Can You Add a Dimmer Switch to LED Lights?

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Dimming the lights in a room is a perfect way to change the lighting environment and feel of a room. But, if you have LED lighting, is it possible to use a dimming switch? If you already have LED lighting installed, this is a common question, but one with a bit of a complicated answer.

You can add a dimmer switch to control LED lighting, but not all LED lighting is compatible with traditional dimmer switches. Additionally, LED-specific dimmer switches exist. Since LEDs draw so little power, there are issues with using traditional dimmer switches.

LED lighting has quickly become one of the more popular lighting technologies around. This is due to their longer lifespan and low power consumption. But, this lower power draw causes problems when you try to connect the lights to a dimmer. LED lights also don’t work in the same way as incandescent bulbs, which can also cause some issues. Dimming the two lights is different because of these factors.

How Dimming LED Bulbs are Different than Dimming Incandescent Bulbs

Hanging light bulbs

When you use a dimmer switch, you are essentially controlling the power output. All dimmers operate by reducing the amount of power sent to the light. They do this by diminishing what is called the trailing edge of the energy wave. Most household dimmers work in this way, but not all of them, moreover, only some LED lights are compatible with trailing edge dimmers. One of the main differences between a dimmer that controls an incandescent bulb and a LED is the amount of energy that it controls. Essentially, an LED draws almost 10x less power than a traditional bulb. 

Lumens (Brightness)LED (In Watts)Incandescent (In Watts)
400-5006-7W40W
650-8507-10W60W
1000-140012-12W75W
1450-1700 +14-20W100W
2700+25-28W150W
LED vs. Incandescent

As you can see, there is quite a large disparity in the amount of power being used by each bulb. This means that providing 25% of the power for an incandescent bulb would likely fully power an LED. Consequently, a traditional dimmer switch won’t provide the reduction needed to dim the LED light as much as you’d probably like. In some cases, when the dimmer is in the off-position, it is still providing enough power to light the LED. 

LED lighting also doesn’t function the same way as incandescent lighting, which is one of the reasons why you have to make sure you get the right ones when using them outside as we suggested in our other guide. Within an LED bulb is more than just a diode. To help manage the power correctly, a device called a driver is necessary which helps to prevent a process called thermal runaway

Because of this driver, not all LED lights are compatible with traditional dimmer switches. Even ones that are like these Linkind LED Bulbs (on Amazon), will still not dim the same way as an incandescent bulb. To communicate with this driver effectively, you need to find an LED-compatible dimmer switch.

How Do LED Dimmer Switches Work?

2 Dimmable Light Switches and 1 Normal Switch

LED dimmers need more than just power reduction to work their magic. This is because they have to communicate with the driver on the bulb itself. To do this, LED-specific dimmer switches use one of two methods: 1) PWM Dimming – Pulse width modulation or 2) CCR Reduction – Constant current reduction. PWM dimming flickers the LED light on and off at a rate imperceptible by the human eye.

This allows the lights to work at their rated power levels while still giving off the effect of dimmed lights. CCR reduction works similarly to traditional dimmer switches. They dim the lights by lowering the amount of current that flows to them. Both types of switches benefit the longevity of the lights by controlling temperature and are very effective. One noticeable difference with CCR switches is that they can alter the color temperature of the lights.

Replacing your Older Dimmer Switch with an LED Compatible Dimmer Switch

Replacing your old dimmer switch is your best bet if you want to use LED lighting. This process can be straightforward, and even those with limited tools and know-how should accomplish the task. There is a touch of math involved in dimmer switches, so keep that in mind.

While you don’t need to be an electrical engineer to get things working, consult a professional if you feel uncomfortable. You will also be dealing with electrical components, so safety should be your utmost concern. What you will need is the following:

How to Replace Your Older Dimmer Switch with an LED Compatible Dimmer Switch

  1. Turn off the breaker to cut the power from the lights. Make sure you check by trying to turn the lights on and off.
  2. Use your flathead screwdriver to remove the faceplate.
  3. Now, use the Phillips head screwdriver to remove the switch itself. 
  4. Next, take your voltage tester and test the switch by placing the black (ground) node on the metal enclosure and the red (positive) on both the screws that hold the hot wires.
  5. If you get no reading, you are OK to proceed.
  6. Now take your screwdriver and remove all of the wires
  7. From here, you will want to connect the wires to the new LED-compatible dimmer switch.
  8. Use your electrical tape and wire nuts to seal off the connection and make sure no wire is exposed.
  9. Before refitting the switch and the faceplate, turn back on the power to test the switch.
  10. All you need to do now is screw in the switch and then the faceplate if everything is working.

Note: You should always find the right hardware for your project. Keep in mind that you may be dealing with either a 2-pole or 3-pole switch. Additionally, when using a dimmer switch, you need to make sure the switch itself is rated to manage the circuit’s amount of power. To find out more about this process, check out this link.

How to Know if Your LED Bulbs are Dimmable

Light bulbs

To find out if an LED bulb is dimmable, you need to find information on the driver inside the housing. Since this is the device that manages the power for the light, it needs to handle the current fluctuations. In non-dimmable LEDs, this is an on-off switch. But with dimmable drivers, the change in current is expected and compensated with either PWM or CCR.

To figure out if your bulbs can do this, you should first check the product description and see if it mentions dimmable bulbs. There may also be some description or symbols on the package or on the side of the bulb itself that denotes its dimming qualities. Unfortunately, labels and symbols vary depending on manufacturers. Your best bet is to make sure you are working with the correct equipment before making any purchases. 

You may also be able to use the make and model number of your bulbs to check on the manufacturer’s website. Keep in mind that you need to have both a switch and bulb rated for dimming for your LED lights to work properly. But, if you want to avoid all the complications with LED lights and dimmable switches, there is another option you could explore.

Consider Doing the Dimming At the Bulb

Alongside the rise in LED lighting, we have also seen advancements in smart home technology in the form of smart bulbs. These devices build on the driver system in LED lighting and add even more connectivity and functions. Smart bulbs can offer dimming as well as other convenient features like voice commands and scheduled actions.

Additionally, if you are using a smart bulb, you don’t need to replace your dimmer switches. This is because the dimming is done at the bulb itself, with the controls being your smart hub or smartphone. They can be a great option because they offer the same functionality, efficiency, and longevity as regular LED lighting but without the extra wiring. If you are averse to doing electrical work, this may be the option for you. Also, if you want even more control of your lights, then smart bulbs are perfect.

Smart bulbs can do a number of things, including being programmed to respond to certain actions, like when you open the door, the living room lights come on. They can be scheduled to turn off and on at certain times of day, which is perfect if you always forget to turn off the lights at night, and they can also be controlled from far away with smart apps. This can be a lifesaver if you forget to turn off your lights before you leave the house.

There are plenty of great options out there for smart bulbs. The Phillips Hue (on Amazon) can make a great addition to any home and comes from a familiar manufacturer. There are also smart bulbs designed to work with other smart devices. The Alexa Smart Bulbs (on Amazon) pair perfectly with Echo devices to create a seamless smart home system. 

Wrapping Up

While it is possible to dim LED lights with a switch, there is a lot to consider. First, not all LED lights are dimmable. This is due to the hardware that does the processing in the light itself. Second, the power usage disparity of LED vs. incandescent is quite large. What this means is your regular dimmer switch won’t quite dim the LED effectively. To tackle this problem you will need an LED-specific dimmer switch.

While installation of one of these switches isn’t too hard, you may not be comfortable working with electricity. If this is the case, then you may want to opt for smart bulbs. These devices offer the best qualities of LED lights and add some really convenient smart functions.

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