We have light switches outside our bathroom, which irritates me primarily because my kids think it’s funny to turn off the light when me or my wife are in there! So why are these light switches outside the bathroom anyway?
Bathroom light switches are in the hallway or neighboring bedroom rather than in the bathroom itself because water and electricity don’t mix. It’s all too easy to unthinkingly flip the switch inside a bathroom with wet hands, or when standing in a puddle of shower or bathwater.
Let’s dive down into the subject of bathroom lights outside the bathroom in more detail, and discover what our options are when it comes to fitting these light switches in the context of electrical safety…
Why Are Bathroom Light Switches Outside the Bathroom?
It may seem like a bit of a nuisance to have the bathroom light outside the bathroom (and if you have mischievous kids, you can easily find yourself showering in the dark…). However, there’s a good reason why bathroom light switches are in the hallway or neighboring bedroom rather than in the bathroom itself: water and electricity do not mix.
It’s all too easy to unthinkingly flip the switch inside a bathroom with wet hands. You don’t even need to have wet hands: water is a great conductor of electricity, so if you switch off the light while standing in a puddle from the shower – well, let’s just say that it’s a risk.
So, to prevent these nasty accidents from ever occurring, building regulations are strict when it comes to installing bathroom light switches.
Can a Light Switch Be Inside a Bathroom?
You can actually have a light switch inside the bathroom, but there’s a lot to think about before you go ahead and install it.
Firstly, the type of switch. Because bathrooms are humid and damp environments, a standard fitting won’t do. You’ll need to find a light switch that’s rated Outdoor Use. These are more watertight than standard switches, as they have to be able to stand up to rain.
Another consideration is overspray. Now, the National Electrical Code (the essential safety rules for any US-based electrical work) doesn’t say that you can’t have a switch near your shower or tub (more about this in a moment), but you do need to watch out for overspray.
So, if you open your shower door while the water’s still spraying, will the drops reach the switch? If the kids are having an especially splashy bath, is there a risk of droplets (or tidal waves of bathwater) getting into the fitting?
There is a solution: a battery-powered remote control. This gives you a safe-to-use means of operating the lights (including from the tub) and is especially good if you have mood or color-changing lighting installed in your bathroom.
Why Do Most Bathrooms Have Pull Switches?
Pull cord switches used to be more of a British idea, but we’re seeing them more and more over here. They are a simple solution to the water-electricity problem found with bathroom lighting.
The long pull cord means that your wet hands are a long way from the circuit, which is also up high above the ceiling and safe from everyday splashes.
If you want to switch (sorry) over to a pull cord, you’ll need to have it fitted by a qualified electrician. Once up, you can decorate it by attaching a pretty bead or tying an intricate knot at the pulling end of the pull cord.
Can a Light Switch Be Next to a Shower? (How Close Can it Be?)
The National Electrical Code (usually called the NEC) is established by the National Fire Prevention Agency. The code doesn’t actually say that your light switch can’t be next to your shower (similar codes in other countries actually specify distances). However, it’s quite clear that you can’t have a light switch actually inside your shower cubicle.
Some shower assemblies (the expensive ones) come with a light switch as part of the unit. This isn’t a violation of the code; however, it would be were you to install one yourself. If you want to operate the lights safely while you shower, try a waterproof remote control.
As it’s not actually a violation, can you have a light switch next to the shower? As we mentioned earlier, overspray from the shower could get into the switch (even a switch rated for Outdoor Use might not deal with a spray from the showerhead). Work out the furthest water from the shower could possibly travel, and make that the demarcation line for any switches. The NEC calls this risky area the “wet zone”.
How Close Can a Light Switch Be to a Bathroom Sink?
You can have a light switch near your bathroom sink, bearing in mind that it’s still a wet zone and you could have splashes from the faucet. However, any electrical outlets have to be at least three feet away from your sink. As this measurement starts at the edge of the sink, it can mean you are quite tight for space when it comes to siting your outlet.
In a small bathroom, this can make life tricky (especially if you have a double sink and would like separate outlets). An important point: if the outlet operates any lights, such as the light above or around your bathroom mirror, this counts as an outlet not a light switch. So, under Nth NEC, the controls for the mirror lights need to be three feet away from the sink.
This rule, as well as the safety concerns around the Wet Zone and any overspray, are why many people opt to have the light switch on the outside of the bathroom. This is especially the case when it comes to smaller en suite bathrooms or wet rooms. There simply isn’t space to put the switch in a convenient location that is guaranteed never to get the occasional splash from the sink.
What Is the Building Code for Bathroom Light Switches?
The best thing to do before designing or rewiring a bathroom is to read up on the National Electrical Code (and of course, hire a qualified and certified professional to actually carry out the works).
This code is the safety benchmark for electrical design and installation and is used in all US states. So, wherever you and your bathroom are in the country, these same basic rules apply.
Here are a few of the main points relating to bathrooms and their light switches:
- You cannot install a light switch inside the shower assembly or the tub (unless it has been installed as part of the assembly by the manufacturer)
- However, you need to be aware of the Wet Zone and any overspray from the shower or faucets
- Outlets installed in kitchens and bathrooms must have ground-fault circuit interrupters, (GFCIs). This is a circuit-breaker that can turn off the power to your outlet incredibly quickly in an emergency
- A bathroom outlet (including one that operates any lighting, for example, the lights around a mirror) must be at least three feet away from the edge of the sink
Of course, your professional will be carrying out the work,as well as advising you about what is and what isn’t possible when it comes to bathroom light switches. However, if you want to know more before you start your project, watch this short film. Jeff takes you through the Do’s and Don’ts of installing outlets and switches in bathrooms.
We think that in the end, the old British solution of using a pull cord makes it far easier to operate the light from inside your bathroom. It keeps wet hands well away from any source of electricity, and you can even decorate the pull cord with a pretty bead or pendant to match your decor.
If you still prefer a switch, just think carefully about where to site it. What if the Wet Zone prevents it from going inside the bathroom? You’ll just have to train the kids not to flip it while you’re in the tub…
I love everything about the USA but when it comes to bathroom lights – we may follow our good friends the Brits by installing pull cords inside the bathroom.
As mentioned, my kids seem to think it’s funny turning the light off when I’m in there, so this would not only be a good move in terms of electrical safety – but would also stop me from having to frequently go to the toilet in the dark! 🙂