Latest Moves in Motion Detection

Adaptive technology is easier to install, cheaper to use and ecologically correct

If nothing else, security scares have proven to be good for contractors installing motion detectors and intrusion-control systems.

Contractors will find that new, smarter models offer several areas of improvement, such as quicker installation times and higher-quality video-motion systems.

Easier install

One real time-saver for contractors is the advent of adaptive technology in environmental sensors, often called “plug-and-play.” Hijacking its name from the computer industry, plug-and-play units automatically adjust time-delay sensitivity to the work environment.

Typically, a contractor installs a sensor and adjusts DIP switches to give the unit an on/off delay of one to 30 minutes. There are pitfalls in the process. Most units have 15-second cycle times that allow the installer to test the wiring. It is not unusual for installers to forget to reset the DIP. So the customer complains about the lights flashing on and off. Or, the time is not suitable to the room where it is installed.

New plug-and-play units automatically default to a 10-minute delay. The contractor makes no adjustments. Once wired properly, the unit waits one hour and then goes to the 10-minute cycle, adjusting itself from there. This cuts installation time and eliminates the sensitivity adjustment required on a new project.

“Sensors got a bad name early on,” said Gino Dabbicco, Leviton’s director of commercial products marketing. But Dabbicco believes adaptive technology will change that. “Contractors should simply install the sensor unit and forget about it.”

The unit itself adjusts to the typical amount of motion in the room. Usually, it will increase or decrease the time-forward/time-back by 50 percent until sensing it has it right. In other words, a default setting of 10 minutes will adjust upward to 15 minutes or a 15-minute default will fall back by 7.5 minutes, depending on how often people cross the beam pattern.

Adaptive technology actually gets better the longer it has to work in a room.

Video motion detectors

While indoor-motion systems have their challenges, building a video-motion system (VMD) for outside application is chock full of hassles. Engineers identify at least 23 different kinds of nuisance alarms ranging from rain, snow and hail to small animals, car lights and lightning.

Inside lighting is fairly constant. Outside, changing or improperly placed lights are a bear. “Every little moth flying by a motion detector can look like the Queen Mary,” said Lyle Powers, president of Radiant Inc.

Other top-drawer models include the DTS-1000 from Safeguards Technology and Guttebrucke’s VS-40. Sandia National Labs did an internal study of VMDs, which was sponsored by the Department of Energy. The report, SAND-94-2875, is available at Though a bit dated, the information remains valuable to those seriously looking at VMD technology. Recent upgrades in smart video-based solutions make them a practical product, and improvements are on the horizon.

“The direction of the industry is very clear; we are just not there yet,” Powers said. He sees a matchbox-size module that works outdoors as a digital video-motion detector with an extremely high probability of detection (PD) and low nuisance-alarm rate. The module will automatically acquire targets that are discriminated by a broad array of attributes. The electronics are simple: five volts with a ground, video in/out and a target overlay.

The box will track targets with dome cameras using a dual-mode tracker with any dome. It will compress the images (with or without panning stabilization, rotating reference frame, etc.) and encrypt them to PL1-level security. This equipment is available in quantity to security-contract electricians for under $600. Most of those electricians or resellers will give the product private label. A $550 product will increase in value to about $1,200 to the systems integrator and sells in the $2,200 range.

Cameras come in five types: black and white, color, thermal, infrared and light-intensified. On a good day, variance in pixels will be about plus or minus 1. During rainy days, that goes up to plus/minus 5, and when there are thick snowflakes, readings can range anywhere between plus/minus 50. The next-generation VMDs can punch through such clutter, detecting the difference between a near-field runner (a person running right in front of the VMD, passing the eye in a fraction of a second) and a bird. They will pick up an intruder in parachute cloth who rolls a quarter-turn and stops.

Such motion detectors are being widely installed by municipalities at locations such as water-treatment plants and other areas exposed to security risks.

Saving money

Not all risks are from intruders. Some hit the bottom line. While people need to see the light, others save money when they don’t.

Manufacturers claim a good motion sensor can reduce lighting expenses by approximately 50 percent, or 20 to 40 cents per square foot, in a typical office.

Novitas President Jim Himonas said that after his firm installed 7,400 sensors in TRW’s 3-million-square-foot Redondo Beach, Calif., complex, TRW now uses 16,200,000 kWh less electricity and saves $1.2 million annually with energy costs that average 8 cents per kWh. Kilowatt-hours reduction was once expected but not against peak draw. TRW got an additional bonus when it discovered it reduced peak load by 28 percent.

The Environmental Protection Agency says savings in a large office building will average about 55 percent. Leviton’s Dabbicco said they typically see savings in the 25 to 60 percent range, but have noted it as high as 90 percent in one office where an executive often was out but the lights were usually left on.

Wake up, sleepyhead

The biggest ongoing complaint about the systems—whether ultrasonic or infrared—is the motion required to activate a sensor. Manufacturers are coming to grips with the perennial complaint from users who feel they have to wave their arms to get the sensor to react.

All sensors brands, infrared and ultrasonic, will become more sensitive to minor motion. Contractors should know that most available detectors come from fewer than a half-dozen manufacturers and work well. The products differ in the circuitry that drives the detectors.

“You can’t adopt a circuit designed for a burglar alarm for this kind of application,” Himonas says. “It is the circuitry that drives the detectors. And the manufacturer’s circuitry makes the difference.”

In addition to turning lights off, a growing market for sensors is linking them to building-automation systems. These sensors set back the heat when a room or zone is not occupied and can turn up the air conditioning when unoccupied.

It works both ways. Companies like Siemens and Johnson Controls are adding lighting controls to their panels, too.

Killing light bulbs

Does all of this switching lights on and off reduce bulb life? While he does not argue against the idea that certain lamps and ballasts are unable to handle increased on/off cycles, Himonas said bulb manufacturers must realize the market has changed.

He noted that most schools have programs that encourage children to turn off lights every time they leave a room. Those kids are entering the marketplace and taking their habits with them.

The result is lights are switched on and off a dozen times a day. “It does not matter whether it is a computer or a human who is controlling the toggle,” Himonas said. “The ballast manufacturers have to provide products that adjust to the way people behave.”

Dabbicco said nobody has really proved that sensors cost bulb life. “We say it’s a wash,” he said, noting the savings on ballast life while the light is not energized will equal any on/off activity loss.

At least two companies, Advance and Universal, have introduced products that allow unlimited switching without any loss of life.

The bottom line, however, is improved quality of life for all involved. Adaptive technology is easier for the contractor to install, cheaper for the buyer to use, ecologically correct, reduces workers’ eye strain and provides a more comfortable working environment. EC

HARLER, a frequent contributor to SECURITY & LIFE SAFETY SYSTEMS, is based in Strongsville, Ohio. He can be reached at 440.238.4556 or


About the Author

Curt Harler

Freelance Writer
Curt Harler, a frequent contributor to SECURITY + LIFE SAFETY SYSTEMS, is based in Strongsville, Ohio. He also can be reached at 440.238.4556.

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