How to Troubleshoot an Outdoor Motion-Sensor Light

door and motion detector image by Larry Roberg from

Outdoor motion sensor lights provide improved security to your home but because they are subjected to the elements all year long, over time they can develop some problems that need to be addressed in order to maintain their benefits. Troubleshooting these devices isn't really that difficult as there are only a small number of potential problems that could be causing the fixture not to work. Knowing what steps to follow will help you get to the bottom of your light's problem in less than an hour.

Turn off the circuit breaker that delivers power to the motion sensor light. Leave it off for about 30 minutes and then turn it on. Check the light to see if the bulbs are lit. If they are, the sensor just needed to be reset and the light will turn off in a few seconds.

This step resets the sensor and can be used to fix either a light that's stuck in the on position or a light that won't turn on at all. If the reset doesn't fix the problem, then continue on to the next step.

Replace the light bulbs with newer ones. Inclement weather or rapid changes in temperature can cause light bulbs to have a shortened lifespan.

If the fixture uses incandescent bulbs, they can be tested by trying them out in a regular lamp socket before you purchase replacement bulbs. Or, look at the bulb for any signs of broken filaments to help you determine if the bulb is bad.

Adjust the settings on the bottom of the motion sensor. Someone may have tried changing them at some point and they may need to be reconfigured to your desired settings.

Adjust the sensor's direction so it is aiming in the right direction. Over time, wind or falling branches may cause the sensor to shift its directional view so it is not working as intended. While you are making the adjustments, check the sensor's lens for any accumulated dirt and clean it with a soft rag if necessary.

Turn off the circuit breaker that powers the outdoor motion sensor light.

Remove the screws that secure the light fixture to the wall box.

Test the wires inside with a touch-type voltage tester before you touch any of the wires. Press the button on the tester and touch the tip of it to each wire to make sure the circuit is dead. If the tester beeps or lights up, then the circuit is still live. Try additional breakers until you find the correct one.

Disconnect the motion sensor's black and red wires from the circuit. Then, connect the light fixture's black wire directly to the black feed wire in the box. Secure the connection with a wire connector.

Turn the circuit breaker back on. Check the fixture to see if the light bulbs are on. If they are on, then the motion sensor is bad and needs to be replaced. If the bulbs are not on, double check your wiring and whether or not the bulbs are good. If all looks good and it is still not working, then the fixture itself is bad and needs to be replaced.

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