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Lighting Controls

Rely on sensors, not people, to remember to turn off the lights

Residential vacancy sensors look like regular light switches, but they can control a room's lighting by detecting if the room is occupied.

Automatic controls for lighting, common in commercial buildings, are now available in a variety of options for residences ranging from a simple outdoor light fixture with a built-in photosensor to whole-house programmable controls that can activate lights for various scenarios (e.g., time of day, vacations, entertaining) from a central command center. Once a luxury for the wealthiest homeowners, centralized lighting controls are now affordable to the average homeowner.

Controls can switch lights on and off, or dim lights based on input from sensors which include simple timers, occupancy sensors to detect motion or infrared radiation from a person, or photosensors which operate lights or adjust light levels based on the amount of available daylight. There are also sensors, suitable for accessibility, that operate lighting by voice or sound. Many systems include the option of remote control via phone, computer, or a standard remote control.

Controls can be hard-wired or wireless. Most hard-wired controls rely on low-voltage CAT-5 wiring for signal transmission. However, there are a few products on the market that transmit signals over standard household wiring (and therefore require no additional wiring). Some systems are "plug and play" while other systems - typically ones that provide the most flexibility - require design and programming by the installer. All whole-house systems require some user programming, although programming can be as simple as programming a preset radio station in the car.

Central lighting control systems can be "zoned" to provide pre-programmed lighting levels (often called "scenes") for different situations. Examples of modes that may be preprogrammed include: vacation, dining, entertaining, and morning.

A manual-on occupancy sensor is a wall switch that will allow regular on and off switching of lights and can be used as an electronic occupancy sensor, as well. The occupancy sensor operates on low frequency sound waves that can sense movement in an area. After a prescribed time delay of six to fifteen minutes, dependent upon manufacturer, the sensor will turn off the light if movement has not been detected.

Dimmer switches can allow one fixture to serve several lighting functions, such as task lighting at full ballast and decorative or safety lighting on a lower setting. Dimming increases lamp life and saves energy - a light that is dimmed by 25% uses about 20% less energy while lamp life is increased fourfold.

One wireless controller, ideally suited for retrofit, works with a transmitter and receiver located in the same room. The transmitter is a push-button switch that generates its own electricity when pressed (and therefore does not require a separate power source such as batteries). The receiver is either an electrical outlet or a hard-wired device, and the light source (or any connected electrical device) can be toggled on or off via the transmitter switch. A single device or a group of electrical devices can be controlled via the toggle switch.


Energy Efficiency

Dimming lights, using occupancy and daylight sensors can reduce lighting needs and increase the life of light bulbs.

Safety and Disaster Mitigation

Lighting controls can make an unoccupied home look occupied and can light a path for entry into the home, for example.


Not-so-easy

Incorporating lighting controls into new home construction can be as routine as installing a timer on bath fans or a dimmer switch in a dining room. However, whole-house lighting control centers, which are becoming increasingly common in new construction, require careful design. Installation uses conventional electrical tools. It is important to test all of the controls and some systems may require programming. Most manufacturers offer installer training for their proprietary systems.


Whole house lighting controller packages start at about $2,500 plus installation. Individual lighting controls run between a few dollars for a dimmer switch to several hundred for a dimmer switch that is operated via 120V wiring. A manual-on occupancy sensor costs about $45.


Energy savings will depend on the types of controls, the homeowner’s habits with lighting control, and the length of time lights are normally operated in unoccupied rooms. Using 2004 average electric rates, fitting a 100-watt outdoor light bulb with a motion sensor - instead of operating it each night for 10 hours - will save about $33 per year.


California’s Title 24 (2005) residential energy code requires that lighting in residences be high efficiency or be controlled with a manual-on occupancy sensor.

The 2003 International Residential Code requires electrical components, devices, fixtures and equipment to be listed for the application, bear the label of an approved agency, and be installed, and used in accordance with the manufacturer’s installation instructions. (UL is the most widely used third party testing and certification entity for lighting.)


Not Applicable


Lights with integral photo or motion sensors are installed in the same manner as conventional light fixtures. Add-on sensors and programmable lighting controls require a more complex design and installation. Home automation firms that specialize in lighting and other controls can design and install these specialized systems. In most cases, automatic sensors should be installed in series with manual controls to ensure that the homeowner has the ultimate control.

Some systems transmit signals over conventional household electric lines - eliminating the need for additional wiring. Others use low-voltage wiring for signal transmission. Some systems are run in a home-run fashion with CAT-5 wiring run from each control pad back to a central cabinet. Most sensors require a separate power source, with the exception of the Lighting Pulse controller that generates its own power from the operation of the push button control.

Some systems are "plug and play" while others - typically ones that provide the most flexibility - are custom designed and installed.


Warranties of up to five years are available for most lighting controls, with a one- to two-year warranty typical of most components.


Automatic lighting controls can save energy and improve safety. They offer convenience to homeowners and can be a high-tech portion of a whole-house automation system. Many controls, like dimmer switches and motion detectors, can be retrofitted into standard electrical switch boxes. The cost of a control can often be offset by the first year’s energy savings.

Disclaimer: The information on the system, product or material presented herein is provided for informational purposes only. The technical descriptions, details, requirements, and limitations expressed do not constitute an endorsement, approval, or acceptance of the subject matter by the NAHB Research Center. There are no warranties, either expressed or implied, regarding the accuracy or completeness of this information. Full reproduction, without modification, is permissible.