Home Technology: Occupancy/Vacancy Lighting

With my recent move into a new home, I have the opportunity to install all sorts of cool technology.

With DirecTV's new Whole House Video solution, I didn't need to utilize my previous whole house audio/video solution, so I needed a new challenge.

The 'Problem'
I needed a new toy to install, and luckily for me my wife provided a great excuse.  You see, like many women, she is deathly afraid of light switches.  Or at least turning them off.  She's never explained it in so many words, I've just come to this conclusion based on the number of lights that are left on around the house for no apparent reason.

So I had my problem: find a way to keep the lights from being left on all day.  Option 1, convince my wife to turn them off.  I have many years of evidence demonstrating that this approach is ineffective.  Option 2, technology!

I researched different options, and it appears that Lutron and Leviton are the primary players in the residential Occupancy/Vacancy sensor space.  With the advent of CFL bulbs, I also wanted a switch that could control both traditional incandescent, as well as florescent and CFL bulbs.  Why do these types of bulbs need a specific version?  The short version is that traditional versions use the 'load' of the traditional bulb in their circuit.  The florescent/CFL bulbs do not provide the right load, yielding unreliable results (flickering lights or failure to turn on).  The newer versions instead require you to wire your switch to ground (Common), alleviating the need for the bulb to provide the correct 'load'.

Based on my research, I chose to use Lutron switches.  I wanted both traditional switches, dimmer switches, and a 3 way switch, all with an occupancy/vacancy sensor.

Occupancy or Vacancy?
These switches consist of a toggle button, and a sensor.  The button is used to manually operate the light, while the sensor determines whether there is anyone in the room.

Occupancy switches turn on when you enter the room, and turn off when you leave.  Vacancy switches require you to turn on manually, but will turn off automatically when you leave.  Both can always be operated manually as well.

Some switches only do Occupancy or only do Vacancy, while some are programmable.  The switches I chose are programmable.

The Switches
I used three different models from Lutron:

  • Traditional Switch: Lutron MS-OPS5AM
  • Dimmer Switch: MS-OP600M
  • Accessory Switch (for 3-way): MA-AS 

I bought some from from Union Lighting, and some from SmartHome.  Union Lighting was slightly cheaper, but drop-shipped directly from Lutron, who was back ordered.  So it took a couple weeks, but they arrived just fine straight from the manufacturer.  SmartHome shipped from their own warehouse and came in about a week.

Both switches sold for between $35 and $40, while the accessory switch was between $25 and $30.

The installation is pretty straight forward IF you have a ground wire in your light-switch junction boxes. Since my current home is newer, I had a common wire in every junction box.

The wring is pretty straight forward.  Unlike traditional switches, you need to know which is the line (source) and which is the load (light fixture).  Visual inspection in each of my junction boxes illustrated this easily (the line was always tied into a wiring nut with several combined wires while the load always ran directly out).

Wiring in the common (ground) wire required an extra 4-6" length of electrical wire, which is not included.  I had a few scraps in the basement from previous projects that I was able to use.

The 3-way install was a little more complicated.  It took some careful reading of the instructions, and unlike traditional switches, the runner wires (that run between the two switches) must be on the same connector on each switch.  I missed this my first time around and it took me a while to figure out.

In most of the cases, the biggest challenge was adding a new wire to the combined bundles already in the box getting the wire nut back on, and then fitting the wires and the rather large new switch into the box.

I installed a mix of occupancy and vacancy switches.  In small/utility rooms (washrooms, closets, laundry room, garage) the occupancy switches work great.  I love being able to walk into a closet, or through the garage carrying something without worrying about the lights.

I used the vacancy switches in the master bathroom, where I didn't want them to turn on automatically all the time, but where they often got left on all day.

I have been very pleased with the lights.  They've worked really well, and I love never getting home to find a light has been left on all day.  But I really enjoy having the lights turn on automatically in the rooms configured with occupancy lights.  It seems like a small thing, but it makes every day activities easier.  It's wonderful to not have to worry about slapping the light switch as you walk through or into a room with your arms full.

The switches are not cheap, and I don't plan on installing them in any of the 'main' rooms in the house (Kitchen, Family Room, Dining Room, etc.) but I think they are a great addition to bathrooms, utility rooms, and walk-in closets.