Light Your Way

Motion Sensor Light Switch: Motion Detection for Safety and Convenience

A motion sensor light switch can enhance your lighting outdoors, indoors and in between.


The motion sensor light switch has been around for decades. However, it is only in the last twenty years or so that they have become truly dependable. Before then, a motion detector was not especially reliable unless you spent a lot of money. However, with recent developments both in the sensors themselves and with overall light control, there are a wide range of reliable, exciting options for motion detector light switches. Mixing their power with dimmers and combination switches creates some especially exciting lighting design options.

Motion Sensor Light Switch Options

One of the main criticisms of motion sensor light switches is that they turn off if you don’t move around enough in the room. This criticism comes from people’s own experience with them. However, this limitation is simply the result of the old motion detection switches. Previously, if you used a motion detection switch, that would be your only source of control for that light source. So, if you stopped moving, you would lose your lighting shortly.

Motion Sensor Light Switch

Combining a sensor with a hard switch eliminates the need to move every few minutes to keep the light on. This model is available at Amazon.

However, this is simply no longer the case. Motion sensors can be mixed with other light switches to produce lights that no longer turn off if you stop moving for some reason. Two of the most popular are the following:

  • Motion Detection Plus a “Hard Switch”: Motion detection can be combined with what is called a “hard switch”. What this means is that the motion detector can initially turn on your light source, but then you can hit a switch that will keep the light on. The light stays on until you turn that switch back to “auto”, at which point, your light switch will return to motion detection status. This means that you can get your initial light by simply coming in the room, but don’t need to worry about the light then going off.
  • Motion Detection Plus a Timer: All motion detection systems have always had timers, but they were usually very short and not adjustable. Now, timing systems are far more sophisticated. With an adjustable timer, you can be sure to give yourself the light you need. Simply set your timer in the bathroom, for example, to fifteen minutes, and then you would need to stop moving for a full fifteen minutes for the light to go off.

The final new option doesn’t so much correct the weaknesses of old dimmers so much as create entirely new possibilities:

  • Motion Detection Plus Dimmers: One of the most common uses for motion sensor light switches it to use them at night to provide safety lighting. However, as I’m sure we’ve all experienced, we don’t want to have bright lights in the middle of the night when our eyes have not adjusted. Fortunately, motion sensor light switches can be combined with dimmers to prevent this problem. Motion detection can be set to provide light at a lower level, as is needed at night, but the hard light switch can be set to provide brighter light, suitable during the day. As a result, you get just the right light when you need it.

Uses for Motion Sensor Light Switches

Motion sensor light switches can be installed easily and inexpensively in a number of different places around your home. If you are looking for some fun and exciting lighting projects that will improve your home, this is the section for you.

The Bathroom

Bathroom lighting design can make good use of motion sensor light switches. If they hadn’t left people sitting in the dark after a few minutes, they would likely have become the norm. However, with the availability of more sophisticated lighting control, they are well worth considering again.

Bathtub Rain

Even well-lit bathrooms require some way of turning off lights without touching them.

There are actually two good reasons to use motion sensor light switches in the bathroom. The first is that we often stumble to the bathroom in the dark. If you have a partner in the bedroom, you won’t want to turn on any lights there, so the light in the bathroom will likely be the first light source you encounter. The problem is that, if you haven’t memorized where exactly the light source is on the wall, you’re likely to stumble around for the switch.

The other consideration is actually safety. If you leave even a little bit of water on your hands, you risk an electrical shock when turning off a light manually. Even if you aren’t shocked, water that gets into the switch can damage the wiring, causing a fire and electrocution hazard in the long run. Having a light that can turn itself off is just as important as one that can turn itself on.

To overcome this problem, I suggest having a motion sensor light switch on a timer for the bathroom. This allows you to have a light that automatically turns itself on and off, not simply on. A hard switch would be just as hazardous as a normal light switch in the bathroom, since you would need to touch it on your way out.


Hallways create another problem with stumbling around in the dark. Unlike in the bathroom, there is often not even a light switch directly next to every door. As a result, hallways are an ideal candidate for motion sensor light switches. They eliminate the danger of tripping and falling just by walking out into the hall.

Night Runway

Information lighting doesn’t actually illuminate areas, but tells you where things are. Photo courtesy of NASA.

My suggestion is to not actually put your usual hall lighting on the motion detection. Either do one of two things. First, you could put the motion detection lighting on a dimmer, so that people’s dilated pupils are not blasted with light at night. When they enter the hall, they will have a comfortable, dim light that will stop them from falling down the stairs and tripping on the dog. However, the higher light levels would be on a hard switch, so you could have quality lighting during the day.

Another option is to use what is called “information lighting” with motion detection. This lighting doesn’t really illuminate directly, but rather tells people where the contours of the hallway are. Information lighting is rarely used in home lighting design, but it can be very powerful. Perhaps the type of information lighting people are most familiar with is runway lighting. It doesn’t actually illuminate the runway; it just tells pilots where the runway is.

Information lighting can be very subtle, and it can even be used in combination with daytime lighting without even really being noticed.

Task Lighting

Motion sensor light switches can be incredibly powerful for task lighting, and it is unfortunately that they are not used more commonly. The primary reason that they can be so powerful is that there are a number of tasks that take away both of our hands. Of course, this creates some serious difficulties in turning on the lights in a room, and we’ll often find ourselves placing things on our knees or propping them against the wall.

Here are some ideas of where you can put motion sensors to help you with tasks:

  • Laundry Rooms: You won’t have to turn on the light while carrying loads of laundry.
  • Garages: If you are putting heavy items in the trunk, you won’t have to stop to turn on the light.
  • Kitchens: Carrying groceries often requires both hands.

Depending on your own needs, there might be a number of other cases where you find yourself wishing you had a third arm. If you find this is the case, a motion sensor light switch can provide that arm.

Outdoor Lighting

Motion sensor switches can contribute to a number of outdoor lighting ideas. The most common use of motion detection switches outdoors is for security. Potential thieves are not going to be flipping any light switches. If you do have security lighting, be sure to have a grid of motion detection switches arranged in such a way that thieves do not have any entry point through which they can slip. Some are very good at “casing” houses and may discover weaknesses.

Night Stairs

Stairs can be hazardous at night, especially corners.

A less common use of outdoor lighting is for your own safety when walking around your house. Because there is often foliage between paths and lighting, it is simply impossible to turn on lights at the house until you actually reach it. Paths can have motion detection switches that enable you to have safe illumination when traveling around your home.

Don’t forget your side paths as well. Many people use motion detection on their front paths and leave their side paths unlit. In fact, the side paths can be even more dangerous, as they are narrower and often have a stairwell to the basement. Leaving this area unilluminated is simply dangerous. Even if you only use your side paths rarely, it is important that they be properly lit.

Motion detection in the backyard is usually less important. Light your paths for the sake of safety, but general illumination should usually be on a standard light switch for your entertaining.

Putting It All Together

Motion Sensor Light Switches have become increasingly powerful in the last two decades:

  • Sensors are better at actually detecting motion.
  • Sensors can be combined with hard switches, timers and dimmers to generate a number of options.
  • Light Detection can be used for getting around a house at night safely and comfortably.
  • Light Detection can provide a third arm for tasks that seem to require one.

In these ways, motion detection can serve as a wonderful option for lighting control in your home.


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