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The Different Types of Dimmers (& What Is Best For You)

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Using a dimmer is a great way to reduce the amount of electricity your lights use—while giving you more control over the atmosphere in your space. But not all dimmers are the same—in fact, they use different technology based on the kind of lighting you need to dim.

We’ve provided beautiful lighting for Calgary homes and businesses for years, so we know all about how different types of dimmers work. Find an explanation for each kind below, along with our recommendations on the best areas to use them in.

Incandescent

Dimmer switches for incandescent bulbs introduce a resistor to the circuit, which reduces the amount of current reaching the bulb. The more resistance you add, the less current the bulb receives, and the less light it produces.

Pros

  • Largest controllable dimming range (0% to 100%)
  • Excellent for creating ambience due to the warmth of incandescent light
  • Among the most affordable kinds of dimmers

Cons

  • Less energy efficient than other type of dimmers
  • Resistance converts lost energy to heat, which can make the dimmers warm
  • Incandescent bulbs do not last as long as other kinds

Best For

Residential applications where controlling the amount of warm light in a space helps set the mood. The best rooms in your home to use an incandescent dimmer are the bedrooms, living rooms, and dining rooms.

Diagram showing phase control for AC dimmer circuit

Halogen

Most halogen dimmers use a technique called “phase control” to switch the light circuit off and on again rapidly—about 120 times per second. Since North American household alternating current (AC) changes direction 60 times per second, there are two points per cycle when the voltage running through the current is zero. The dimmer turns the circuit off at these points, and on again elsewhere in the cycle, depending on what brightness level the switch is set to. The earlier in the cycle the current comes back, the brighter the light becomes.

Pros

  • Halogen dimmers are more energy efficient than those used for incandescent bulbs
  • Phase control makes the dimming process smoother and reduces flickering
  • Halogen bulbs produce white light that is excellent for work areas

Cons

  • Halogen bulbs generate even more heat than incandescent bulbs
  • Halogen dimmer switches are more expensive than those for incandescent bulbs
  • Not as efficient as LED dimmer switches

Best For

Utilitarian spaces where clean, white light is ideal. Use them in your home’s laundry room, or in residential and commercial workshops.

Diagram showing basic concept of MLV Dimmer

Magnetic Low Voltage (MLV)

MLV dimmers use a transformer to reduce 120V AC current to 12 or 24V. When this lower voltage current is delivered to an incandescent or halogen bulb, it produces less light.

The transformers used in this process reduce the current via phase control, similar to the resistive incandescent dimmers described above—but the technology involved is different. Copper wound around a steel core allows energy to be caught and stored in a small magnetic field. Since standard incandescent dimmer switches can actually damage these transformers, special inductive dimmer switches are required instead.

Pros

  • Easy to install due to less required wiring
  • Can be used in tighter spaces
  • Suitable for higher wattage loads

Cons

  • Can be more expensive due to the cost of transformers
  • Limited range of dimming compared to incandescent and LED dimmers
  • Can produce a low buzzing that is audible in quiet spaces

Best For

Homes with modern design features. Use these dimmers for recessed lighting and track lighting (like under counters).

Simple diagram showing ballast used to dim fluorescent light

Fluorescent

Fluorescent bulbs use heated electrodes to produce gas inside the tubes, and naturally have negative resistance. These lights typically use a ballast to supply voltage to the bulb and heat the electrodes, so dimmers for fluorescent lights reduce the voltage that the ballast produces.

Pros

  • Smooth dimming with no flickering
  • Fluorescent lights are more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs
  • Can handle higher voltage loads

Cons

  • Limited dimming range compared to incandescent and LED dimmers
  • Fluorescent lighting may create buzzing or humming sounds
  • Higher initial cost than many other dimmer types

Best For

Residential basements and garages with existing fluorescent lighting, as well as commercial spaces. Since the vast majority of North American commercial businesses use fluorescent lighting, ballast dimmers can reduce lighting costs without having to pay for a retrofit.

Light Emitting Diode (LED)

When current passes through an LED, it produces harmless electromagnetic radiation that creates visible light. LED dimmers use adjustable drivers to modulate this current and adjust the brightness of the bulbs. Most LEDs list the dimming level of their drivers on the packaging—so when you’re shopping for LED lights, be sure to check and see how much you can dim them.

Pros

  • LED lights are up to 90% more energy efficient than standard incandescent bulbs
  • Much less heat generated than incandescent or halogen bulbs
  • Wide dimming range (depending on the bulbs you buy)

Cons

  • Not all LED lights are dimmable (check bulbs before buying)
  • Higher upfront cost than incandescent or halogen dimmers
  • May require a neutral wire in your electrical box, increasing installation complexity

Best For

Residential areas where adjustable task lighting is needed. LED dimmers are ideal for kitchens, bathrooms, and workshops—but they can also be great for living areas in modern homes where clean bright lighting is desired.

What About Smart Dimmers?

Smart dimmer switches can be wirelessly controlled via WiFi, Mesh, or Bluetooth—allowing you to control or program your lights from your device. You can either set them manually or choose preferences so that your lights change automatically (for example, having them change brightness levels at certain times of day).

Smart dimmers are widely available for most lighting types (especially incandescent, and LED) and can save you extra money by automatically providing light when and where you need it. Learn more about smart lighting for homes or businesses.

Let’s Light the Way for Your Family

Saving money and controlling the mood in your space are both great reasons to use dimmer switches—but you’ll need to choose the right kind of dimmers and lights for your space. That’s where we can help!

Contact 4-Star Electric speak with a certified electrician who can recommend safe and effective dimmer switches for your property and install them professionally. With our help, you’ll be able to keep the lights on with minimal effort—at any level your heart desires.

Written by 4-Star Electric

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