How to Install Motion Sensor Lights

Approximately 1 hour per light
Keep Safe with Outdoor Lighting


I'd Like to Know Where you got the Motion!

Ever come home late and get a crawling feeling that someone or something is lurking nearby? We can all get a bit paranoid at times, but we also watch the news and know that it's not always in our heads.

No matter where you live being safe is something that concerns all of us. You've got the basics: locks on the doors and windows, perhaps an alarm system and maybe even some existing lights that operate via switch. But if you don't have motion sensor lights you're not getting all the security you need. Installing them is easy—especially if you're converting an existing fixture (that's always either on or off) into a light that's smart enough to react to movement and perhaps is even timed.

Light is a great deterrent to criminals. Plus, a light that switches on automatically also provides safety to your guests who won't have to fumble up your steps if you forget to turn the light on for them.

Not only are motion sensor lights great for discouraging potential break-ins and other threats, but because they turn off automatically they save energy. Most fixtures come with a setting that will determine how long the bulb stays lit (usually one to five minutes) as well as a sensitivity setting that determines how much motion it takes to turn the unit on. These units are relatively inexpensive ranging in price starting around $15 per light.

There are various kinds of sensor lights. There are programmable lights that can be scheduled to turn on at any hour of the day, daylight sensitive units that light up at dusk and go off at dawn and motion sensor and infrared lights that are triggered by movement and heat, respectively.

Jane Tip: You may also want to consider installing motion sensor lights inside your home, such as in the garage or the laundry room or even the bathroom to avoid germs from getting on the wall switch.

SAFETY CHECK!: Always turn off the power before working with electricity. You only need to cut the power to the circuit you are working on but as a precaution test any wires you're working on with a voltage tester first. These testers come in all different varieties but we like penlight testers, which when placed on a live wire light up to indicate power on the line. They are very inexpensive and are an absolute must if you work with electricity. Be sure to test the tester first on a live wire. A faulty tester will not light up, which could be incredibly dangerous if you have not turned off the electricity.

If your home was built in the last twenty years or so there's a good chance it's already outfitted with a few fixtures for outdoor lighting so take a walk to find out where they are. There will likely be one above the driveway and one towards the rear of your home.

No existing fixture? You'll need an electrician to run additional power from the nearest source.

Step 1

Once you have shut off the power, lock the service panel and remove the key or tape it shut so that no one unwittingly turns the power back on while you're working.

Step 2

Remove the light bulbs as well as the screws holding the fixture in place. If your home does not come outfitted with fixtures, you will need to add an extra line of electricity to the outside of your home by tapping into an existing circuit and feeding the wiring outdoors.

Step 3

Test the circuit with the voltage tester. This is easily done by sticking the end of the device into the bulb socket, or by placing it in the cap nut, making sure the tip of the tester touches the wires. Be sure to test all wires thoroughly before proceeding!

Step 4

Once you're sure there is no power coming to the line, remove the cap nut to expose conjoined wires. You will have to untwist the wires to remove the fixture from the wall. Notice that the white wires are connected to white, black to black, etc. This same pattern will be followed when you go to mount the new fixture.

If there is something holding the wires together that you cannot untwist or pry apart with your hands, you need to cut the wires. If this is the case, do so with a wire cutter. You may also need to trim some of the coating on the wires so that you may reattach them later. Your wire cutter may come with a device that allows you to strip the wire; otherwise you will have to use a wire stripper. Cut away enough plastic so the wire to be able to twist a few times around another wire (about one-half to 1").

Step 5

Carefully remove the existing fixture from the wall.

Step 6

You may need to assemble your new light fixture so take a good look at it before you go to mount it. Carefully read the manufacturer's instructions for specifics and go through a trial run. Memorizing how the unit is assembled beforehand will save you the trouble of reading the directions while you are up on the ladder.

Jane Tip: One key to installing a successful outdoor light fixture is ensuring a watertight seal. Be sure to firmly affix all parts.

Step 7

Place the fixture into the light box marking where you want the screws to go. Then drill the screws in place and affix the unit to the wall. If this is a new unit you will need to install a new light box.

Step 8

Once the fixture is attached to the wall you will probably need to add on extras, such as a waterproof plate that protects it. Check with the manufacturer's instructions; some may want you to wire the unit first.

When you connect the wires, make sure you marry them black to black, white to white, etc. Twist the wires together like you would a twist-tie, and then cover them with a cap nut by "screwing" it onto the wires.

Jane Tip: Always cover all conjoined wires with a cap nut. If there is any exposed wire at the base of the cap nut, wrap some electrical tape around it. Remember, exposed wires can be a hazard.

Step 9

Attach any other pieces to the unit and screw into place. Almost there! You will test the light before mounting the faceplate so save that for last.

Step 10

Now's the time to adjust the settings of the light to your preference. There should be a switch underneath the unit with one to three different settings depending on your particular model.

Step 11

Place light bulbs in the new fixture.

Step 12

Before you put the ladder away and gloat about the new light you single-handedly installed, test your new fixture by turning the power back on. There is probably a "test" setting or a switch that allows you to keep the light on all of the time.

If the light goes on, bravo! If not, double check your work.

Step 13

Affix the fixture's face plate by screwing it into place.

Step 14

Seal the unit by applying weatherproof silicone-based caulk around the fixture's base. Make sure that the area is dry, otherwise the caulk won't seal properly.

Step 15

The light's sensor is adjustable, so aim it at a 45 degree angle towards the ground, where people will be walking. If the sensor doesn't detect motion once night falls, adjust it. You may need to do this a few times to get the spot just right. Some sensors are very particular.

With your light fixtures in place and in working order your home is now a bit safer. Once you get used to the peace of mind and convenience these inexpensive units bring to your life, you will wonder why you lived without them for so long. Maintenance is minimal with these lights, but be sure to change out bulbs immediately after they burn out. Hey, pat yourself on the back for upping the security of your home and family, and show your friends how they can do the same.

Related articles:
Everything you Need to Know about Electrical Circuits
Electricity 101
How to Install Pathway Lights