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How Dimmer Switches Work

When you're furnishing a home, light is everything. The light level in a room dictates what you can and can't do, and it has a huge effect on how you feel. You can't read very easily by a single candle, for example, and a romantic dinner for two isn't so romantic under a 1,500-watt halogen lamp. The problem is that people need to use some rooms for multiple purposes, and these different functions call for varying amounts of light. Enter the dimmer switch, a handy electrical component that lets you adjust light levels from nearly dark to fully lit by simply turning a knob or sliding a lever.

However, not all light bulbs are compatible with dimmer switches. Dimming switches work by affecting the voltage and not the wattage. With the incorrect dimming switch, certain light bulbs will get the wrong voltage and create problems. 

The incandescent bulb and its close relative the halogen bulb are the most utilitarian light bulbs because they work with any dimmer switch. They only burn out if the voltage is too much for them but not if the voltage is underneath their capacity.

To use a dimmer with a fluorescent light, the bulb must have a dimmable ballast. Besides, consumers should get a dimmer that specifically says that is compatible with fluorescent lights. Even with a dimmable fluorescent bulb, at the lower light range, the bulb may just turn off. Another issue is that they may not turn on correctly when using one or more dimmers in different locations.

LED light bulbs dim lower than fluorescent bulbs but the dimming range is determined by the bulb's circuitry. The LED also is prone to turning off at the lower light range, and it too may perform incorrectly with one or more dimmers. While an incandescent bulb will flicker with voltage fluctuations, an LED may shut off or flicker excessively.

When buying, a consumer should remember that incandescent bulbs dim from zero to 100 percent while fluorescent and LED bulbs can only lower to 10 to 20 percent of minimum value, so homeowners may not be able to achieve the level of ambience desired. In addition, fluorescent and LED bulbs require more expensive and complicated dimming switches. However in the long run, LED and fluorescent bulbs provide significant energy savings.