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October 11, 2006 12:03 AM

Broken: Furnace switch

FurnaceswitchDavid Sauder points out:

It's hard to imagine anything simpler - or more familiar - than an ordinary light switch.  Which makes it a good choice for an emergency application: the user won't have to stop and figure out how the switch
works because it is something they use every day.   

For most switches "on" is up and "off" is down.  However, that isn't always the case, so adding on/off labels is a good idea. 

But in this case, the labels don't clarify matters, they confuse them.   If the switch is pointing to "Off", it's really "On", and vice versa.  Imagine how much clearer this would have been if they had reversed the position of the on/off labels and left the arrows off completely.


I find it pretty easy to understand, the arrows and text are nice and big enough and it's obvious that flipping in the switch in the direction of the arrow. I guess like anything else in the world, it could have been better, but again, a switch is pretty easy to understand.

Posted by: Trent Chernecki at October 11, 2006 03:34 AM

I had to read the text twice to see what to problem was, because this looked obvious to me, but maybe thats because I woke up 5 minutes ago. So my instinct told me there wasn't something wrong with this one.

But now that I give it a second look, indeed it would have been better if "on" was placed above the arrow and "off" below.

Posted by: gravano at October 11, 2006 05:11 AM

In the UK, light switches are on when down and off when up. Most of the time anyway!

In this case we're talking about an emergency switch, so it really should be a big red "emergency stop" button.

Posted by: Flup at October 11, 2006 06:20 AM

This type of switch plate has been in use for this application for over 30 years that I am aware of. It's probably been around longer than that, but I remember seeing my father (who was, at the time, an HVAC contractor) install these things left and right, going back to when I was about five years old.

This switch, confusing though the original poster finds it, is fully standard in the US.

Posted by: Glenn Lasher at October 11, 2006 07:14 AM

I had no clue what might have been wrong with this until gravano mentioned the position of the words compared to the arrows - although putting the words on the end of the arrows would look kinda odd I think.

I really see nothing wrong with this. Could it have been done differently, sure? They could have put the words in the opposite places and left the arrows off altogether, or just made it a big red pushbutton to turn the furnace off... but personally, seeing a big arrow pointing up with the word ON next to it means that up is on, and vice versa for the off. Seems pretty obvious.

I take this as a case of people not wanting to look at the entire thing before deciding on what they want to do...

Yes, I realize this is for an emergency shutoff, so you want to be quick in your actions, but I honestly think this is exactly when you would want to make sure you are seeing the whole thing before deciding on a course of action, besides, its not like it takes more than 2 seconds to see the entire switchplate.

Posted by: Memnon at October 11, 2006 10:33 AM

even though I already said I think there is nothing wrong with this, I would like to say to Glen that just because something has been in use for a long time doesn't automatically make it not a problem.

On the other hand, if there hasn't been a lawsuit in this country (considering how suit happy we are) about something like that in all the time its been in use, then I'd think its not really a problem for most people.

Posted by: Memnon at October 11, 2006 10:37 AM

Get rid of the arrows, and then swap the positions of the ON and OFF labels.

Additional (and unneeded) information is not always better. Simplicity usually makes signs clearer. Whether you're in the US, UK, or Bangladesh, the arrows don't make the sign any clearer than if the ON/OFF labels had been in the proper place.

Posted by: KarmaBaby at October 11, 2006 11:17 AM

Broken. If it's an emergency switch, it should be as well-designed and easy to understand as possible. No one has pointed out that the words "Emergency Furnace Switch" are not even near one another.

It would have been just as easy to have text above that says, "Emergency Furnace Switch" and then put On and Off in the appropriate places. This kind of information design, whether it's been around 1 day or 30 years, and whether anyone has sued or not, is just plain sloppy.

Posted by: mmcwatters at October 11, 2006 01:36 PM

PS A notice a common theme on TIB: posters who believe that because something is okay, it shouldn't be classified as being broken. I would argue that our goal, whether in pursuits professional or personal, should be to improve things whenever possible. The idea that we should settle for good enough and not better is broken, IMHO.

Posted by: mmcwatters at October 11, 2006 01:39 PM

Take for example my careless use of the word "A" instead of "I" above. Clearly my typing is broken.

Posted by: mmcwatters at October 11, 2006 01:40 PM

Brilliant! They were clearly concerned with making things clear and instead made it more confusing (unless you assume the person in the emergency has time to analyze this switch ;-)

Posted by: Zephyr at October 11, 2006 01:40 PM

Also, would they really need an emergency *On* option here? What about just a big red "Off" button here?

Posted by: Zephyr at October 11, 2006 01:44 PM

One thing that bothers me is what if that were next to a light switch? Then we would flip it without knowing it was the light switch. Also, if the furnace was on fire, would you go into the room that is on fire and turn it off? Now THAT is publicly broken.

Posted by: st33med at October 11, 2006 02:55 PM

It kind of looks like the switch has two positions: FURNACE or EMERGENCY. I would choose FURNACE.

Posted by: fetjuel at October 11, 2006 04:22 PM

Anybody remember the "airer" rack? I just posted something that turns it around... check it out.

Posted by: st33med at October 11, 2006 08:31 PM

You'll probably find this design mandated by some NFPA code. Which doesn't mean it's not broken, only that the broken version is mandatory.

Posted by: henrybowmanaz at October 11, 2006 09:58 PM

I was just thinking, don't most swiches have a little 'on' or 'off' on the swich itself telling you what position you have it in? I printed the picture and I could not tell, so I am ok if someon tells me I am wrong.

Posted by: David Rice at October 12, 2006 06:36 AM

Here's something that I'm surpised no one's thoguht about: in the event of some emergency, would you actually even see the labels?

It's a switch. You don't have to decide which position to put it in, you just move it into whatever position it isn't in at the time. It almost makes any labels unnecassary.

Posted by: The Pondermatic at October 12, 2006 09:14 AM

I agree with the above poster. The labels dont't really matter. If something happened to the furnace, I would just run to the switch and flip it, knowing that, since it must already be in the "on" position, I must be switching it to the off position.

And having a switch instead of a stop button allows you to turn the furnace back on without going through some complicated reset procedure. If the button was pressed accidentally, a technician would probably have to be called the reset the furnace.

Posted by: TIBE4ME at October 12, 2006 09:38 PM

Oh, and since i'm supposed to suggest ways to improve it, I guess use one of those latching emergency buttons - press to stop, turn clockwise to reset. Although that kind of switch usually costs more and possibly requires more installation hardware due to the different hole size (7 1/4" I think) requiring a custom drilled panel. It's probably better, but how many of you use the furnace on/off switch often?

Posted by: Trent Chernecki at October 12, 2006 11:58 PM

^Ah, okay. That works then. I didn't know an emergency button could be reset that easily (never used one, and hope I never have to).

Posted by: TIBE4ME at October 13, 2006 05:51 AM

I've seen these stupid switchplates in many, many people's houses, the house I live in has three of them. The poor design of this switchplate made us waste money to call over the heating company. One day our heat stopped working, so we checked the emergency swtiches, which were these kind, and the switches were all pointing to "on". It was only after the heating guy came over and pointed it out that we noticed that if the switches were pointing to "on" they were really off because of the arrows.

Posted by: jon at October 13, 2006 11:25 PM

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