DIY Project: Automating staircase lighting

Motion sensor #1

The Idea/Problem:

Use motion sensors to turn lights on when someone approaches the staircase, therefore making it safer and more convenient to use at night. Use existing light fixture instead of mounting step lights to save on wiring and hardware costs.

The Components:

Here is what we will need:

  • Motion sensor(s): Two X10 ActiveEye (MS16A) or EagleEye(MS14A) sensors. If you want to go all-Insteon the Wireless INSTEON Motion/Occupancy Sensor (#2420M) will do.
  • Light switches: sells a pre-configured SwitchLinc 3-Way Dimmer Kit (#2494M3). If your light fixture cannot be dimmed consider using two SwitchLinc Relay (#2476S) switches.
  • Wireless bridges: To translate wireless signals from motion sensors to X10/Insteon power-line signals that wall switches can receive you’d need an appropriate communication bridge. If using X10 motion sensors you’ll need X10 Powerline Transceiver Module (TM751). If using Wireless INSTEON motion sensors at least two Access Points (#2443P – this is the set of two) are required.
  • Tools: Slotted and Philips screwdrivers.

The Solution:

It is a relatively simple and straight forward project. Usually when it comes to the staircases there could be several light switches involved. There will be at least one at the top and one at the bottom of the staircase. This configuration of light switches (two switches controlling one light fixture) is called 3-way switch. That is the case I’m going to explain here (though more switches and/or light fixtures could be incorporated into this solution without any problem).

The only tricky part here could be replacing your existing 3-way switches with their X10/INSTEON-enabled counterparts. The trickiness is in figuring out the correct wires for making connections to the new switches.

You won’t anymore need one of the traveler wires that your old switches were using (usually a red or blue wire, but could be black or white either). Instead only one switch will control the load (let’s call it the Master or Primary Switch), the other one (the Slave or Secondary Switch) will be used for triggering the Master Switch from the top (or bottom) of stairs.

As usual, before starting any electrical work please turn off the power at the electrical box. And since we are working with 3-way switches, please double check that the power is off at both ends of the staircase. If you are not comfortable working with electricity, or if you don’t understand what you are doing please call a professional. Improper wiring could be the cause of fire or death.

Now that you’ve been warned let’s proceed. =)

Insteon 3-way kit
Insteon 3-way kit

First, we need to replace our existing switches with X10/Insteon enabled once. Unscrew cover plates of your switches. Disconnect and pull the wires in different directions, making sure they do not touch anything. We will need to figure out which wire brings the power, which goes to the light fixture and which ones are the travellers — the wires connecting top and bottom switches together, so that you could turn the light on downstairs and turn it off when you get upstairs.

I’ll let Tim Carter of to do the explanation of 3-way wiring. Please watch the video…

There are some other ways to wire a 3-way circuit. Check the Common Wiring Diagrams for the Do-It-Yourselfer for more information.

Now if you are not totally confused you should have a pretty good idea of how this all works and should be able to figure out what wires you will need to make connections to our new X10/Insteon controlled switches. Let’s proceed with installation.

Connect SwitchLinc switches following included instructions. Install them back into the wall boxes. Turn the power back on at the electrical box and verify that the switches work as expected from both up and down of the stairs.

Let’s automate our staircase lighting by installing the motion sensors. Install the proper wireless bridge(s) as indicated in The Components section. This step is crucial to correct operation of wireless motion sensors, so try to find an outlet that’s as close to the sensors as possible to minimize the distance that wireless signals have to travel.

Insteon Motion Sensor
Insteon Motion Sensor

Now on to the sensors. For the best coverage I had to install two sensors, one on the wall at the top of the stairs at approx. 6ft height, and one on the turn of the stairs at floor level. You might want to play around with sensor’s placement to find locations that fit your case best. It might be all the way down to the steps level or as high as your ceiling. The goal is to minimize false positives, i.e. turning the light on when you are just passing by not intending to go to the stairs, but making sure the light will turn on when you are just 2-3 steps from the stairs. The light should stay On for as long as there is any motion on the stairs, so try to make sure that sensors could cover the entire staircase.

ms16a Detection Range
ms16a Detection Range

Tip: Unlike James Bond you probably cannot see the invisible infrared beams coming out from the motion sensors, so please check the diagram of sensor’s coverage area, it will help you to find a good spot for placement.

In case of X10 sensors – both sensors should have the same X10 address (Home and Unit code, i.e. A9), same address that you have to assign to the Primary SwitchLinc dimmer. The motion sensors would also need to be set-up so that they turn the lights on only when it’s dark. You can set the Off delay on the sensor to whatever interval you please.
If you are using Insteon motion sensors they should be linked to the Primary switch.

This is it. Now just wait for the sunset to test your new automated lights.

Motion sensor #1
Motion sensor #1

The Light Fixture
The Light Fixture

Motion sensor #2
Motion sensor #2

Tip: If you don’t want to startle yourself at night with bright light (I have halogen bulbs installed in my light fixture) you can set the On-Level on the switches to about 30% and Ramp Rate to about 2-3 seconds, that will give you a soft glow that is just bright enough to see your way downstairs in the middle of the night, and it will save you some dough in electricity costs. And, yes, it’s good for the environment!

Enjoy your automated staircase lighting and please let me know in the comments below if I’ve missed something important or if you have any questions.

About Ruslan Ulanov 103 Articles
Ruslan Ulanov is a software engineer by day and Smart Home hacker by night. He got fascinated by potential of home automation over a decade ago, when it was available to select few. Over the years experimented with smart products using different technologies from X10 to Insteon to ZigBee. Actively supports new smart home developments on Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

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