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Occupation Sensors

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An occupancy sensor is a way of controlling the lighting system according to whether a human presence is detected, switching off lights in unoccupied areas, and switching them back on when a human presence is detected, all of which can lead to considerable savings in energy bills. According to a study funded by the American Environmental Protection Agency, the following savings can be made by using occupancy or movement sensors:

  • Between 52% and 58% in classrooms,
  • Between 28% and 38% in private offices
  • Between 47% and 70% in public toilets
  • Between 39% and 50% in conference rooms
  • Between 30% and 80% in hallways
  • Between 45% and 80% in storage areas

(Source: Demand reduction and energy savings using occupancy sensors - National Electrical Manufacturers association 2001).

They are especially useful in buildings with areas that are unoccupied during long periods of time, but where lights tend to be left on.

They also produce significant savings in areas where occupation is intermittent. Some examples of places where they are appropriate include offices, toilets, storage rooms, conference rooms, hallways and archives. Occupancy sensors are generally used together with other lighting control techniques, such as temporal programming or in combination with photoelectric cells which keep the lights switched off if there is sufficient ambient light during the day.

There are different types of technology, such as passive infrared detectors, ultrasound detectors, and detectors that combine both systems. There are also acoustically based detectors.

Infrared sensors work by detecting body heat, sensing the differences between people in movement and background heat. Ultrasound detectors work by emitting ultrasound waves and by measuring the return velocity, detecting frequency changes caused by human movement.

PIR sensors require an uninterrupted line of vision between the sensor and the detected person, allowing us to define exactly the sensor's coverage, while ultrasound detectors cover a whole area and do not need to have uninterrupted line of vision, also tending to be more sensitive to smaller movements.

So, each type of technology has its uses: infrared sensors are better for closed areas, replacing wall switches, for high-ceiling areas and with areas with a uninterrupted line of vision etc. They are however not so sensitive to small movements.

Ultrasonic detectors are more adequate in areas where the line of vision is impeded (partitioned areas, toilets, stairways etc.).

A combination of technologies will only control lighting when both systems detect people, avoiding false alarms.

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