My nine-year-old daughter commented the other day that it was confusing to turn off the living room lights because you couldn’t just push it down to turn it off, sometimes you had to push it up and sometimes you had to push it down.
Indeed. It’s a so-called “three-way” switch, the biggest crime against usability that’s been foisted upon the world. These are the type of switches you use to control a light from two locations, like both ends of a hall. They look just like a classic light switch, that you push up to turn on and down to turn off; and they sometimes work the same (at least from the user’s perspective), but other times, depending on the state of the opposite switch, they work the opposite way. To add insult to injury, they’re called “three-way” switches when they can only be used in two locations. (Three-way refers to the wiring, with three instead of the usual two wires inside. In the rare occasion you need three switches, are you surprised that you need a four-way switch?)
As an aside, the typical toggle switch doesn’t offend me. Paddle switches with screwless wallplates are nice, but not necessary; I just want to fix the usability issue.
One solution would be a single push-button switch. In an example of what was old is now again, the 1950′s house I lived in as a child in the 1980′s had Honeywell Tap-Lite switches. (At least it did at first, my first exposure to electrical wiring was when my dad had to replace some 30 year old switches that failed.) Recently, Legrand has introduced push-button switches in its Adorne line. I think I might use these in my house.
An even better solution would be a switch that you could simply always push down to turn off. It could spring back to the center position, so if the switch at other end of the room was used it wouldn’t end up in the wrong position. But I haven’t seen such a switch for normal residential use.
The amazing thing is that all these switches are backward compatible. The living room switches above were a replacement for the original 1920′s two-button switches that failed after over 90 years of service! I like the character of those old switches (and there are reproductions available now), although the three-way version did have the same usability issue. But, I was able to swap out the 90 year old part with little more than a screwdriver. I think about this when I see USB charging ports that you can hard wire into your house now–will any new hardware and software of today be as compatible at the dawn of the 22nd century?