Workplace Tech & Software

Occupancy sensor technology: everything you need to know

Nick Mason
August 18th, 2022

Occupancy sensor technology has grown in leaps and bounds in recent years, along with our ability to use occupancy data to make better, more efficient workplaces. 

When used in conjunction with facility management software and building automation systems, occupancy sensors can help facility managers (FMs) measure, monitor, and optimize all aspects of the office. 

In other words, sensors can do so much more than keep the lights on. Although they’re certainly great at keeping energy costs in check, too! 

In this article, we explore the ins and outs of using occupancy sensors in the workplace. We also delve into frequently asked questions around this expanding technology. 

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What does an occupancy sensor do?

Think about occupancy sensors as upgraded motion sensors. 

Part of the booming trend towards smart buildings and workplaces in general, occupancy sensors do just what their name suggests. They measure the amount of people occupying a given area. 

There are a variety of technologies that can accomplish this. Infrared, microwave, ultrasonic, and video image processing are the most common. 

When workplaces are considering installing occupancy sensors to improve their energy bill and space utilization, then the workplace management software used to analyze the data is just as (or more) important than the IoT sensors themselves. 

That’s because understanding your occupancy rate can help you understand whether you’re wasting any space in your real estate portfolio. This is critically important. Up to 42% of office space is underutilized, and one desk alone can cost up to $14,800 a year.  

Occupancy sensors let you do this tracking on a granular level. Not only can you monitor occupancy for a whole building or floor, but also which desks are occupied on which days and for how long. 

But of course, in order to work in this capacity, they need to link to a workplace management system that makes sense of all this raw data. A good system can turn this data into useful information for facility planning and improving the workplace overall. 


Where are occupancy sensors used?

While simple motion sensors have many residential uses, when we’re talking about sophisticated occupancy sensing technology, we’re typically talking about those used in two professional settings: in building automation systems, and in smart buildings IoT to create a better workplace.  

Building automation systems

Building automation systems (BAS), sometimes referred to as building management systems (BMS), are complex systems that integrate all major operations of a building. HVAC systems, lighting systems, alarm systems, and energy management all typically fall under these control systems. 

Used in this capacity, occupancy sensor technology often plays three key roles. 

First, it can enhance security in building automation systems. Especially when integrated with a badge system that controls which employees or guests have access to different areas of the building. 

Second, if an occupancy/vacancy sensor is used in lighting control (i.e.: for dimming lights when no one’s in a given space) and energy control (i.e.: for turning down heat and ac when no one’s in a given space), this can lead to big energy savings. 

And third, occupancy sensors can give cleaning teams more accurate insight into when common areas (such as the restrooms) need to be cleaned. 

Workplace management systems 

Occupancy sensors are a great tool for improving the energy efficiency of a whole building. But when they integrate with the right workplace experience software, they can also give facilities teams accurate and comprehensive real-time data around how their space is actually being used. 

Yes—without sensors, you might be able to figure out how many people in total come into your physical workplace each day. 

But with sensor data, you can start to get a real picture of which desks, rooms, and other areas of the office employees are using, and for how long. 

This makes sensors invaluable when trying to maximize any of the flexible workplace strategies that are becoming so popular. Like agile working, free addressing, activity-based working, and office neighborhoods. 

Are there too many desks in your free address workplace? Or not enough? Is your office neighborhood layout working like you’d hoped? Do you have a ghost room problem, or a break room that employees never use? 

Good workplace analytics, supplemented by good occupancy sensors, can help you answer these questions. They can create a better, more modern office floor plan that is in line with your goals. 

Sensors can also be used in conjunction with a social distancing planner to ensure that areas don’t get too crowded.  

Ultimately, using this new technology in the workplace can lead to an office that is safer, more efficient, more comfortable, more collaborative, and better able to grow and change with future needs and goals.  

Occupancy sensors can do a lot to help your building re-entry strategies. But these opportunities can only be realized if there are also plans to monitor the information they transmit.

Natalie Patton, Buildings IOT

What are the advantages of an occupancy sensor? 

Many of the advantages center around energy efficiency. 

New research from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) even shows that by reducing light and heat when no one is in a given space, sensors can reduce energy waste by up to 68% and increase energy savings by as much as 60%.  

Of course, beyond cost savings, improving energy efficiency also helps with sustainability efforts. 

Occupancy sensors can also give facilities teams insights that they can use to create a more efficient workplace. Moreover, they can improve real estate portfolio management and even help right-size real estate portfolios overall. 

Finally, they can help improve desk booking and room booking software. When an employee is occupying a desk or room, it can be taken out of the pool of bookable spaces. When they leave, it can automatically return to the pool. 

In short, occupancy sensors can lead to a more affordable office that serves the people who use it better. 

Space management best practices

One of the biggest advantages of an occupancy sensor is how it can help inform space management best practices

Space management is about figuring out the best possible use of space. Hopefully with the goal of improving employee experience and productivity. 

In this sense, occupancy sensors are so much more than adding a dimmer to a light switch. They’re about creating an office that has its users in mind. 


More occupancy sensor FAQs

Whether you’re considering sensors for a multi-location office or to improve one floor in a building, here’s what you need to know. 

What is a room occupancy sensor?

Like the name suggests, it measures how many people are in a room at a certain time. These sensors can integrate with meeting room booking software to help employees access the right collaboration space when they need it. 

What is the difference between a motion sensor and an occupancy sensor?

Motion sensors (also called motion detectors) are simple devices that simply register movement. This is why a leaf falling can trigger your home security camera. Occupancy sensors are much more complex. They use technology like ultrasonic sensors and passive infrared light to determine if there are people in a given space. 

What are the 3 types of occupancy sensors?

There are many types of occupancy sensors. The three most common are PIR sensors (or passive infrared sensors), which detect heat energy, ultrasonic sensors, which emit high-frequency sound waves and measure how those sounds are returned, and time of flight sensors, which do the same thing but with infrared light.

Meanwhile, microwave sensors emit microwaves to detect people, while acoustic sensors measure people-made noise.  

Note that many sensors today can be ‘hybrid’ or ‘dual technology’. This means they combine different types of sensor technology to prove a more fail-proof monitoring system. 

How much money do occupancy sensors save?

According to the EPA, occupancy sensors can help companies reduce energy costs by up to 60%. If companies use them to right-size their corporate real estate portfolio, they can potentially lock in a lot more savings. 

Do occupancy sensors save energy?

Yes—one of the primary functions is to save energy. According to the EPA, they can reduce energy waste by up to 68%. This makes them an invaluable resource in sustainability efforts. 

As a bonus, sensors are typically low voltage themselves, so their own energy use should be negligible. 

Note that manual-on and partial-on sensors save more energy than full-on sensors. 

Do occupancy sensors have cameras?

Occupancy sensors can have cameras attached, especially when they are used for security purposes. 

Are there security or privacy concerns when using occupancy sensors?

To ensure privacy, companies can and should create data protection policies around their occupancy sensors.  This should include a stipulation that they only collect anonymous data. Of course, secure internet and wi-fi is critical, too.  

How do you install occupancy sensors?

Occupancy sensors are typically small and inconspicuous. Fixture mounts, wall mounts, wall switches, and ceiling mounts are all good options, depending on your specifications. 

Facilities teams will likely outsource the installation, if their building doesn’t handle it. 

How much does it cost to install occupancy sensors?

The cost of installation will vary depending on the type of technology in use and the amount of space to be covered. Note that dual-technology sensors are usually more expensive than PIR occupancy sensors and other options.   

Does OfficeSpace Software integrate with occupancy sensors?

OfficeSpace features are designed to integrate securely with the systems—and sensors—your team relies on. Specifically, OfficeSpace integrations for occupancy sensors include VergeSense and SenzoLive.  


Measuring matters

What does occupancy mean? Your answer will vary, depending on whether you’re an employee or an employer, your comfort levels, and what industry you’re in. 

But at the end of the day, employee experience always matters, and keeping costs in check always matters. 

That’s why it’s critical for companies to have an adaptive strategy for strategic space management that includes occupancy sensors.   Whether you’re looking to retrofit your entire office space or just looking to make small improvements as you go, occupancy sensors always make sense. 

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Photos: FreshSplash, davidf, ljubaphoto, alvarez, Austin Distel