The commercial real estate landscape is in the midst of a significant shift in tenant and occupant expectations. In today's technology-driven world, tenants are seeking more than just a physical space. Nowadays, they demand environments that are adaptive, efficient and conducive to their needs, and occupancy sensors are becoming a huge part of this grand reimagining.

There is a desire in commercial real estate for tech-enabled, flexible and people-centric spaces, and as work cultures evolve, there's a growing demand for spaces that can accommodate everything from a traditional office setup right through to a co-working space.

These changing demands are reshaping how property managers and owners approach building management. There's an increased focus on creating spaces that not only meet the practical requirements of tenants and occupants but also enhance their overall experience.

But to get to that point, owners and managers of commercial real estate need to better understand their spaces. How are they used? When are they used? Are our spaces too big or too small? This is where occupancy sensors can play a starring role, helping building owners and managers align with their tenants and occupants.

occupancy sensors definition

Understanding occupancy sensors

Occupancy sensors, with their ability to detect presence and utilise spatial data, offer insights that pave the way for much more adaptive and intelligent environments. They can also make a significant contribution to energy efficiency when integrated with much more comprehensive building automation systems (BAS), which we will look at shortly.

Above all, the crux of it is this – building sensors provide insights into how and when a space is used. In a multi-tenant building like an office block, for example, occupancy sensors can identify underutilised areas that could be repurposed or cut loose from the overheads. In retail, occupancy sensors can be used to optimise store layouts based on customer behaviour patterns.

With just these two simple examples, it becomes evidently clear that the integration of occupancy sensors can make almost any real estate asset much more cost-efficient or profitable, making them more attractive to prospective tenants and retaining current ones.

So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at occupancy sensors in more depth. This blog will explore their various forms, and we’ll uncover how each type functions, their specific applications, and the advantages they bring to commercial properties, whether that’s through optimising energy consumption, enhancing security, or gathering valuable data about space utilisation.

Are occupancy sensors like motion sensors?

Before we delve into the ins and outs of occupancy sensors, let’s clear up a common misconception. You may have heard the term motion sensors, but it’s important to note that these aren’t synonymous with occupancy sensors – the two technologies are markedly different.

While occupancy sensors and motion sensors may appear similar in function, they have distinct differences in the way they are applied and used. Typically, motion sensors are designed to detect movement within their range, making them ideal for things like security and access control. They activate when motion is detected, while occupancy sensors, on the other hand, are much more sophisticated.

At their most basic level, not only do occupancy sensors detect motion, but they are also capable of determining whether a space is occupied. This makes them suitable for a much wider range of applications and can reveal a great deal more about the spaces being monitored.

What are occupancy sensors?

Occupancy sensors are devices designed and built to detect the presence of people within a space. These sensors work in several ways, largely depending on the technology used, typically by monitoring factors such as movement, heat, or sound.

Occupancy sensors vary in form and technology, including Passive Infrared (PIR), ultrasonic, optical, and computer vision sensors. Each has unique characteristics and applications depending on the environment and intended use case.

Types of occupancy sensors

PIR Occupancy Sensors: These sensors detect infrared energy radiated from any and all objects that emit heat, most often people. PIR sensors are widely used because they’re cost-effective and reliable for simpler use cases, and they're ideal for areas where movement is consistent and predictable, like corridors or offices.

Ultrasonic Sensors: Ultrasonic sensors, on the other hand, emit high-frequency sound waves. As these waves are reflected off moving objects, they can detect occupancy. In more complex environments, ultrasonic sensors can be particularly effective, especially where line-of-sight detection is not sufficient. They can cover much larger areas than PIR sensors and can be deployed in areas that feature obstacles or unusual layouts.

Optical Sensors: Optical sensors are built upon the science of light-based detection, so they can be much more precise when distinguishing between occupied and unoccupied spaces. They are particularly adept at object detection and object counting and can be powerful when it comes to understanding passive occupancy.

Of all the available options, optical sensors are the best for analysing occupancy. When coupled with computer vision technology, which is a type of artificial intelligence (AI), information acquired from many kinds of visual input – such as digital images, videos, or CCTV feeds – can be used to equip building owners and managers with contextual insight.

Because computer vision technology uses image processing and machine learning algorithms to detect and analyse objects, it can offer a more sophisticated, nuanced understanding of space utilisation, from counting people and objects to understanding patterns of movement.

how are occupancy sensors used in real estate?

How are occupancy sensors used in commercial real estate?

Occupancy sensors are more than just tools for simple object detection. When used correctly they can lead to far more impactful insights that can facilitate the strategic management of commercial properties.

Energy efficiency and sustainability

In commercial real estate, efficiency is paramount, especially in parts of the world where utility costs have skyrocketed. Sensors play a crucial role as they can initiate automated systems such as lighting control based on space usage. For example, when a room is vacant for a time, a building automation system can read the data provided by occupancy sensors to trigger the lighting, meaning that no energy is wasted. If deployed at scale, this can contribute to a much more energy-efficient, environmentally friendly building.

Security, access and safety

Security is naturally a top priority in commercial properties. Occupancy sensors can integrate with security systems to alert unusual activity during non-business hours. This isn’t a new technology, of course, as buildings have been using infrared sensors for this very reason for some time. The more advanced forms of occupancy sensors extend functionality to things like evacuation, property access control, and emergency response.

Space optimisation and rightsizing

Beyond immediate operational benefits like energy control and security, occupancy sensors offer compelling insights about space utilisation, offering invaluable patterns and trends that managers or owners can use to inform decision-making, such as deciding whether to downsize office capacity based on occupancy rates. Insights like this can pay huge dividends if the data is interpreted correctly.

Occupancy sensors in detail

Now we know what occupancy sensors are and what they are primarily used for, let’s take a closer look at the different types of occupancy sensors and the scenarios in which they can best be of use.

Door-Counting Sensors: Door-counting sensors are devices installed by, you guessed it, doors and entryways. They monitor the number of people entering and exiting a space. When it comes to high-traffic areas like shopping centres and large commercial buildings, door-counting sensors can give a basic indication of foot traffic. They can be best used to discern peak visiting times and manage crowd flow, aiding in the safe management of spaces.

Ultrasonic vs PIR Sensors: Choosing between ultrasonic and PIR sensors depends on a couple of things. Ultrasonic sensors, for example, can detect fine movements and cover larger areas. That makes them ideal for spaces with more complexity, like obstructions and other things hindering line-of-sight detection. PIR sensors are much more suitable for simpler applications. If the space is smaller, more predictable, and has few obstructions, PIR sensors can be best because they are used to detect significant movements more so than subtle movements.

Computer vision occupancy sensing: Computer vision sensors are really at the cutting edge in occupancy sensing. As we discussed, computer vision uses advanced image processing and machine learning algorithms, so their detection capabilities can be much more nuanced. Whether it’s behaviour, patterns of movement, people, or objects, the level of flexibility and detail makes computer vision-based occupancy sensors incredibly valuable in many commercial applications where understanding nuanced human behaviour is paramount.

types of occupancy sensors

Occupancy sensing for invaluable insights

Occupancy sensors are significant not just for their technology, but also for the way each different type can be applied depending on the use case, space and needs of the building owner or manager.

In retail environments, occupancy sensors can help retailers determine or understand peak shopping hours, optimal store layouts, staffing, product placement, marketing, etc. For the building owner, occupancy sensors can present real-time data to inform and optimise rent adjustments and rate cards depending on numerous factors, such as the volume of foot traffic by a particular unit, floor or area.

When it comes to commercial property, occupancy sensors can be deployed to manage access, security, lighting control, energy efficiency, desk booking systems, and a whole host of other things. On top of this, it can also afford building owners and managers the chance to truly get to grips with how a space is used, leading to insight which can be invaluable when adapting the layout and functionalities of a space to better suit its occupants.

Whatever the use case may be, integrating occupancy sensors into the management of commercial real estate leads to a much smarter, more efficient property. Dovetailing these technologies with computer vision platforms is fundamentally redefining how spaces are monitored, used, and optimised, opening up a world of new possibilities for data-driven decision-making and assisting in the creation of more intelligent spaces tailored to the needs, preferences, and behaviours of occupants and tenants alike.