Three way light switch on stairs

common sense trumps code intent & interpretation
whenever in doubt ask the homeowner if they want safe convenience or unsafe inconvenience

i often encounter puffy chested trades that would rather regurgitate the minimum code than make a buck retrofitting inconvenience…go figure

Im trying to make more of a habit of looking up some of these questions.

Does not specify 3way.

I think its safe to say the intent of the code is to have the stairway lit for safety issues. But there are a ton of options out there that don’t require 3 way switches to accomplish this intent.

Sensors, timers, computer controlled environments. Some high tech switches and fixtures are becoming cheaper and more accessible for the average homeowner to utilize and some may not need or work with a 3way switch method.

While intent can be used to help understand the code it is not the enforceable part. Only what is written can be enforced. This section is no different than the requirements for a switch controlled lighting outlet in some rooms. The switch does not even need to be on the same level or room it controls.

This thread is exactly why we are not code inspectors and the minimal code specific wording does not matter. With all due respect to Jim and Robert, this is exactly why we don’t perform code inspections and we can have issues with electricians, plumbers and other trades.

Our JOB is to inform our clients of issues. It is not our job to determine FOR our client what they feel is important or not important, and what they decide to live with or ignore. JMHO.

I always appreciate the help we get from professionals in the different industries in regards to their expertise. The more information we have available, the more we can help our clients. Thanks Jim and Robert.

Hear, hear!

OK…now I will chime in with my perspective.

  1. While it is a common tendency to “quote” others like Mr. Holt I can promise you he is not always correct(none of us SO-CALLED Experts are 100% of the time). In fact, I have emails from Mr.Holt to prove it. However, he is entitled to his opinion which some do indeed take as gospel. In this case it is his opinion because quite frankly that is how an electrician would wire it and he caters to Electricians.

  2. The NEC does indeed say “wall switch”, that wall switch at each floor level, landing or entryway will indeed have to control the lighting outlets(s) installed on that interior stairway. (paraphrasing of course for brevity) so Mr. Port is technically code correct.

The building code does require a specific amount of illumination to the stairway. If the installer wants to add (2) lighting outlets(s) in the stairway and control each at the separate locations that would be compliant in terms of the NEC. However, it would not be practical and to be honest look quite foolish in my opinion.

So in Mr. Holts statement he is just speaking to the normal installation practice of installing 3-way (or 4-way) switching to accomplish the task at hand. Yet as discussed and highly impractical, the installer could control individual lighting outlet(s) from each location as long as it will seek an effort to meet the illumination requirements of the building codes. While the NEC really does not focus on that it has to work along with it in regards to our combined inspection AHJ world.

So with that said…in terms of HI’s, you are not NEC enforcers and code officials so if it is possible to turn on a luminaire and walk down a set of stairs that would not be fully illuminated unless you turned on another switch for a separate luminaire elsewhere in the stairway, causing the occupant to walk through non-illuminated portions of the stairway then it is a potential safety concern and thats the HI’s focus.

Now for our Code Debate - The language of NEC 210.70(A)(2)© says that you will have lighting outlet(s) in the interior stairway. The last part of the sentence says that wall switch at each location shall control the lighting outlets…so one could argue that if you install the lighting outlet(s) that all of the switches for those lighting outlet(s) have to control those “lighting outlets”…

So cost being what it is…if you installed a single lighting outlet and assuming it provides ample coverage (1 FC) then that lighting outlet would have to be controlled at both ends of the stairway (if six risers or more)…and the only physical way to do it is with a 3-way switch. (dual lamped luminaries not considered…lol…its a dwelling…lol).

Just my thoughts on it…knowing what the code says…then knowing that HI’s should ignore this and report on the safety aspect of the installation only.

I wouldn’t dare to argue code with you, I am not worthy, but I did speak to an inspector on this topic and picked his brain a bit and left with a different interpretation.

The situation was lights were installed on the exterior of a building and for aesthetic reasons and logistic they were installed a bit offset to the stairway. The lights were set to a timer and the inspector passed the work stating that the setup met the code requirements and illuminated the staircase sufficiently and that if he had any doubts would walk the steps with a light meter to determine a pass or fail of inspection.

With a staircase like the one in this picture above, what you described makes perfect sense and not worth arguing over. 3way switch makes the most sense…

…But in a situation like this with an open staircase, there are potentially numerous light sources that can substantially illuminate the staircase/landings and 3way switches may not be the best lighting design choice. Other options may make just as much sense.

I would write these stairs up as a hazard little people would always be climbing the wire under the hand rail. .

Im saying the rails are lined with safety glass for this discussion and little people can only smudge the heck out of the railing.

Regardless If mine I would still want three way switches .
Going to bed upstairs I would want to be able to turn of the lights on the wall.

And I don’t see any safety glass in between those open risers to prevent those little people from falling down…:wink:

**Where one or more lighting outlet(s) are installed
for interior stairways, there shall be a wall switch at each
floor level, and landing level that includes an entryway, to
control the lighting outlet(s)

Rather than picking the words out Robert when I read them as as a sentence it seems to me to read there should be a switch at each floor level in order to control the installed lighting outlet(s.) Note the specified singular and plural. If only one installed lighting unit were involved why would you need specified there should be a switch at each level. In otherwords a 3 or four way is required. Perhaps it could be worded better but the intent seems clear to me.


You are very worthy of talking code with me…who am I to think otherwise as I am certainly no one special. With that said, I believe I agree with that inspectors intent as long as he can back it up with a light meter…if he so chooses but thats at his/her choosing. In the bottom picture, if the top switch switched lets say two of the luminaries and the bottom switch did only one of the luminaries on that stairway…if the one provides the needed and required illumination then it meets code…they would not need to switch them all…and still meet code. However, it is an impractical application and being an electrician for over 25 years I and none of the students I have had the pleasure to teach in the apprentice programs or when i was an associate professor at a local college electrical program or even as a master electrician who enjoyed teaching others…I would never wire it that way. We would always use 3 way switching and control all the luminaries…

All it says it needs a light switch at those levels.
However it is done doesn’t matter.

But now you are bringing in conflicting images to what Mr. Holt stated and what is within this image. I believe (as I have stated and I hate restating over again) that Mr. Port is NEC correct…the image shown is technically NEC correct…the argument that multiple luminaries would be installed in the same location and switched independently is impractical and would not be something an electrician would do…normally.

However, if he did it he would meet the minimum requirements of the NEC as long as he also meets the minimum illumination requirements of the IRC then he may just get his CO…;)…or maybe not…lol

What about just carrying a candle up the stairs with you? :|.)

darn it dude! Knowing you’re in West Virginia I can see that happening now a days. :slight_smile:

Agreed. Although many parts of the NEC are not very clear this one is spelled out quite nicely.

I wish I could take credit for it but Mike Holt deserves it.