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Pull cord switches are an essential part of the home, as well as any area where moisture is commonplace. They perform the same function as a typical light switch, but they are situated high up on the ceiling and are operated using a cord that hangs down. This is to keep wet fingers away from the source of the voltage, but what is in a pull cord switch, and how does it work?
Inside a pull cord switch, the important mechanism is essentially the same as any regular light switch—a straightforward means of making and breaking a circuit. Where things get a little different is the mechanism by which the switch is activated.
You may have noticed that there is a certain springiness to a pull cord switch, and that is facilitated by the relatively large spring you will find inside. This spring allows a certain amount of “give” in the cord before the switch is activated. That first inch or so that you pull the cord is just compressing this spring, and once it is fully compressed, it pulls on the switch itself.
You will often find that the switch component is identical to the internal switch used in regular light switches, a manufacturing choice that no doubt saves a fortune in costs and allows pull cords to be much cheaper than they would otherwise have been.
The front portion of the pull cord housing—the portion that the cord comes out of—should come away from the rear portion, which is attached to the ceiling. This allows you to install the switch relatively easily, since you can attach the rear portion without all of the workings of the switch in the way, and then clip or screw the front portion into place after the fact.
In the interests of keeping everyone safe, let us start by saying that you should always get a qualified electrician to handle any electrical work for you. If you are not willing to do that, the following information should help you stay safe, but you do so at your own risk; our advice is to hire a professional.
As with any electrical appliance, system, or component, the first step to safely replacing a pull cord switch is ensuring there is no power getting to that switch. You can do this by switching off the breaker that supplies the pull cord you are replacing.
1. First of all, if you don’t know which breaker it is, hit the main breaker to cut all of the power to your home. (Better no power than being electrocuted) It’s best practice would dictate that you also test to make sure that the circuit is not live before you begin working on it.
2. Once you are satisfied that the power is off, remove the front portion of the pull cord housing. The most common way for this section to be attached is with two screws. Simply unscrew those two screws and the front portion should come free, but don’t pull too hard because the electrical wires inside will still be attached.
3. Carefully unscrew the electrical terminals inside so that the front portion of the pull cord housing can be completely removed. Make a note of the wire colors and which terminals they were in. Your wires should be using a standardized color scheme, but you never know.
4. Next, remove the rear portion from the ceiling by unscrewing the screws inside the housing that are holding it up. You will need to thread the electrical wire through the housing to get it out.
Once all that is done, repeat the process in reverse. Take extra care to make sure no bare electrical wire is touching anything that it shouldn’t be.
If you are just performing a straight swap and there is nothing wrong with your wiring, you will probably need a couple of screwdrivers to replace pull cord switches. A larger screwdriver for dismantling the housing and unscrewing it from the ceiling (these could be flat, crosshead, or a mixture) as well as a terminal screwdriver for the electrical wires themselves. A terminal screwdriver is essentially a flat screwdriver with a very small head.
If your wiring needs to be stripped back for some reason (perhaps there was too much excess) you will also need wire cutters and strippers. As mentioned above, if you must change the switch yourself, we would strongly recommend you have a means of testing the wires to make sure they are not live. A multimeter will do the job nicely, but failing that, a tester screwdriver can also do the job.
Tools for the job:
As we have mentioned a few times now, we strongly advise hiring a qualified electrician to carry out tasks like this for you. Electrical systems are extremely dangerous, and attempting to work on them without the relevant knowledge and experience can result in serious—even fatal—injury. This does not just apply to the person working on the switch, but people who come to use the switch afterwards.
It can also be very expensive if something is done wrong. A best case scenario would be the switch simply doesn’t work, however it is entirely possible to cause damage to other systems in your home, and even electrical fires.
We understand the desire to save a little money and add another useful skill to your arsenal, but when it comes to electrical systems, it is best to leave it to the experts.
Ultimately, pull cord switches are no different from regular switches in the way they operate—it is only the mechanism by which you activate the switch that is different. You will typically find these switches in rooms where there is moisture, like bathrooms.
All the same rules regarding safety apply, and we would like to reiterate that it is best to call an expert to work on something like this.