What is Thermal Imaging?
And 3 Reasons to Use an Inspector Who Uses It
Thermal imaging (also known as infrared imaging or thermography) is a powerful tool used to detect heat in an object. As you can imagine, this technology has a wide range of applications.
You have probably seen it before while watching police chases on TV. The helicopter footage you see isn’t black-and-white because they have outdated cameras. Quite the opposite! They use thermal cameras in order to pick up heat signatures from suspects. The black-and-white color palette just makes it easier to see for the human eye. If you are a fan of 1980s monster flicks or Arnold Schwarzenegger, you’ve likely seen the infrared vision of the Predator.
“Infrared” refers to a range of wavelengths on the color spectrum that cannot be seen with the naked eye. It’s sort of like ultraviolet light, but it’s on the other end of the spectrum. While UV rays are too short to be seen, IR rays are too long to be seen.
3 Advantages of Thermal Imaging
For the purposes of home inspections, infrared technology is extremely useful. Here are 3 reasons you should choose a home inspector who uses thermal imaging.
In the modern world, we spend a lot of money to keep our homes comfortable. The steadily rising costs of natural gas as well as the trend of hotter summers and colder winters means that you will want to make sure your house is as energy efficient as possible!
An inspector who uses infrared imaging can scan your house and find places where you are wasting energy (and money) such as gaps in insulation, unsealed air ducts, or drafty windows and doors. We once found a vent register that had been completely covered with new carpet! Had we not used a thermal camera, we would likely have missed it.
Thermography is also an effective way to quickly check the efficiency of home heating and air conditioning systems. While the air conditioner is running, your home inspector can point the camera at each vent register. We compare the other surfacetemperatures of the room to the surface temperature of the register in order to make sure the system is distributing the conditioned air evenly throughout the house.
Most modern houses are equipped with 200 amp breaker panels in order to handle the ever growing electrical demand of modern technology. The most demanding are appliances that generate heat–water heaters, stoves and ovens, clothes dryers, and even air conditioners. Like much of the US, my area of Central Arkansas still relies on natural gas for much of our heating needs, so we don’t necessarily need that much amperage.
Older homes typically only have 100-150 amps because generating heat with electricity was not practical until relatively recently. For the most part, 100 amps is plenty since we still use natural gas. However, it is still common to run into older houses that have been retrofitted with electrical appliances.
Unfortunately, it is also very common for these retrofitted appliances to be wired by unlicensed electricians (that is, the homeowner or their buddy). If you want to avoid burning your house down, it is extremely important to ensure that the breakers, the wires, and the appliances are correctly matched. A wire that is gauged too small for the appliance it operates will overheat and possibly catch fire before tripping the breaker.
One benefit of inspecting a house while it is still occupied by the sellers is that they are putting a load on the electrical panel. Electricity generates heat, so your inspector can take a look at the breaker panel with a thermal camera and detect any overheating breakers.
This is the big one. Without getting into the weeds on the science of water’s thermal properties, suffice it to say that water changes the thermal properties of whatever absorbs it. This makes it much easier to see with a thermal camera.
For many reasons, a leak can be difficult to detect with our bare eyes. Perhaps it is underneath a linoleum or tile floor, so the water doesn’t leave noticeable stains. Perhaps it is in an area that you would not suspect. Or worse, you may be falling victim to a seller who has painted or replaced drywall in order to hide the problem rather than repair it.
As we all know, moisture will always invite mold to the party. Using a thermal camera during the normal course of an inspection is a great way for an inspector to catch water in places where it shouldn’t be, so that you can get it fixed before moving in.
Like any tool, infrared thermography has its limitations. Even our best tools won’t always give us all the information we want. The camera simply shows the lightwaves that it sees. Different surfaces display light waves differently, even if they are the exact same temperature. So it is important to have an inspector who can interpret the image correctly. A good inspector will always verify what the camera seems to indicate, particularly when it comes to water intrusion.
Infrared is not x-ray vision and it is not a substitute for more invasive investigation. Inspectors can’t use thermal cameras to see through your walls (thank goodness!). We can simply see the surface temperature at the time we inspect it. And an inspector worth their salt will be able to use that information like Sherlock Holmes to narrow down the possibilities and find the culprit. That way, we can more accurately tell you who to call and what they should be looking for when they open up the area for evaluation and repair.
A home inspection is “a non-invasive, visual examination of the accessible areas of a residential property.” This means that home inspectors only report what we see. We don’t bust open your drywall or pry up your floorboards to make sure everything looks good. That would defeat the purpose! But good inspectors understand that this is just the minimum. It’s a starting point.
Thermal imaging is simply a way for inspectors to expand what we see – to go beyond the minimum requirements. That way, your dream home never becomes a nightmare.