Infrareddit – A Second Look at Infrared Cameras

by Erik North on September 18, 2012

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In the early days of this blog, I slammed out a few articles about various pieces of equipment regularly used during audits. Looking back, the posts were a little too technical and didn’t cover enough of their practical uses in investigating homes.

While the various screen resolutions and USB ports are nice, it’d be cooler to look at why I refer to infrared cameras as the catnip of homeowners (homeowner-nip just doesn’t roll off the tongue). Chalk it all up to my then novice blog writing which I’m proud to say has since improved to amateurish. So how can infrared assist in exploring issues in your house…very, very well.

What is Infrared?

Infrared is a part o the non-visible radiation spectrum. This electromagnetic radiation hangs out juuuuust off the visible scale, right next to red. It encompasses most of all radiated thermal energy. The name ‘infrared’ was not a mistake but it gives the impression that the radiation has a color. It actually has no color and any colorized image has had them added by a computer program.

Infrared in Business – The commercial applications are pretty awesome…really anything to do with heat or temperature changes. HVAC, electrical and the SYFY channel’s slate of ghost hunting programs all use infrared extensively. Why, the modern boom in found footage films would hardly be possible without night vision and infrared.

Seriously though, any industry which has temperature gradients or who are abetted by seeing heat signatures find infrared useful. Police use infrared to find meth labs and helicopter mounted IR alleviates the need for dangerous car chases.

Infrared in Energy Audits – In the building science field, infrared is extraordinarily useful for evaluations if not absolutely essential. Infrared can be a great assist in home diagnostics. Flaws in the thermal envelope become easy to spot. When paired with a blower door, flaws in the air barrier are just as easy to find. And because of the temperature differences between wet and dry materials, water and moisture issues are just as easy to find.

One time, a homeowner approached me because of a mystery drenched patch in the middle of a shag carpet. The infrared revealed a clear path of water, terminating at a hot water radiator 15 feet away. The radiator had a pinpoint hole in the back. The water was meandering beneath the very thick rug and pad to accumulate in a low spot in the floor.

Infrared: Awesome but Not Important – Infrared cameras lend an audit a real WOW factor, seeing through walls, showing insulation (or lack of it), pipes and wall studs. Very very useful. What I don’t find them to be is particularly essential.

I sometimes refer to infrared, like I did earlier, as catnip for homeowners. How cool is it to see into the walls of your house? But is it essential to diagnosing any issues that there may be? Not by a long shot.

Most every use of infrared in a home diagnostic setting can be replaced by another tool in the auditor’s box. A boroscope can look inside wall cavities, a darning needle can be used to probe wall cavities for insulation, and general observation and experience fills in most of the rest.

I don’t need an infrared camera and blower door to know that a Cape Cod style house will likely have all kinds of ventilation and heating problems on the second floor or that a finished room over a garage will likely be hard to heat.

When one first starts evaluating houses, infrared cameras can be extraordinarily helpful. But over the years (crap, has it been years already?), I’ve found myself relying less and less on the infrared to discover issues and more to confirm problems I suspect may be present. Infrared cameras are awesomely cool but not the end all of auditing. No matter what my customers feel.

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