4-way switch(?) not working.

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  #1  
Old 01-18-06, 12:06 PM
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4-way switch(?) not working.

I have light in the hallway on the 2nd floor of my house that is controlled by 3 switches; one at the bottom of the stairs and two upstairs, one at each end of the hall.
Here’s the problem:
When the light is on upstairs and we go downstairs and turn it off there, at the bottom of the stairs, the two switches upstairs no longer work. Also, when the light is off upstairs, we cannot turn it on from the downstairs switch. The two switches at the top seem to work OK together, but not in conjunction with the switch at the bottom of the stairs.

I suspect that it’s not properly wired for 4-way. (I think I have the terminology right—two switches = 3-way, three switches = 4-way?

Can anyone advise on what I should look for/ fix? Is there a problem with the wiring on the bottom switch?

Thanks in advance, Gary
 

Last edited by escapement; 01-21-06 at 05:12 PM.
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  #2  
Old 01-18-06, 12:27 PM
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Your terminology is not quite correct.

Two way switches (regular on/off switches have two screw terminals. Three way switches have three screw terminals. Four way switches have four screw terminals. This is where the terms came from.

When a light (or any load) is controlled from a single switch, it only needs to be a two way switch.

When a light or load is controlled by two switches (and either switch can turn the light on or off), you need two three way switches.

When a light or load is controlled by three switches (and any of the switches can turn the light on or off), you need two three way switches and one four way switch.

You can keep adding an additional location by adding another four way switch.

In your setup you need two three way switches and one four way switch. Electrically, the four way switch is between the two way switches. However, physically the wires can run in many different ways.

When diagnosing and fixing a problem it helps to know the whole story, if possible. Did this all of a sudden happen, or has it always been like this? Did you (or someone you know) change something, like a switch? If you know where the problem occurred then you should look to fix it there. If you aren't sure where the problem occurred then you need to do some work.

Start by inventorying the wires at each location. Tell us how many cables, how many wires in each cable, and how the wires are connected to anything (each other, the switch, etc.). We need to know all four locations, the three switches and the light. Explain ALL cables in each box.

We'll go from there.
 
  #3  
Old 01-19-06, 07:44 AM
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Thanks for the quick reply. Sorry so late getting back, but I wanted to wait for daylight to better see what’s what.
First, to answer the basic questions: the house is 4 years old. We moved in 8 months ago. Nothing was changed. It’s behaved like this since day one, but we didn’t notice it for a few weeks after moving in. I believe it was installed like this by the builder because I'm pretty certain the owner before us didn’t change anything.
The light is a standard four bulb hallway ceiling fixture.

I removed all the switches and found the following:

Bottom of stairs:
Three terminals plus ground. Looking from front: Red wire to upper left term. Black wire at upper right term. Black wire at lower right term. Ground at top left.
Top of stairs, right end of hall:
Three terminals plus ground. Again, from front: Black wire at upper left term. Red wire at upper right. Black wire at lower right. Ground at top left.
Top of stairs, left end of hall:
Four terminals plus ground. Again, from front: Black wire at upper left term. Black wire at lower left term. Red wire at upper right term. Red wire at lower right term. Ground at top right.

Is this enough to help? It does appear that the configuration follows your description above, (two 3-ways and a 4-way) but maybe something's amiss? Anything you can tell by what I've described, or do I need to get an electrician in? I was hoping it was something simple, like the lack of a 4-way, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Thanks again, Gary
 
  #4  
Old 01-19-06, 07:55 AM
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The information helps, but is not complete.

First and foremost, I need to know the color of the screw terminal on the switches. terms like top left, top right, etc mean nothing since switches from different manufacturers have different configurations.

I also need to know about ALL the wires in the boxes, not just what is attached to the switches.

Finally, I need to know the wires at the light.

Don't bother with the ground wires, unless for some reason you see one that is not connected to a ground screw (green screw).

This is something simple, the wires are not connected properly, but until I have ALL the information I can't help.
 
  #5  
Old 01-19-06, 10:08 AM
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First, thanks for putting up with my lack of knowledge and trying to help me out.
After looking for what you're asking for, I see that there’s a whole lot going on in those boxes.
Let’s see if I can describe it:

Switchbox at the bottom of the stairs:

(First, there is also a switch on this box for the foyer light at the bottom of the stairs (which works OK, BTW, with two other switches)).

There are three cables coming into the box.
2 cables with RED/ BLACK/ WHITE and ground
1 cable with just BLACK/ WHITE and ground

One of the R/B/W cables goes to switch for downstairs light.
Other goes to switch for upstairs light.
Both go to their respective switches like this: BLACK to GRAY (metallic) screw, RED to GRAY screw (across from each other on top of switch).
On both switches, there is a BLACK wire connected to the BLACK screw. These BLACK wires tie off to each other AND the BLACK wire coming from the B/W only cable.
ALL the WHITE wires coming in from each of the three cables tie off to EACH OTHER.

-------------------------------------------

Switchbox at top of stairs, right:

Two cables coming in:
1 cable with RED/ BLACK/ WHITE and ground
1 with just the BLACK/ WHITE and ground

The RED and BLACK wires from the R/B/W cable go to the GRAY screws at top of the switch.
The BLACK wire from the B/W cable goes to the BLACK screw at bottom of the switch.

The two WHITES wires coming in are tied off together.

-------------------------------------------

Switchbox at top of stairs, left (this is the 4-way switch, I believe):

Two cables coming in:
BOTH with RED/ BLACK/ WHITE and ground.

The RED from one of the cables goes to the BLACK screw on switch bottom right.
BLACK from same cable goes to the BLACK screw on switch bottom left.
The RED from other cable goes to COPPER screw top right.
The BLACK from other goes to COPPER screw top left.

The WHITE wires are tied off together.

--------------------------------------------

LIGHT FIXTURE:

ONE cable coming in with just BLACK/ WHITE and ground.
And these tie off to the BLACK and WHITE wires coming from the fixture, black to black, white to white.


I think I got it all right. Forgive my longwinded descriptions. I’m sure there's an easier/ better way to describe it.

Thanks again for you help.
 

Last edited by escapement; 01-19-06 at 10:28 AM.
  #6  
Old 01-19-06, 10:27 AM
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Your new description is fine.

The wiring sounds correct. I suspect a bad switch or a loose wire. I would like you to make a chart for me of the light behavior when the switches are in the positions. Please fill in the chart:

SW1 = bottom of stairs
SW2 = top of stairs right
SW3 = top of stairs left
D = switch down
U = switch up


SW1....SW2...SW3...Light
----.....----...----...-----
..D.........D.......D......?
..D.........D.......U......?
..D.........U.......D......?
..D.........U.......U......?
..U.........D.......D......?
..U.........D.......U......?
..U.........U.......D......?
..U.........U.......U......?

Essentially, I want you to try all 8 combinations of the three switches and tell me wither the light is ON or OFF for each combination.
 
  #7  
Old 01-19-06, 11:17 AM
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OK, here are the results:


SW1 SW2 SW3 Light
---- ---- ---- -----
D----D----D----ON
D----D----U----OFF
D----U----D----OFF
D----U----U----ON
U----D----D----OFF
U----D----U----OFF
U----U----D----OFF
U----U----U----OFF


Once the bottom switch is in the UP position, the top switches don’t work.

I did a cursory check of the wires and they all appear to be connected OK, but I didn’t undo the twist locks or anything like that yet.

Thanks again for the help.
 
  #8  
Old 01-19-06, 11:34 AM
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Either switch 1 at the bottom of the stairs or switch 2 at the top right (the four way switch) is bad, or there is a problem with one of the travelers (the red or the black wire) that goes between these switches.

Verify the red and black connections to the traveler screws (that you called gray) on the switch at the bottom of the stairs. If you have a two wire tester check the traveler screws to ground. With the switch in the up position one should be hot, and with the switch in the down position the other should be hot. Do your verification with the red and black wires disconnected from the screws.

Verify the red and black connections to the four way switch, switch 2. I don’t know whether it will be the connection to the black scres or the gray screws. With the wires disconnected check the wires using a two wire tester to ground. One wire should be hot with switch 1 (the switch at the bottom of the stairs) up, and one should be hot with switch 1(the switch at the bottom of the stairs) down.

Start with these results and we'll go from there.

Switch three is fine and is not part of the problem.
 
  #9  
Old 01-19-06, 11:49 AM
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The switch outlet-box where the 4-way connects has a Red & Black "Line-pair" in one of the 3-wire cables, and a Red & Black "Load-pair" in the other 3-wire cable.

To indentify the "Line-pair", check for Voltage-to-Ground at each of the 4 Black/Red wires. The Red or Black wire that has V-to-G is in the "Line-pair".

Let's presume the Red wire has V-to-G--- connect this Red wire to ANY switch-terminal. Next check for V-to-G at the other 3 switch-terminals. When you locate to other switch-terminal with V-to-G, connect the Red wire of the "Load-pair" to that terminal. Caution--- you MAY be completing a circuit when you make this connection, which means there is 120 volts between the terminal and the wire, so be careful making this connection.

Next, manipulate the switch; The terminal where to Red wire of the "Load-pair" connects should read Zero V-to-G.Okay? Now check the remaining 2 terminals for V-to-G. When you indentify that terminal, connect the Black wire of the "Load-pair" to that terminal--- again, caution--

The fixture should now switch "On/Off" from the 4-way. If so, connect the Black wire of the "Line-pair to the last terminal. Now any of the 3 switches should switch the fixture "On/Off"

Good Luck, & Learn & Enjoy from the Experience!!!!!!!!!
 
  #10  
Old 01-19-06, 04:16 PM
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Did we find it?

OK, sorry for the delay—just got around to doing the tests.

First, thanks PATTBAA, I checked the line pair/ load pair per your instructions and found the switch to be setup just as you described it should be. I now know which is line and which is load though and learned something.

Bob, I checked per your instructions and found, I think, the problem:
I checked the traveler screws (with both wires disconnected) and found that with the switch in the up position, neither screw carried voltage. With the switch in the down position, there was voltage to the screw that had had the RED wire on it.

Did you lead me to a bad switch? Should I replace this 3-way switch?

Continued thanks for your time and patience.
 
  #11  
Old 01-19-06, 05:03 PM
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Yes, the switch seems to be bad. Replace the three way switch.
 
  #12  
Old 01-20-06, 08:18 AM
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I hate to be difficult, but guess what? I replaced the 3-way switch at the bottom of the stairs and still… the up position disables the top two switches.
Any other ideas? With your help, I was able to see that the 3-way switch was behaving incorrectly, right?

Just to be sure: when I tested the travelers on the 3-way switch, I removed the red and black wires that were connected to the metallic screws and left the black wire on the “common” black screw and the ground connected. Then I tested for voltage at the two traveler screws—with the switch in the down position, I read 122V on one of the screws and nothing on the other; with the switch in the up position, I read no voltage on either screw.

Could it be a bad 4-way? But that doesn’t make any sense does it? I mean, we know that something’s weird at the 3-way, right? With the downstairs 3-way in the up position, there should be 120V on the other screw, right, so that we would get a reversed polarity at the 4-way, not 0 volts, right? (I’m just guessing here, trying to learn/ understand this stuff with your help).

BTW—I know the new 3-way is good because it’s one that was working at another location in my house before I replaced it with a “lighted” three way switch a month or so ago, (on a different light and 3-switch circuit. Just so you know—I never touched the one we are now working on before posting here two days ago).
And I installed the wires on the new switch just as they came off the old one (except I used the screws instead of the “back stab” connections as I saw recommended on another post here).

If you are tiring of this nonsense, just tell me to go away, I suppose we can live with the current setup. I really didn’t think this was going to be such a complicated thing to fix—I was sure it was going to be something really goofy or simple, alas…

Thanks.
 
  #13  
Old 01-20-06, 08:54 AM
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When you are testing, where are you placing the other lead of the meter?
 
  #14  
Old 01-20-06, 09:04 AM
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IF you are positively certain that the "C" terminal of the 3-way is connected to the Black wire of the "Feed-in" cable to the O-B
("constant" 120 volts ),and in one position there is Zero volts at the 2 "T" terminals, then the 3-way is defective. Replace it.
 
  #15  
Old 01-20-06, 09:25 AM
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When reading the voltages, I place the common (black) lead on the ground screw (with ground wire still connected) and the V (red) lead on the terminal screws.

PATTBAA, I’m only *certain* of this:

There are three cables coming into the box (a two switch box, one switch for the upstairs light and the other for the downstairs light).
Two cables with RED/ BLACK/ WHITE and ground
One cable with just BLACK/ WHITE and ground

The RED and BLACK on one of the R/B/W cables goes to switch for downstairs light.
On the other the RED and BLACK goes to switch for upstairs light.
And the WHITE wires are tied off with WHITE wire from the B/W cable.
Both go to their respective switches like this: BLACK to metal (traveler) screw, RED to metal (traveler) screw (across from each other on top of switch).
On both switches, there is a BLACK wire connected to the BLACK screw. These BLACK wires tie off to the BLACK wire coming from the B/W only cable.
 
  #16  
Old 01-20-06, 09:34 AM
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Without diagramming the wiring it sounds like it may be the pairing of the travellers on the 4W. Some 4w's use pairs top and bottom, others use left and right pairs.

What brand of switches are these?
 
  #17  
Old 01-20-06, 09:51 AM
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Actually, I misspoke. The latest 3-way switch I installed was from another location where just 2 switches worked the light. So, could it (still) be another bad 3-way switch, i.e., worked OK in a 2-switch setup but fails in a 3-switch (to a 4-way) setup? And maybe the builder had a batch of a few bad 3-ways? (Both switches tried are original to the house).
Should I make a trip to the hardware store just to be sure, pick up another 3-way?
 
  #18  
Old 01-20-06, 09:53 AM
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All switches are LEVITON.
 
  #19  
Old 01-20-06, 10:01 AM
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A 3 way switch works the same way whether it is installed as part of a 2 switch setup or a 3 switch setup.

Try this.

Swap the red and black wires that go to the next switch. See if the other two switches behave differently. They should.


Also try this.

Connect the red and black wires to the other three way switch, the one that controls the other light, awhile leaving the wires that are presently there attached. You can do this temporarily using the back stabs or temporarily (and carefully) placing both wires under the screw terminal.
 
  #20  
Old 01-20-06, 10:17 AM
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Based on your description of how the three switches are wired, we can deduce the following, which should allow you to trace the circuit from it's point of origin to the light fixture until you find the problem:

The voltage supply is derived from the black conductor in the 2-wire cable at the downstairs 3-way switch. That wire is terminated on the "common" screw of the switch, which is colored black. Depending on the position of the switch, that voltage will be transferred to one of the two traveler screws.

The black and red wires from the traveler screws run via a 3-wire cable to the 4-way switch, and are terminated on either the black set of screws, or the copper set of screws.

A set of black and red traveler wires are connected to the other set of screws on the 4-way switch, and then run via a 3-wire cable to the 3-way at the right end of the upstairs hallway. They terminate on the two traveler screws on that 3-way switch.

At the upstairs 3-way switch, the black wire from the 2-wire cable terminates on the common (black) screw. That wire is connected directly to your light fixture.

The whites are simply neutral wires that pass through the switch system from the point of origin to the light fixture.

With an understanding of how the wires run, how the switches work, and a voltmeter, you should be able to "follow' the voltage through the system to find out where the problem lies. First, check the 3-way at the bottom of the stairs. You should have voltage between the common terminal & ground always. You should have voltage on either of the traveler screws, depending on the position of the switch. If that checks out, move to the 4-way switch. Remove one "pair" of travelers (either pair). If the red wire is live leaving the downstairs 3-way, the corresponding red traveler should be live at the 4-way switch. Flip the downstairs switch and make sure the black traveler is live as well. Reconnect the pair to the switch. Operate the downstairs 3-way in conjuction with the upstairs 4-way to make sure you can enable voltage on both of the other set of traveler screws. If you can, move on to the final 3-way. Voltage will either be coming in on one of the travelers or neither one, depending on how your other two switches are set. Manipulate the switches so that voltage comes in on both of your travelers (one at a time, of course), and make sure it travelers through the last 3-way correctly to it's destination at the common screw that is connected directly to the light.

Somewhere along the way, you will find the problem. There is always a chance that maybe a tarveler wire could be broken inside a wall (romex staple, picture hanger) or even there could be a bad connection in a junction box (under house, in attic - not likely that there would be a splice in your situation, but you never know), but if I had to guess, I would say your problem is in your 4-way switch. It's either wired incorrectly (might possibly need both blacks on black screws, both reds on red screws) or it's defective. With the cost of a 4-way switch ($7.50?), your best bet would be to simply replace that switch (following the included wiring diagram) and see if your problem is cured.
 
  #21  
Old 01-20-06, 10:28 AM
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Another simple test - remove the wires from the 4-way switch, wire nut red to red, black to black which essentially converts you to a simple 3-way setup (like there never was a 4-way switch). If both 3-ways operate together correctly, then you know that your 4-way switch is either miswired or defective.
 
  #22  
Old 01-20-06, 10:36 AM
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One last thought. Have you pulled the 4-way switch out of the box and examined it? There may be some writing or a "line diagram" on the back or side that will help you to determine if it is wired correctly. It wouldn't surprise me if it was installed incorrectly by an electricians helper and never fixed (the previous homeowner figured out the best way to use them as they were),
 
  #23  
Old 01-20-06, 12:27 PM
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It’s got to be the switch, right? I just tried your test, Bob, and piggybacked off the switch for the downstairs light: everything works OK!

So it has to be another bad switch… but that switch did work on the other light with two switches (go figure).

But maybe I’m not off the hook yet, huh? I mean, as much as it doesn’t make any sense, I am using a different common and ground to make it work right. But what could be wrong with the common and ground given that I do show 120V, (but with the switch connected, just on one term)?

I’m off to buy another 3-way. You're right, for the cost, it’s worth a try, but I will be freaked out if it doesn’t work—I mean 1) two bad 3-way switches in a row? And even more importantly, 2) that 3-way worked in a two switch scenario—I know that for a fact; what could have broken between then and now? (Unless the wiring was unusual on the other light/ two switch setup).

But now, at least, we know the travelers are good to the top of the stairs and that the 3-way and 4-way up there are good as well.

I really appreciate all the help I’ve gotten here. I learned a great deal. It’s too cool to know that there are guys out there willing to share their knowledge and experience (and time) with others.

You might hear from me soon again—I've been putting off installing some security lights in the backyard for a while (but my biggest worry there is how to run the wire to the right locations, i.e., cable to switches and cable to the fixtures).

Thanks again, guys, I’ll let you know.
 
  #24  
Old 01-20-06, 12:33 PM
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Please let us know how this situation turns out.

Since you have one hot circuit coming in and branching to the two lights everything is on the same circuit.

Do remember what I stated earlier. Do not go by location on the switch. Different switches, even those from the same manufacturer, may have their common and traveler screws in different locations. Go by screw color. The green screw is the ground. The two screws of the same color are the traveler screws. The odd color screw is the common.

It almost sounds like you used the wrong screws when you installed and tested the second three way switch.
 
  #25  
Old 01-20-06, 06:48 PM
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What are the odds?

What are the odds?

Well, it was a case of *two* faulty 3-way switches… go figure.
Replaced with a new one from our friendly neighborhood hardware store, and voila!

It wasn’t a case of using the wrong screws—you taught me well and I understood early the difference between the screws and what they look like. And in this case, all three 3-way switches were identically configured Levitons.
The weird part is that the second 3-way was working in the other location, but after you told me how it should work with just the hot in and the traveler wires removed, voltage on one traveler UP and voltage on the other DOWN, I couldn’t shake the feeling that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, well, you know…
Strange, but true.

Thanks again for all the help. You’ve made my wife (and me) very happy indeed—no more futzing around and cursing the damned thing when we inadvertently used the bottom switch (and having to run back down the stairs).
Job well done, guys.
 
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