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Updating a Push-Button Light Switch

You can replace an antique light switch without updating the look. Master Electrician, Heath Eastman tells you how.

installing a push-button light switch
Heath Eastman completes the installation of a new double-gang, push-button light switch. The buttons on the left control a ceiling fan with an LED light; twisting the bottom button adjusts the light’s brightness.

Q: My husband and I are proud owners of a 1920 Arts and Crafts bungalow with the original push-button light switches. We’d like to keep them, but are they safe? Should we replace them with more up-to-date versions?—Jennifer Pearce, Buffalo, NY

Best Practices for Replacing Antique Light Switches

A: I’d recommend that you replace the original switches with new ones. Those switches were made with materials that may have become cracked, corroded, or fatigued in the last 100 years, and their design doesn’t meet today’s strict electrical-safety standards. The newer switches do, as indicated by their “UL-Listed” mark.

Fortunately, you don’t have to give up on the two-button look, or the satisfying snap that the buttons make when you push them in. Replacement switches and cover plates that look just like the antique versions, right down to the mother-of-pearl inlay on the buttons, are available from specialty retailers such as House of Antique Hardware.

Cost

Prices for a basic, single-pole, push-button switch begin around $14. You can also get an authentic-looking push-button dimmer switch, with one rotating button that functions as the dimmer.

Safety

The more important question to ask about a house of this age is: How safe is the wiring? I’ve seen electrical systems that have provided 100 years of service, or more, and l know what a high fire and electrical-shock hazard they pose. You’d be wise to take a close look and see what you’ve got.

How to Perform a Basic Safety Assessment

To begin a basic electrical safety assessment, check the main service panel. If it’s the original fuse box, it’s definitely time to upgrade to a modern circuit-breaker panel.

The next thing to check is the wiring itself. With the power shut off, take the cover plates off the original switches and receptacles and pull them out. Are the wires covered in cloth and coated with rubber insulation that cracks easily when flexed? If so, then it’s also time to make rewiring a top priority.

A service-panel replacement and whole-house rewiring are not DIY projects. Hire a licensed electrician with old-house experience to do this work for you.

Thanks to: Jon Eaton, creative director, House of Antique Hardware