(Photograph: FLIR Systems).
Why Everyone Should Have A Thermal Imaging Camera in Their Toolbox
Michael French, a thermography expert with test equipment supplier at ISSWWW, considers the many applications for thermal imaging cameras within building maintenance and facilities management.
The human eye is an incredibly complex machine, but it has its limitations. Our abilities only stretch to light, depth and colour. To go beyond the visible spectrum, we need advanced technology, to see infrared, ultraviolet, and heat radiation. There is much more of our world to explore.
Thermal Imaging technology allows us to see heat emission from a surface, and the subtle variations in temperature in everyday objects, from the incredibly cold to the blisteringly hot. In fact, any temperature down to absolute zero (that’s -273.15°C) can be measured with a thermal imaging camera.
It used to be the case that this technology only ever fell into the hands of specialists, notably firefighters using it to see through smoke. But thanks to rapid advancement in technology, and with it reductions in manufacturing cost, thermal imaging cameras are finally within reach for many more people.
Firms like Seek Thermal and FLIR are producing low cost cameras for consumers, independent professionals, and just about anyone. Some devices can be attached to a smartphone, and provide a rudimentary step into the world of thermography. Everyday tasks can be carried out with a greater level of insight than before — imagine being able to find points of weakness in home insulation, or check the even spread of heat across a barbecue.
For more advanced applications, but still within a sensible price range, there are a number of options available. Handheld, raygun style cameras are in wide use in industry, by electricians, plumbers, building surveyors and more. Many small business owners can now benefit from thermal imaging without an enormous initial outlay. Whereas thermal cameras used to cost tens of thousand of pounds, they can be had from specialist retailers for much more attainable price points. Being able to locate inefficiencies and fix them means that a thermal imaging camera is a sensible investment. Wherever heat leaks from buildings, or overheating electrical systems look like they might fail imminently, or HVAC systems have previously invisible issues, a thermal imaging camera can become invaluable.
Take building insulation, which when installed correctly has obvious benefits. It doesn’t take any client much convincing that appropriate insulation represents a great energy and cost saving. It’s absolutely vital to get installation right, too, to make sure that those benefits are maximised. A thermal imaging camera helps determine exactly where points of weakness can be found before installation takes place. This is good for those installing it, who get an accurate picture of how their work is going to affect a building’s heat loss, and good good for clients too, who can be shown exactly how much heat their losing currently. Even the tiniest cracks and breaks can represent a great loss of heat, and thermal imaging can show you exactly how much. After installation, all parties can see how dramatically things have improved.
There are many applications that thermal imaging can make easier, and allow more effective practice, because there are so many problems related to unusual heat transmission. Mould growth can be diagnosed and remedied, because it tends to grow where cold spots exist. Moisture problems can easily be found or prevented, because cooler areas being found where they shouldn’t be is a dead giveaway that there might be a water build up. Thermal imaging is a surefire way to diagnose problems caused by substandard construction practices, as well as prevent them at the construction stage. Visible, damaging problems are caused by invisible heat differences, and only a thermal imaging camera can reveal them.
There are some things to bear in mind. Thermal imaging, when performed correctly, is very reliable. There are certain conditions which make it impractical or ineffective, however. Very hot days will throw off readings, as the bright sun will heat up external walls and mask problems. Likewise, rain or wind make reliable readings difficult, or may exaggerate the true nature of a problem. The optimum time to take a thermal image is on an overcast, temperate day, when the temperature is not hugely under or over the normal seasonal average. Nighttime is a good time to take an image too, because a temperature drop will reveal how a building is performing during an external temperature drop.
The future of thermal imaging is bright. They are becoming more affordable each day, and all sorts of new applications are being founded. For instance, the use of thermal cameras attached to drones means huge and hard to reach areas can be surveyed with minimal effort. Advancements in chip production mean cameras are becoming lighter and more portable, too. We can expect to see 3D thermography soon, and live thermal monitoring from remote locations. Thanks to Google and their Project Tango initiative, there might even be built-in, effective thermal imaging cameras in smartphones — no accessory required.