By Glenda Taylor and Timothy Dale | Updated Aug 29, 2022 12:54 PM
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Outdoor illumination keeps the home visible at night and helps deter crime, but leaving lights on all night is a costly waste of energy. Motion sensor lights, which only activate when they detect movement, are a great solution. We wanted to know whether today’s top motion sensor lights lived up to the hype, so we tested them in real-life settings. We mounted them, wiring them when necessary, and tracked each of their functions.
For those considering installing outdoor motion sensor lights, the best options will depend on a variety of factors, including security needs, budget, and day-to-day lifestyle. This guide will explain what features to look for and showcase some of the best outdoor motion sensor light options available. Discover the pros and cons of each of the following motion sensor lights, and find out how each one earned a spot in this lineup.
When looking for a motion detector light, factor in your individual needs, such as the desired detection range, brightness, and energy source.
Motion detection systems may have a variety of power sources, including plug-in electric, battery-powered, solar-powered, and hardwired.
Brightness is measured in lumens (lm) and generally ranges from just 200 lm to over 2,000 lm for a motion sensor light. To better understand this, 200 lm is about the brightness produced by a standard flashlight, while 2,000 lm is enough to illuminate a small room. Light color temperature refers to the color the light produces and is measured on a kelvin (K) scale. It ranges between 3,000K (warm white) and 6,500K (daylight).
The light produced by an outdoor motion sensor lighting system varies depending on the product. Both the brightness and the color temperature can differ between products, and some motion sensor lights have multiple brightness and color temperature levels, allowing the user to choose the ideal setting.
The distance at which a motion sensor can pick up movement is called its range of detection; typically, this is noted on the package or description. Most motion sensors can detect movement from 20 to 100 feet away. In addition to distance, factor in the light’s detection angle, measured in degrees, which refers to the span of the detection field.
Direct-wired motion sensor lights are often mounted at or above door height on exterior walls and may come with one or more spotlights that can be adjusted depending on the area you want to illuminate. These types of lights typically have the greatest range of detection, up to 100 feet, and can be set to illuminate large areas of a yard or driveway.
Decorative wall-mounted motion sensor lights are designed to look like standard porch lights and, when triggered, will illuminate approximately the same area as a standard porch light. Decorative motion sensor lights often have a closer range of detection than their spotlight-type counterparts.
As with all devices and equipment kept outdoors in the elements, durability matters with motion sensor lights. Plus, these lights are intended for security purposes, so it’s doubly important that they be rugged, lest an intruder decide to take a swing at them! In general, metal housing holds up to the elements better than plastic housing, but some of today’s new molded plastic materials are also quite sturdy and substantial.
Another gauge of durability might be the light’s ingress protection (IP rating), which helps determine how well the light will withstand exposure to blowing dust and water. You might not find an IP rating on all motion sensor lights, but if you do, it will start with the letters “IP” followed by two digits. The first digit indicates dust resistance and ranges from 1 to 6 (higher numbers indicate better resistance). The second digit indicates water resistance and ranges from 1 to 8, with a higher number indicating better protection. Many outdoors lights come with IP65 or IP67, indicating that they are completely dustproof and very nearly waterproof.
When it comes to motion sensor lights, function trumps fashion. Their purpose is to scare off intruders and offer residents and invited visitors illumination when approaching the house in darkness. That said, few folks want their home to look like a high-security outpost, so there’s a variety of motion sensor light styles that may match or complement the architectural aesthetic.
Lantern lights are a popular, attractive option for the home exterior. They resemble decorative porch lights and come in a host of styles ranging from traditional to modern.
Another option is flush-mount lights, which are typically installed unobtrusively to the porch ceiling. They neither add to nor detract from existing decor and sit out of sight of an intruder— until they turn on and surprise the trespasser.
There are a handful of bells and whistles to decide upon while shopping. Consider the following extras when choosing an outdoor motion sensor light:
The mounting location of an outdoor motion sensor light can vary depending on the specific product, the home, and the user’s preferred placement. Typically, a motion sensor light is mounted on a wall or ceiling near an entrance, including the front door, side door, back door, or garage. The light should be mounted about 6 to 10 feet off the ground for optimal coverage.
Some products can only be mounted to a ceiling, while others can be mounted in just about any orientation. Under-eave installations can be a good idea to help ensure that the light is high enough and difficult to see at night, thereby avoiding tampering.
To earn a spot on this lineup, the following motion sensor lights had to be made from quality materials. More importantly, they had to illuminate the immediate area when someone entered the detection range. Individual needs vary, so we tested several different types of motion sensor lights and scored them on their performance. The following models are powered in various ways, and each one is a standout in its category.
When we first opened the box of four Urpower lights, we weren’t super impressed. Their simplistic design makes them look more like toys than security lights, but we underestimated their performance and function.
We mounted the lights in the morning on a sunny day, so after more than 7 hours of direct sunlight, they were fully charged by nightfall. After dark, we slowly approached the Urpower lights to see how close we could get before triggering them. The manufacturer lists a detection distance of 10 feet, but each one of the lights lit up when we were as far as 13 and 14 feet away. They stayed on as long as there was movement within that range, and after we walked out of range, they remained on for about 30 seconds longer.
The illumination distance (how far the light illuminated the ground well enough to see objects clearly) was about 25 feet away from each light. These lights proved to be quite bright in our estimation—enough to startle ne’er-do-wells and illuminate a sidewalk for safe navigation after dark.
Get the Urpower outdoor motion sensor lights on Amazon.
No sun, no plug, and no electrician necessary! That’s because three D-cell batteries power the Mr. Beams Wireless Spotlight, letting users install it virtually anywhere—on a fence, the garage, a storage shed, or even a tree. Plus, the budget-friendly Mr. Beams won’t break the bank.
We opted to install our test model to the underside of our covered patio ceiling. The connected base was simple to mount using three included screws. A swivel-head feature allowed us to point the beam where we wanted it, and then we easily tightened the head in position via a thumb nut on the side of the base.
The light came on when we were about 18 feet away, and the illumination beam lit up the patio clearly for a good 15 feet. However, it’s a relatively narrow beam of light, so it didn’t illuminate a wide area—approximately 10 feet at the widest point. Still, it cast enough light to see easily where we were walking.
The light remained on while we were moving within the 18-foot detection range and then stayed on about 15 seconds longer after we moved out of range. That’s a shorter amount of lit time than some other models, but that may be intended to help preserve battery life. We felt this motion sensor light would be well suited to illuminating specific spots, such as a back porch or even an inside basement hallway.
Get the Mr. Beams outdoor motion sensor light at Amazon, Ace Hardware, or Lowe’s.
If the goal is to light up a large area, such as a home’s entry, the Ring Smart has plenty of intensity—plus, it features the latest innovative technology. The light comes with a Ring Bridge, a wireless hub that allows the lights to connect and communicate with other Ring devices, such as doorbells and security cameras.
This model requires hard wiring, so we installed it under a roof eave where we already had a wired exterior light. The light came with all the tools, screws, and wire nuts needed for connecting it as well as excellent step-by-step instructions. If new wiring needs to be run, however, it’s probably a job for an electrician.
We downloaded the Ring app on our smartphone and followed the steps to connect the Ring light to our Wi-Fi network via the included Ring Bridge. It connected quickly, and once it was synched, we were able to turn the light on and off using our smartphone or Alexa voice commands—a handy option for someone who wants to operate the light remotely.
The Ring has a powerful motion detection range—we couldn’t get any closer than 55 feet without triggering the light. The illumination range was quite large, lighting up the ground for about 65 feet. It features two flood lights that can be adjusted to focus the beams in any direction within a 180-degree radius. Using the app, we adjusted light duration from 30 seconds to up to 5 minutes after we exited the detection range.
This is one of the brighter, more powerful lights we tested—a result of being hardwired—but its primary benefit is the ability to control it remotely by voice commands or from a smartphone.
Get the Ring outdoor motion sensor light at Amazon, The Home Depot, or Ring.
This flush-mount motion sensor light by Brilliant Evolution is a great option for adding a little extra illumination virtually anywhere it would be beneficial. It’s battery-powered, so there’s no need for direct sunlight or connection to a home’s electrical system.
We opted to install it on the kitchen ceiling near the edge of the room, an area that’s always been a bit dim. We inserted three C-cell batteries and mounted it easily via a plate that screws directly to the ceiling drywall (no need to locate joists). The light case then snapped into place. Voilà! Light!
This simple motion sensor light doesn’t have a long motion detection range—it turned on when we got within about 7 feet. For our purposes, that was perfect because it illuminated the immediate area below. It remained on for about 20 seconds after we moved out of range. Its illumination range is also relatively small: about an 8-foot diameter.
One slight downside was that the light came on at any time—day or night—when it detected motion. We weren’t sure if this was a defect since the other motion sensor lights we tested were triggered by movement only when in darkness. (Typically, a photocell in the light will keep it from turning on during the daytime.) Still, we consider it a handy addition for lighting up a small area such as a dark porch, dim hallway, or even an area of a garage.
Get the Brilliant Evolution outdoor motion sensor light at The Home Depot.
This motion sensor light by C Cattleya meets illumination needs while adding a gracious touch of style to an entry. It requires hardwiring into the home’s electrical system, so we opted to replace an existing light for testing purposes. Installation involves connecting same-color wires (whites together and blacks together), and all the necessary wire nuts and screws are included. However, the instructions aren’t the best, so those unfamiliar with the task should search online for basic light-wiring directions. (Those without an existing light will need to run new wiring, which is probably a job for an electrician.)
The illumination range of the C Cattleya light depends on the bulb chosen. We inserted a 60-watt LED-equivalent bulb and got an ample 25 feet of illumination. We determined the motion detection range to be about 35 feet. While the light remained on for about 15 seconds after moving out of range, we discovered a special function that allows the light to remain on longer. When the light switch is in the on position, turn the switch off and back on quickly (within about 2 seconds) to override the automatic shutoff manually. In this way, we could keep the light turned on as long as we liked. When we were ready to resume motion-detection mode, we turned the switch off and, after about 15 seconds, turned it back on.
Get the C Cattleya outdoor motion sensor light at The Home Depot, Lowe’s, or Cattleya Lighting.
Protect the home and safely illuminate the yard with this motion detection light that comes with several features and adjustments. Right out of the box, the Leonlite is impressive: It’s made from heavy-duty molded polycarbonate and feels solid and substantial.
As with the other hardwired lights we tested, we found a spot with an existing light to utilize wires that were already installed. Wiring is simple for us, because we’re familiar with basic light wiring, but the instructions weren’t great; much better wiring instructions are available online for those who need help.
Once the light was installed, we could adjust both the light heads and the motion-detection unit. This makes it handy for those who might install the light on one side of a door yet want it to pick up motion on the other side. The motion detection range proved impressive, picking up movement when we came within about 50 feet. Illumination is bright, and we could see the ground clearly for almost 70 feet.
We were able to adjust the unit to use it as a dusk-to-dawn light by turning a knob on the underside of the motion-detection module. There’s also a knob to adjust the motion sensitivity. We turned it to its most sensitive option, and the light came on virtually every time a moth flew by. We finally found a happy compromise where only humans (and large dogs) triggered the light, but cats did not.
Get the Leonlite outdoor motion sensor light at Amazon or at Newegg.
Adding motion-activated lighting to the home’s exterior serves three purposes: convenience, energy savings, and security. These Sengled outdoor motion sensor light bulbs can be used in any standard light fixtures.
With these high-tech bulbs, we turned the security light we were using on an outbuilding into a motion-detection light. We unscrewed the two standard bulbs we had in the light fixture and replaced them with the Sengled bulbs. These bulbs fit all standard sockets, so nothing could be simpler.
We turned on the light switch, and Sengled lights lit up, but they turned off after a couple of minutes. We waited for nightfall to test their motion detection ability and could get about 30 feet away before triggering the lights. The illumination was bright and lit up the ground in a wide arc that extended about 40 feet out.
These bulbs stayed on a bit longer than the other lights we tested—about 1.5 minutes after we left the detection area. We found that in addition to the motion-detection mode, we could quickly flip the on-off switch to put the bulbs into “always-on” mode. While we put both bulbs in a single fixture, they could easily be used in separate fixtures.
Get the Sengled outdoor motion sensor light bulbs on Amazon or at Newegg.
While any of the motion sensor lights that earned a spot on our lineup are beneficial for illumination purposes, our best overall pick, the Urpower outdoor motion sensor light, can be located anywhere it will receive 4 to 6 hours of sunlight. After dark, it lights up to frighten off trespassers or add safety to nighttime walkways. Our best bang for the buck pick, Mr. Beams outdoor motion sensor light, can be installed indoors or outdoors to offer a bright, focused beam well suited to specific spots, such as steps or a landing.
During the selection and testing of the lights, our primary goal was to determine the detection range of each model and how far it could reliably illuminate. The brightest lights were hardwired into the electrical system, but that didn’t necessarily put them above battery-powered or solar-powered ones as those offered a greater degree of versatility.
We tested each light by mounting it and then waiting until dark to see how close we could get before triggering its motion detector. We used a long measuring tape to record the distances. We then assessed the illumination range by having one person stand near the light—so it would remain on—and then having another person walk until they reached the edge of the illumination field. We then recorded that distance as well.
We scored the lights using a rubric, and we awarded points for ease of installation, instruction clarity, the quality of the materials, and any added functions. At the end of the testing, we added up the points and used them to help determine the categories for each light that we felt performed well enough to make our list.
The best motion sensor light can brighten the way to the door at night or deter burglars, trespassers, and even roaming animals with intense outdoor light. For more information about these innovative devices, including motion flood light options that can help keep your home safe, take a look below at some of the most frequently asked questions about motion sensor outdoor lighting.
Motion sensor lights can deter burglars by startling and temporarily blinding them, while the increased outdoor light can bring unwanted attention from nearby neighbors, passing individuals, and those inside the home.
Solar lights are a great option for those who wish to avoid the hassle of charging batteries or hardwiring. One of the best solar options is the Urpower outdoor motion sensor light. This light comes in a pack of four and is easy to install and can operate from dusk to dawn with just a few hours of direct sunlight.
It depends on the product. Some motion sensors use regular bulbs with a motion detection system, while others can use a standard light fixture with a bulb that is a motion flood light (a motion detection system is built in). Check the manufacturer’s directions to find out whether a specific motion sensor needs a special bulb.
As an alternative to replacing an entire light fixture, motion sensor bulbs can provide intense security light to the home. One of the best options available is the Sengled outdoor motion sensor light bulbs, which are waterproof and compatible with standard light fixtures, making them ideal as quick, inexpensive outdoor security lights.
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