It wasn’t long ago that the use of thermal or infrared equipment for the purpose of a residential home inspection was a consideration for most professionals, much less a thought for clients or the real estate community. Fast forward 10 to 15 years and the landscape is much different. Infrared camera manufacturers over the last decade have made leaps and bounds in technology, cost, and use. These advancements, most notably cost, have allowed professionals from wide ranging fields including water restoration, energy, and home inspection to begin implementing thermal equipment as part of their normal day to day process of assessing homes, or as a stand-a-lone service. While the industry-wide acceptance of thermal into the inspection and real estate communities has seemed quite rapid, the question most asked remains; is thermal truly a help or simply hype?

Thermal or infrared cameras are a non-contact device that detects infrared energy or heat and converts it into an electronic signal, which is then processed to produce an image or video which can be viewed and analyzed by the operator. So, in essence a camera that can see surface temperature, something our human eyes are incapable of seeing. With this new visual, much can be brought to light, no pun intended. As it relates to a residential structure the primary benefits of observing this newly visible heat or lack thereof, can assist in determining:

  • missing or poorly insulated wall, ceiling, or floor cavities
  • active water leaks and the extent of building material impact
  • air-leakage in the building enclosure including doors and windows
  • integrity of window seals and glazing in doors
  • overheating mechanical devices or components
  • overheating electrical wires, connections, and components

As you can see, a relatively sizeable list of some very important items throughout a home, that most would want to be informed of. So how then could there be anything but help? The devil is in the details as they say, and is it relates to infrared, limitations. The limitations of infrared or thermal assessments are rarely in our experience conveyed effectively to their recipient and sometimes, in the operator or inspector themselves. Thermal cameras are fantastic pieces of equipment, but professional cameras are anything but your digital point and shoot camera you’ve used at home or on your mobile phone. While they produce colorful, and visually appealing images and video, these images and video provide more than your recent selfie, rather they provide data. Data that in concert with proper camera adjustment and optimal conditions for the evaluation being performed, must be kept in mind at all times by the operator. After this data has been collected, it may then still need refinement and verification to exhaustively determine what the operator is looking at, is truly the defect they hypothesize. This is wherein most errors occur in the residential sector.

If an operator does not possess the proper training, knowledge and experience with an infrared camera, the technology and data they provide can often times be misinterpreted. Working with infrared or thermal cameras since 2010, we can tell you first hand infrared can get tricky at times. What may be a pattern you would expect to be a moisture issue, can end up being a simple insulation problem or just the opposite. To make things more difficult, buildings are always under transient conditions, meaning wind speed, recent precipitation, solar loading from the sun, and temperatures inside to out, are just some of the things that must be kept in mind in order to determine the feasibility and accuracy of an assessment.

With all of this considered is thermal hype or help? We say help. Put in the right hands, the technology can yield information that otherwise wouldn’t be revealed and can be helpful to making actionable, cost-effective decisions, whether it be to purchase a home, make a home more energy efficient, or determine the impact of a recent problem. Thermal cameras have a broad range of applications and are an amazing, non-destructive tool, just make sure the tool is being used by a professional.