Flipping Switches

Sometimes it’s the littlest things- like having to wiggle a switch just right to get the damn light on when you’re trying to haul laundry up a dark and slippery staircase- that make you curse your house. “Period details” are charming, 20s-era light switches encrusted with 80-some years of paint and dust are not.

Original Switch

Luckily, swapping out switches is cheap, quick, and painless (provided you have the good sense to turn off the circuit breaker first).

But what if you don’t know which breaker to flip? Because maybe the only legible notation on your panel refers to a water feature that you don’t have? Well then! What a convenient time to take on the task of labeling your panel (and the tertiary chore of resetting every electric clock in the house!). Most efficient way to do this? No idea. Adam and I chose to put on a trial-and-error light show and it was super fun. We’re really looking forward to playing the same game with the outlets. Electrical diagraming is tedious, and our wiring isn’t logical, but I know that getting organized now is scoring me major points with my future self.

Labeled Switch Plates

For extra credit, I’ve put the breaker number on the back of each switch plate. The switch plates, by the way, are old but new to the house. I tossed out a mish-mash of plastic and shiny brass greek key covers and replaced them with patinated and period-appropriate pretties that look like they’ve been there all along. I love, love, love them. When I get around to switching out the screws, I’ll have a few square inches of perfection in every room.

Vintage Switch Plates, Modern Switches

There we go. A perfect combination of vintage aesthetic and modern convenience. And no more cussing.

This is about the only instantly gratifying task on our electrical punch list. While a former owner modernized the kitchen and bathroom wiring (and we thank them for it), the rest of the house is powered with the original knob and tube. I’ve inspected it carefully, and I don’t have major safety concerns (the clusters of 3-prong adaptors and tangles of extension cords hiding behind my couch pose a far bigger risk), but an upgrade would be a complement to our house and its value.

I’m confident enough in my own competence that I’ve pondered taking this on myself, but oh, blah… I’m not sure that I want to devote precious weekend time to stapling romex to our basement ceiling and fishing wires up through plaster walls. Saving money will always be a priority for us house-rich cash-poor new homeowners, but a competitive bid from a licensed electrician might win me over in the end.┬áMy time is valuable too, and I prefer to spend it on projects that I can show off to admiring guests and blog readers. Herringbone tile floor, upholstered wingback chairs, and a faux-finished ceiling? Prepare to be impressed by my handiwork. House innards? Not so much. It’s difficult to talk people into a tour of your unfinished basement. But we’ll see. After all, you just read a 500 word blog post on light switches…


4 thoughts on “Flipping Switches

  1. Maggie

    Love the faceplates (and yay for labeling the breakers!) but I agree that hiring out the actual electrical rewiring will be worth it. Time is precious too!

  2. Jessie

    We redid some of the wiring in our house. Helps to have a father in law who was an electrician at the ship yard! But it’s such a worthwhile job. Much safer, especially since those three prong converters don’t actually ground anything, afaik…they just let you un safely use your electronics! Plus once the wiring is switched, you can insulate. (We did find some insulation in areas that had knob and tube…kind of worrisome.) Gotta love old houses.

  3. Librarian Tells All

    “After all, you just read a 500 word blog post on light switches.” Ha ha, you got me there! Honestly, this is much more interesting than a lot of the decorating posts I see, because fewer people talk about these practical matters. And right now, while my husband and I are househunting, practical matters are important to me.

    In a perfect world where money was no object, we would buy a much older house with charming details. Preferably a stone cottage, or a Tudor with stonework. But older houses need work, and that work is expensive. I read this reality check of a post on Friday, and on Saturday we made an offer on a 40-year-old house whose needs we can handle. Coincidence? Not entirely! The stone cottage of our dreams can come later, when we can afford to care for it properly.

    No matter what kind of house we buy, I know I’ll change the switch plates. Where did you find your beautiful plates?

    1. Elizabeth Post author

      It’s true- being the caretaker of an old house comes with extra stress and expense! I don’t think we would have taken it on with such confidence if it weren’t for the fact that I work for a general contractor.

      I found my first few switch plates in a lot on eBay- completely by accident. They were a perfect match to the one original plate that we found in our basement. Adam spotted the rest in an antique shop!

      Best of luck to you in your house search!


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