26 June 2010

French light switches

A couple of days ago Simon of Days on the Claise posted about light switches and how they are installed in England and Australia vs. how they are installed in France. The consensus seemed to be that in England and Australia, the down position means the light is switched on, but in France and the U.S., it's the up position that means "on".

I guess it's like driving on the right or on the left. Or pronouncing post-vocalic Rs.

When I read Simon's post, I didn't realize he was talking about switches that are outside the door of the room where the light fixture is located. With those, of course, you can't be sure whether the light is on or off without opening the door, unless you are sure which position on the switch is "on" and which is "off" — or can you?

In, America, I'm not sure we ever have light switches outside the rooms where the fixture they control is located. There must be some, but I can't remember any off hand, thinking back to all the American apartments and houses I've ever lived in (at least 15!).

In France, the switches are put in that way all the time. Often, the light switch for a bathroom light is located next to the door outside the bathroom. It can be very confusing. And what if you are in the bathroom (often actually a toilet) and somebody comes by and turns the light off? There you are, in the dark. (That doesn't happen often, in my experience.)

It's easier to turn the light on when the switch is in the lighted space outside the WC. When it's inside, you have to search around for it with your hand, in the pitch dark.

Anyway, it's very common in France to have a special switch with a "warning light" — un voyant lumineux — built in, just for such switches. We have one for our downstairs cellier — that's a walk-in pantry — because the light switch is located just outside the cellier door, and the cellier is windowless. A light switch in French is called « un interrupteur », by the way.

This switch is pretty old, so the voyant lumineux
is obviously not a new technology.

When the light is on in the pantry, the warning light on the switch outside the door is lit up. When the light is off, the voyant lumineux is also off. You can tell at a glance if you or somebody else has left the light on in there.

And you don't have to go into the pantry — it's dark in there when the light's off — and fumble around for the light switch. You turn on the light using the outside switch before you open the door. And when you exit, you know if you've remembered to turn the light off because of the "idiot light" built into the switch.

The interrupteur for the light outside over the back door,
off and on.

We have the same kind of "idiot light" switch for an outside light over our back door. The switch is inside. When the light is on outside, the idiot light is on for you to see from inside, on the switch. That one is handy during daylight hours, because during the day you can't tell from inside whether the outdoor light is switched on — even though the door has windows in it. At night, you can tell whether it's on or off — unless you've closed the heavy metal shutter across the doorway.

In apartment buildings in Paris and other big French cities, the lights in stairwells and hallways are often put on a timer so that they turn themselves off a few minutes after they are turned on. It's a way to avoid wasting electricity — the lights don't stay on all the time they way they do in the U.S. The switches for those timed hall lights in France, called « minuteries », often have a voyant lumineux built into them, but it serves a slightly different purpose.

In hallways and on stairs, the "idiot light" stays on when the overhead lights are off. That way, you can find them easily when you are searching about in the dark for a way to light up the space. I don't think I've ever seen minuteries in America either.

Since yesterday there's some furniture
in the new upstairs space.

By the way, yesterday we moved the bed and dresser upstairs. We won't take any more furniture up there until we get the walls painted. That is, unless we decide to leave them as they are and call it a decorating choice. Just kidding.


  1. Ken. I bought a switch with a light on it, but it's one that has an LED to show you where the switch is in the dark. Once the switch is on the little light goes off.

    Until that point I was doing really well...

  2. Your king size bed looks so tiny in this enormous room!

  3. Is it staying nice and cool in your loft, now that the weather has warmed up a bit?

  4. Jean, yes, it is staying fairly cool up there. We slept up there comfortably last night.

    CHM, you are right. But we have more big pieces of furniture to put up there after the painting is done.

    Simon, wouldn't that work. The LED is on, so the bathroom light is off. Or maybe that's too confusing.

  5. British, American, and ANZAC troops are massing in Dover in preparation for a cross-channel invasion to settle, once and for all, the light switch on/off up/down issue.

    Troop movements suggest the most massive build-up since the great unpasteurized cheese war of 2001.

    French President Sarkozy says that "France has resisted Electro-Fascism for centuries and will continue to do so until the last drop of French blood is spilled".

  6. >>you can't be sure whether the light is on or off without opening the door, unless you are sure which position on the switch is "on" and which is "off" — or can you?<<

    Depends how tightly-fitting the door is! Here in the UK, it's normal for bathrooms and loos not to have wall-switches inside the door - either the switch is outside the door, or there's a pull-cord to switch on the ceiling (I don't think I've ever seen one of those in France, so maybe their building regulations are even tighter about the risk of water and electricity mixing). The difference from countries like the US and Australia is, I suppose, that you're used to more space and bigger bathrooms where it would be unthinkable for water to splash anywhere near a wall-switch. Possibly.

    Loving the loft conversion - always a good investment!

  7. ahhh, the floors look great, and the bed-by-open-window shot is great :) Are you glad that you chose wood, instead of laminate?

    Thanks for the fun cultural exploration into light switches :) I doubt that one ever really thinks about the idea that something as simple as a light switch or a door handle might be done very differently in another country :)


  8. Great post Ken! Now I can't wait to see the loft finished.

  9. Hello Nadège, it's really hard to resist the urge to take more furniture, including rugs, upstairs, but we know it doesn't make sense to do so because we still have to paint.

    Judy, yes, we are glad we chose wood instead of laminate, even though it is "just" pine. I think it will be more durable, and it's natural.

    Bill, LOL. Autolycus, I hope it turns out to be a good investment. We are already enjoying having the new space. Makes the house much more livable. Space is a luxury.

  10. You call them "idiot lights" but if your memory was bad as mine, you'd call them "genius lights". I've never seen any minuteries inn the states, either. Of course, it never occurred to me to look for them.

  11. We should have had an idiot light on our outside light switch. When we get to bed and realise some idiot has forgotten to switch it off, some other idiot has to go downstairs and do that. After a "discussion" as to whose fault it was in the first place. Perhaps they should be called "save an arguemnt light switches".

  12. The furniture really changes the room and it looks great.

    Last time we were in Paris, we stayed in a Marais hotel where the light timer for the public hallways was very brief - they always seemed dark. I'm all for saving electricty, but I like well-lit halls whilst carrying luggage. :-)

  13. J'adore votre nouvelle chambre, bravo, c'est très beau ! Et là, ça a une taille presque américaine, lol !

    Très sympa, cette discussion sur les "interrupteurs" en France par rapport aux autres pays anglo-saxons ! I've always felt like laughing when "looking"... for the pool-cord when in the UK in the dark !!!

    I was somewhat surprised to see people leaving lights, television, etc. on everywhere in their houses in the States !!! On the other side, you can't seen anything in American restaurants, lol ! Don't consider this as a criticism, it's just the remark of a Frenchie :-)

    Bises ;-) Mary/Marie in Normandy, France who is so happy to have at last time to go and read your so interesting posts !

  14. Marie, I agree with you. Americans tend to leave lights on in their houses all over the place, and nearly all the time. And American restaurants are often pretty dimly lit. Dim lighty is seen as more elegant. Those are the charms of cultural differences, I guess.

  15. Thanks for mentioning the "minuteries" - it is hard to find information on them in the English Google search. I think we would do well to have them sold in the US.


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