimmer in that you have a slide that sets the dim level but then the rocker switch turns the light on and off. This is also best for those who want to keep the lights at a particular level most of the time and use the rocker to just turn the lights on and off. However, the slide on this is easier to work than the one on the toggle switch.

Tap Dimmers
The tap dimmers operate very similar to the rocker dimmer with the preset slide on the side. The difference is rather than a rocker switch, you tap the dimmer and it turns on and off. There is some new technology of tap dimmers where the tapping also allows you to adjust the dimmer setting with no slide on the side. These are less common now but you will see more of them in the future.

Smart Technology Dimmers

Smart technology is becoming a part of our lives in many ways. We have smart TVs, thermostats, alarm systems, cameras and more. Now you can control your lights with smart technology and smart dimmer switches are available too.

Everyone from Android, iOS, Alexa, and Google are getting into this now. They work via wifi or z-wave and the technology is changing rapidly. The good news is you do not need to buy special bulbs for the smart dimmers. All you are doing is replacing the light switch with a smart dimmer that can be controlled by someone who does not want to get up off of the couch… or from a remote location.

With the technology changing so rapidly, I will keep on top of it for you and based upon my research will include smart dimmers here in the list of my recommended dimmers.

Conclusion – How to Choose a Dimmer Switch

With both bulb and dimmer technology changing so quickly, I predict that at some point in the future every light switch will be controlled by a dimmer. The ability to adjust the light levels in every room depending upon your need is an important part of home décor. Lighting was once ignored and now is viewed as a critical element in bringing an added dimension to your home.

Related Questions

What wattage do I need for a dimmer switch?
You will add up the total watts of the bulbs that the switch will control, then select the switch that can handle those total watts.

Do LED lights require a special dimmer switch?
LED lights do need to be compatible with the dimmer switch. You must use an LED dimmer switch but also your LED bulbs must be dimmable.

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