bathroom light switch - a MESS


Old 09-01-06, 09:41 PM
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Red face bathroom light switch - a MESS

I am trying to swap out a bathroom light switch. It controls a light over the vanity and then the 2nd switch on it controls the fan and fan light in the ceiling.
The switch in the wall that you flip to turn it on/off is right outisde the door. It is a "combination" device switch with a break off tab on one side.
I took it out and watched how it was wired so I could just replace it as it was old and also it made a noise from time to time. The house is about 23 years old.
I wired it back up but now it sparks and I know it is wrong. But the way it was wasn't right either, they had 2 wires going to one screw, 2 blacks on one screw - the side without the tab, one white on the side with the tab on one screw and then one single black on the 2nd screw on the side with the tab.
My neighbor who knows a little bit helped me out and we know for sure never put 2 wires on one screw, so we put a pigtail on it. We also tested the wires and the single black is the feed and is hot, the other 2 blacks are just neutral or whatever and the white is just neutral.
the confusing part is that in the box I have 3 blacks total, 3 whites, all coming from separate pieces of romex. The people capped off -(well tapped the ends of the whites except for one of them..I have since put wire nuts on the ends..). But I have no idea how to wire this properly.
I want the fan and fan light to come on when the bottom switch is turned on and the vanity lite to come on when the top switch is turned on, or have both lights come on at once and then the fan as a separate.
any ideas?

Last edited by jwhite; 09-01-06 at 10:04 PM.
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Old 09-01-06, 10:08 PM
Join Date: Apr 2006
Location: New Bern, NC
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I have a couple questions.

First I am not clear on what wires go went where.
Were the white wires that were capped off tied together, or capped off individually?
What wires were on the side of the switch without the break off tab?
What wires were on the side of the switch with the break off tab?
Was the tab broken off or left in tact?
Old 09-02-06, 05:13 AM
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bathroom light switch mess

1. The white wires were capped of separately.
2. The single black wire - looks like it is the feed is on the right side of the switch and the bottom screw - which is the side with the tab.
3. The tab was not broken off.
4. The 2 blacks and white wire were on the left side of the switch without the tab.
5. The way we wound up doing this was to tie one white and one of the blacks together and put a pigtail on it and put the on one screw on the left side of the switch without the tab on one screw.
6. The other black wire that is a single is on the left side on the top screw by itself.
It works right except that it sparks when the switch is flipped.
thank you
Old 09-02-06, 05:39 AM
Join Date: Sep 2003
Location: Central New York State
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All electrical connections make a spark when they are made or broken and the load is drawing power. A switch is an electrical connection. With some switches the spark is more noticeable than others.
Old 09-02-06, 07:01 AM
Join Date: Apr 2006
Location: New Bern, NC
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I agree with racraft, but I am wondering how noticable the spark is. In a dark room you may be able to see just about any swithch spark under the right conditions. In a half lighted room it should be difficult.

Over Under switches do tend to be more noticable.

You may also have a defective switch or you need to get a better grade switch.
Old 09-02-06, 08:28 AM
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Certainly not the expert here but what I wonder about is the white wire and black wire being tied together. You may have a white (that should have been redesignated) and black as a switch loop but normally not as a separate hot to a load. If two blacks (reds, etc.) were tied together that would be normal. I'd ask the OP what happens if the white isn't connected.

The OP said that the fan has a light. So there are two loads to that fixture. Does the white power one load and black the other?. If so what about the neutral for the fan and its light. What is it's source. It really sounds like they ran a 2 conductor cable from the switch to the fan to provide two hots.

If true then the white should really be changed at both ends to provide the neutral and fan and light tied together at the fan and hooked to the single black wire.
Old 09-03-06, 07:33 PM
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Question bathroom light switch mess

I just read all the posts.

I think that there were 2 blacks tied together originally and then when we started looking it the only way to get the devices to work separately was to tie it together the way I described earlier.

My question is if you have 3 blacks and 3 whites in the box and 2 whites capped together is it possible that maybe the top switch throws on the fan light and vanity light?
Then the bottom just does the fan itself?

I think it worked that way but we thought it was wrong because the both lights were going on at the same time.
Does that matter?
Where is the fire hazard with this setup? Should all the whites be tied together maybe?
Old 09-04-06, 02:10 PM
Join Date: Sep 2003
Location: Central New York State
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Since you seem to have forgotten how everything was originally wired, and how it originally worked (a mistake on your part top be sure, you should have made detailed notes), you have no choice but to figure out what you have for wiring, and then based on what you CAN do and what you WANT to do, wire it accordingly.

If you want out assistance, tell us ALL the wiring at the switch, and at the light and at the fan/light.

At the light and at the fan/light do not disconnect any wiring. Tell us how any and all wires are connected, and be specific.

Also, when you discuss the new switch, do not discuss the tab on the switch. Fine you removed it. Either mention the common side of the switch (the side where the screws are electrically connected together) or mention the separate side, where the screws are not connected together. If the switches are not connected together and they should be, then you will have to make them connected or replace the switch.
Old 09-07-06, 07:07 PM
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bathroom switch mess - help...

Ok, thx for all the help.

I believe that i know the wiring was as follows:

Left side switch - 2 screws - no tab on that side to remove.
2 black wires tied together on one screw which was the top screw
1 white wire bottom screw left side of switch

right side - this side has the tab, I did NOT break it off as that wasn't the way the old switch was.
single black wire top screw.

What confused me was when I put it back like that the 2 lights went on when the top switch was flipped and the fan went on when the bottom switch was flipped.
The fan has a light and the vanity has a light.
I did NOT remember if that was the case before which was my failure in this project. I will take it all down and then detail how wires are connected.
As a starting point in the box I have:
2 pieces of romex, each has a black and white wire.
I then have what I "believe" is a third piece of romex with another black and white. I can't see the romex shield on these wires but I figure they must come out from romex.
2 white wires were just tapped of separately, not wire capped as they should be.
Old 09-08-06, 04:22 AM
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You till arte not providing enough information.

Which cables do the wires come from? Are the white wires that are taped off taped off together, or is each separate.

Since there are two wires on the output side of the top switch, it only makes sense that two of the loads (in this case two lights) are controlled by this switch.

Everything that you are describing makes perfect sense.

The wiring is not proper, ad you should fix it, but everything makes perfect sense.
Old 09-08-06, 06:19 AM
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Talking bathroom light switch mess

I did put this in my post:
2 white wires were just tapped of separately, not wire capped as they should be.
I do not know how to find out where the wires come from? How do I figure out which wires come from the vanity light or the fan light or the fan? I have NO idea how to do that.

So basically you are saying I should:
Put the 2 black wires back on the top screw on the left side of the switch (side without a tab)?
Single white wire goes on the bottom left screw (side without a tab)
Single black goes on top right screw (side with the UNBROKEN tab)?
I started this project because the switch in there had been popping.
I assume it was because the people put both black wires on a single screw instead of using a pigtail.
I have no idea how to do advanced electrical but typically I am not this confused.
thank you all for your help and I will wait for your response so I know I am doing it right.
How do you prevent and what out for electrical fires?
Old 09-08-06, 06:38 AM
Join Date: Sep 2003
Location: Central New York State
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"tapped [sic] off separately" does not answer the question. It says they are separate. Do you mean separate from the switch? Do you mean they are separate from each other. You can see what they are, we cannot. I still do not know if the two "separate" white wires are connected together to each other or if they are both totally unconnected.

You have three cables entering the switch box. Call them 1, 2 and 3. Each one has a back wire and a white wire. Call them B and W. This means you have B1, W1, B2, W2, B3, W3.

What is B1 connected to? What is W1 connected to? Same for B2, W2, B3 and W3.

Open and look at the wiring at the vanity and at the fan/light. What wires are there, and how are the wires connected?

Also, is the switch box metal or plastic?

Finally, at the vanity and at the fan/light do the cables enter the same hole into the box, or are they separate holes? I am assuming the boxes for these are metal. If they are plastic, let me know.

Bottom line. The wiring is not proper, but works. It may or may not be safe. Are you satisfied with the way the lights work and the fan works, or do you want the fan to come on with the light? Do you want a separate switch for each oif the three items?

What is your goal?
Old 09-08-06, 06:57 AM
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bathroom light switch mess

Thx, I will get that info.

the white wires - only from the switch box view are capped off separately. If they are tied together up in the ceiling somewhere then I have no idea.

I will pull down the vanity and fan this weekend to get the rest of the details.

Ideally I want the fan and fan light to come on as one item on the same switch. Shouldn't it be that way?
I want it safe, I have year old twins in my house...

You are correct, I have 3 blacks and 3 whites, I can see 2 pieces of romex and I am just guessing that the other black and white come from another piece but it is behind the box.
The switch box is metal.
the ground is attached to the box and is not long enough to pull out and get on the switch.
Old 09-08-06, 07:24 AM
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You have the following setup:

Power comes into the switch box on a black wire, connected to the switch on the side with the tab, and the tab is intact.

The two black wires connected to the same screw provide power to the vanity light and to the light half of the fan/light.

The white wire connected to the lone screw provides power to the fan half of the fan/light.

The two white wires that are loose in the box (not connected to each other, not connected to anything else, if I read you properly) are not used.

Without knowing the wiring at the vanity and the wiring at the fan/light I do not know much about the wiring there, except that it is wrong.

I suspect that two of the cables go between the fan/light and the switch, and that one cable goes between the vanity and the switch. I also suspect a wire between the vanity light and the and the fan/light, and one other wire entering the fan/light.

An immediate concern is the black and white wire that enter the box with no sheathing. They are most likely from the same cable. However the sheathing should enter the box and be clamped in place. This wire should be replaced unless there is enough slack to pull the sheathing into the box. This is a fire hazard.

The ground(s) should all connect together and to the metal box and to the switch. If they are not long enough then they need to be lengthened, if possible, or the cables need to be replaced.

You do not have a neutral in the box. This means that the neutrals are already present in the vanity light and in the fan/light. This is not necessarily an issue, depending on what you want to do.

Whoever wired this did not know what they are doing, and created a fire hazard. They used the cable they had or that was cheap instead of buying the right cable, and they simply ran wires to make it work.

You need to do the following:

If you want the fan and it's light to be on at the same time (controlled by one switch) and the vanity light to be controlled by the other switch, then you MAY be able to fiux this mess without running new wires.

If, however, you want to mix and match or control them all separately (which is what I would do), then you will need to replace at least the cable between the fan/light and the switch with a THREE conductor cable. You would also need to come up with a third switch if you wanted to control them ALL separately.

You need to decide what functionality you want. There is no right or wrong answer

Some people want the fan separate so they can run it AFTER a shower with no lights on after they leave the bathroom, or if the bathroom has a window and they don't want/need to turn the lights on for the shower.

Others want the fan to always run with the lights on so that it is not possible to forget to turn the fan on (unless you also forget to turn the lights on).

If you do not feel comfortable doing this, then call an electrician. On the other hand, the wiring itself is trivial and we can talk you through it, we just need to know the wiring at the other locations.
Old 09-08-06, 08:54 AM
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bathroom light switch mess

Hey Bobm,
I will get you all the details and reply back.

I work in IT as well ( I noticed your computer engineer tag).

I am actually thinking of taking a "home" electrical course but I don't know if it is worth it.

I am fine with having the fan and fan light on using one switch and the vanity on using the other switch. Let me pull out the switch, pull down the vanity, and pull down the fan, detail it all out and reply back.

Thanks again!!
Old 09-10-06, 03:20 PM
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