Electrical switch types used in model railways | Railwayscenics

Different types of electrical switches explained

Railwayscenics list various different types of switches and it is easy to be confused by the sheer variety. This page tries to explain the different types and the terminology used.

Switch specifications

On the product listings of each switch we include as much information as we can to best describe the switch including lots of different specifications. Listed below is an explanation of the information that is included.

Switch dimensions

We include the length, width, height, mounting hole size and terminal size of the switch. Where available we include a full dimension image supplied by the manufacturer which includes more detailed sizing information of the switch.

Technical definitions

Throughout the website we use some technical terms to describe the operation of the switches that we sell and these are listed below.

  • Pole - number of switch contact sets.
  • Throw - number of conducting positions, single or double.
  • Way - number of conducting positions, three or more.
  • Momentary (non-latching) - switch returns to its normal position when released.
  • Open - off position, contacts not conducting.
  • Closed - on position, contacts conducting, there may be several on positions.

Switch contact ratings

The electrical rating of the switches is very important and is listed for safety reasons. The manufacturers design a switch to meet different worldwide specifications and regulations and the characteristics of the switch can determine what regulations the switch meets. We list the maximum current rating, maximum AC and/or DC voltage rating, and maximum power rating.

For low voltage electronics projects the voltage rating will not matter, but you may need to check the current rating. The maximum current is less for inductive loads (coils and motors) because they cause more sparking at the contacts when switched off.

Never exceed any of the given ratings as this may cause premature failure of the switch.

Types of switches

Key switch

A key switch is exactly as the name suggests. Its a switch that is operated by a rotary action using a key. Generally they care simple SPST switches but there are others such as DPDT or DPST action switches available. It is possible to get versions where it is possible to remove the key only in the off position, or in the offand on positions.

Micro switch

A micro switch is a small electrical switch that can be operated using a very small force and also possibly using a small movement. Micro switches generally have an external lever arm that operates the switch. These switches are simple and usually only have two sets of contacts like NO (Normally Open) and NC (Normally Closed) which are connected with a snap-action switching mechanism. They are typically inexpensive, easy to fit and have a long life.

Push button switch

A push button switch is a switch that has a button that you push to open or close the contacts. In some pushbutton switches, you push the switch once to open the contacts and then push again to close the contacts, these are known as latching switches. In other words, each time you push the switch, the contacts alternate between opened and closed. These types of switch are commonly called latching switches. There are also non latching push button switches that only maintain the switch contacts when the switch is held in position. Once the switch is let go, the contact is broken and the switch turns off. Push switches are usually simple on-off type switches.

Reed switch

Magnetic Reed Switches are long thin wire-like switches that are activated by the presence of a magnet. You can place one of these under the track rails between the ties and place a small magnet on the bottom of a railcar so that when the railcar with the magnet travels over the switch, the device that the switch is connected to will be activated (e.g, a light in a building, a section of track or an animated device).
Normally open - In a reed switch, the two contacts (which look like metal reeds) are made from magnetic material and housed inside a thin glass envelope. As you bring a magnet up to a reed switch, it magnetizes the contacts in opposite ways so they attract and spring together and a current flows through them. A reed switch like this is normally open (NO), unless a magnet is positioned right next to it, when it switches on.
Normally closed - You can also get reed switches that work the opposite way. The two contacts are normally snapped together. When you bring a magnet up to the switch, the contacts magnetize, repel one another, and split apart, opening the switch and breaking the circuit. Reed switches like this are called normally closed (NC), and they switch off when you bring a magnet up to them.

Rocker Switch

A rocker switch has a seesaw action. You press one side of the switch down to close the contacts and press the other side down to open the contacts. They are available in a range of different poles and throws and can carry a wide range of voltages and currents. The one disadvantage is that they need an accurately cut hole that is usually rectangular and can only be fitted into thin mounting panels.

Rotary Switch

As the name denotes, rotary switches are activated by rotating a knob. They are generally needed when the number of circuits that need to be changed simultaneously exceeds the capacity of a toggle or slide switch. Rotary (multi-way) switches have many conducting positions. They may have several poles (contact sets). They are available with a range of contact arrangements from 1-pole 12-way to 4-pole 3-way. For different variants of the rotary switch, the number of ways (switch positions) is reduced with a different stop under the fixing nut, limiting the movement where there are more poles to be served.

1 Pole 12 way

1 Pole 12 way

2 Pole 6 way

2 Pole 6 way

3 Pole 4 way

3 Pole 4 way

4 Pole 3 way

4 Pole 3 way

Slide Switch

A slide switch is a mechanical type of switch where the switching movement is in a linear to and fro motion, and allows control of a circuits current flow without having to manually splice or cut wire. Slide switches are available in various sizes including sub miniature, miniature, and standard. They also come with different terminal sizes and forms on the rear or side. They cost little, the range is limited and they mount discreetly.

Toggle Switch

Toggle Switches have a to and fro switching movement but through an arc. They cost more than sliders but the bigger range will cover almost any switching situation. They are easy to install and look good on a track diagram or switchboard. Toggle switches are the most familiar switches. The simple toggle switch is available in various configurations depending on the number of poles and switching positions.

Switch poles and throws explained

SPST or Single Pole Single Throw The single throw electrical switch is an On-Off type switch. One flip of the switch turns the light on, flip the switch the other way and it turns off. Used mainly to interrupt current for a single pole of a circuit.

DPST or Double Pole Single Throw A double throw switch is an either-or type switch. You have either one light on or another but not both. Or you have either one section of track powered on or another but not both at the same time. In other words, if you flip the switch one way, Light A comes on and Light B goes off. Flip it the other way and light B comes on and light A goes off. This switch could isolate both live and neutral poles or one could use it for switching two different circuits simultaneously.

SPDT or Single Pole Double Throw (ON-ON) This switch can be on in both positions, switching on a separate device in each case. It is often called a changeover switch. For example, an SPDT switch can be used to switch on a red lamp in one position and a green lamp in the other position. An SPDT toggle switch may be used as a simple on-off switch.

SPDT Centre Off - ON-OFF-ON A special version of the standard SPDT switch. It has a third switching position in the centre which is off. Momentary (ON)-OFF-(ON) versions are also available where the switch returns to the central off position when released.

DPDT or Double Pole Double Throw - Dual ON-ON A pair of on-on switches which operate together, with no off position.

DPDT or Centre-Off ON-OFF-ON These can be very useful for motor control because you have forward, off, and reverse positions. Momentary (ON)-OFF-(ON) versions are also available where the switch returns to the central off position when released.

switch types and functions

Fitting switches

Most toggle switches will have a threaded segment below the lever which allows the switch to be secured into a panel using a lock nut and nut. They are fitted from the rear, into a hole drilled the size of the switch mount. A nut is used to secure the switch from the front. As well as 2 nuts, a serrated washer and a special washer that can lock the switch into a notch filed in the hole are provided to prevent the switch from spinning round in the hole.

Push button switches can be either mounted in a shaped hole or a round panel hole. If in a shaped hole, the switch is usually pushed through the hole from the front, and clips hold the switch in position. Some push button switches fit in the same way as most toggle switches and are held in position in the same way.

Rocker switches generally require a rectangular cut out, and are then pushed through the hole from the front and secured using a sprung tab moulded into the switch body.

Reed switches are fitted by drilling a small hole the size of the wire leads and bending these to fit the location.

All of our switch listings include the minimum thickness of panel that the switches can be fitted into, and the size of the mounting hole required.

Connecting and wiring switches

Most of the switches that we sell come with tinned solder tag connections to the rear, and this makes soldering wires to the terminals easy as long as the switch is easily accessible. Try to not overheat the terminal in the soldering process as the heat can transfer into the switch and affect the switch contacts. For these types of switches, crimp or solder terminals are not suitable, but some can be modified to fit.

Some of the switches come with different sized tab connections to the rear, and it is possible to use our crimp connectors to wire these types. The tab sizes and mentioned in the product descriptions, so the correct size of the connector can be sourced so be sure to read the product specifications and descriptions before buying the connectors.

However you wire the switches, please ensure that any bare wires or connections are insulated with either tape or heat shrink just for safety.