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September 14, 2005 12:03 AM

Broken: Wall switches

SwitchesDave Collins writes:

Light switch panel in a guesthouse bathroom. Multiple examples of brokenness.

1: Main users: people who have never been here before, have no idea what feature are avaialbe let alone how to operate them, and won't be around long enough to make learning them useful.

2: No feedback. Some of these switches do subtle things - like turn on the under-floor heater. (At least I think they do.) It might be five minutes before you know the switch has done anything at all.

3: Fitts' Law violated. The main light switch is the middle panel. It has an on/off as well as a dimmer. The large dimmer has a target surface area of 242mm^2. Even though the on/off will be by far the most used, the surface area to hit with your finger is only 64mm^2 - that's nearly 4x smaller! Additionally, it only sticks out only about 1mm from the panel, which is very difficult to feel. This switch takes more than a second of scrutiny and dexterity to operate.

Flaw 1 is the fault of the owner, flaw 2 is debatable, but flaw 3 is definitely intrinsic in the manufacture of the device itself.


Some people just don't care if something is usable.

Posted by: Roger at September 14, 2005 12:29 AM

What's broken is that it takes four seperate switches to operate a bathroom to it's full capacity.

Posted by: jake at September 14, 2005 01:10 AM

Get labels, end of story.

Posted by: Bob at September 14, 2005 04:53 AM

One of these switches detonates the nuclear device hidden behind the toilet - can you tell which one?

Posted by: Alden Bates at September 14, 2005 06:04 AM

I don't think that someone thought out their light switch bank before putting it in, or perhaps some of them were added on later.

Regarding the light switch that violates Fitts' Law, it should be noted that the dimmer/switch setup is often used in conjunction with a three way setup so you can set a light level, then turn the light on and off from another location. However, this is unlikely, unless we're talking about a biiiig bathroom.

Posted by: Jesse at September 14, 2005 08:06 AM

This bathroom is an example of Featuritis ( The bathroom has so many features that the most important ones become difficult to use, putting the room in the "I can't do the one simple thing" category.

Yes, I am aware that I just stated the blindingly obvious. Someone had to, though.

Posted by: Kevin at September 14, 2005 08:43 AM

Ah, but which switches/switch placements were dictated by building code? In CA it is required that the first switch operate a flourescent fixture. As flourescent fixtures are also often not the most desired type of lighting they are often down-played in the design of the room. This combination of homeowner desire vs building code then DICTATES that the primary light source in the room is not controlled by the first switch. [There also similar codes relating to exhaust fans.] Ah, design by bureaucracy.

Posted by: Kit at September 14, 2005 02:34 PM

You can have a three-way switch in a quite-small bathroom. The problem is a code requirement that you have switches by every enterance to the room. Take a jack-and-jill bathroom and you'll have a three-way even if it's quite small.

We have that in our laundry room. You have to walk through the laundry to get to the garage so it's got two enterances. Thus it has a three-way even though they are close enough together that you can reach both at the same time.

Why the bit of hall just after it that's only a hair smaller doesn't have a three-way I don't know.

Posted by: Loren Pechtel at September 14, 2005 07:51 PM

We have 4 controls in our bathroom. However, the closest switch to the door is the primary light source, and they become increasingly less significant as they move further away. (Fan timer, lights over tub, nightlights.)

Yeah, it seems like 'featuritis', but as long as order and usability are maintained, why not.

The problem with many houses is that switches aren't planned. They're just tossed up there wherever it's easiest.

Posted by: nyackjazz at September 14, 2005 09:45 PM

I get all the other switches...but how does the middle switch work?

Posted by: Sierab at September 14, 2005 10:42 PM

"Get labels, end of story."

Yeah cus labels are really handy in the dark!

Posted by: ross at September 15, 2005 12:37 AM

"... how does the middle switch work?..."

There are two controls. The large top one is an up/down dimmer, the tiny bottom one is left/right on/off. This is the main light switch.

There is a huge surface area and movement for operating the dimmer (moves through an inch or more), but only a tiny surface area and movement for operating the on/off (moves only 1/8inch). Yet, on/off is what will be used 99% of the time. To enter or exit the bathroom, one must stop, examine the panels, find the right one, and then move closer so as to see and operate the little on/off switch at the bottom. This takes several seconds every time you enter and exit the bathroom.

Posted by: DaveC426913 at September 15, 2005 09:13 AM

Ross- Shut up.

Posted by: Bob at September 15, 2005 05:26 PM

I don't think it's the manufacturer; those switches/switch-types are sold separately and installed as chosen by the electrician who wires the room. Putting an occupancy sensor (that's that center switch) into the center of a three-gang plate is poor planning, and if it's not turning anything on automatically (the "on" button on that sensor is a manual switch, which is why it's not prominent) then it's either been installed incorrectly or it needs to be replaced with a working sensor.

Posted by: golfwidow at September 16, 2005 01:28 PM

yes ross !!! if ur in the dark and cant read the label.. well lets think, i know this maybe hard for you but please try and grasp this concept, ok here it goes turn on the light.... you got that... you understand ?

Posted by: NICK at September 18, 2005 03:57 PM

o and dont even say u dont know how because you cant read the lable..... mess with it till you figure it out there smarty or r u scared itll hurt u ?

Posted by: NICK at September 18, 2005 04:04 PM

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