Infrared (IR) inspection is a powerful and noninvasive means of monitoring and diagnosing the condition of buildings. An IR camera can identify problems that can be immediately documented with full color thermal pictures and corrected before they become serious. IR gives the facility manager a new tool that not only saves time and money, but also helps to elevate him or her as a true technology professional.
How Infrared Thermography Works
Thermography enables users to see and measure heat. All materials on earth emit heat energy in the infrared portion of the spectrum. Unfortunately, the unaided human eye cannot see in the infrared. Thermal images reveal temperature anomalies that in turn identify potential problems in buildings and their component electrical, mechanical, plumbing, and waterproofing systems.
Today’s lightweight and rugged infrared cameras can measure the temperatures of target objects quite accurately—to within +/- 25° F, and can record infrared images in real time. Points of possible concern show up clearly as hot or cold in relation to their surroundings. Recorded thermal images can be easily inserted into reports and easily distributed, greatly facilitating communications among trades, attorneys, and other professionals and serving as invaluable, rational, evidentiary data in cases involving controversy.
How It’s Being Used
Following are just a few of the ways inspectors are using infrared to detect problem areas in commercial buildings:
•Leaking roofs. Roof leaks can cause costly damage to a building’s contents and discomfort to its inhabitants. An infrared inspection can quickly identify missing or moisture-soaked insulation under a flat roof membrane roof where the insulation needs replacement, permitting the surgical repair of failed areas rather than the much more costly replacement of the entire roof.
•Faulty electrical, mechanical, and HVAC systems and components. Infrared cameras are very effective at detecting overloaded circuits, faulty wiring, and loose electrical connections, which generate heat and can pose serious fire hazards. IR can detect thin spots in furnace heat exchangers and flues, mechanical problems such as worn, under-lubricated pumps, motors, and bearings in fans, compressors, and furnaces, electrical faults, refrigerant leaks and blockages in HVAC components, another source of costly energy waste.
•Construction defects. The increased use of EIFS (Exterior Insulation and Finish Systems) and stone, stucco, brick veneers and siding as facades on commercial buildings invites the possibility of water intrusion if they are not properly installed. IR can detect or verify moisture infiltration in these weatherproofing “barrier” systems, usually the result of insufficient detailing such as inadequate or improperly applied flashing or sealants. In addition, IR can monitor and track moisture migration paths within the wall cavity.
•Energy efficiency. An IR camera can quickly and non-destructively detect areas of missing, moisture-laden, or otherwise damaged insulation in walls, crawlspaces, and attics or around doors, windows, electrical outlets, and other access plates. All of these problems can increase a building’s energy costs by allowing cold air to enter the building and heated air to escape in the winter, and the reverse in the warmer, summer months. IR can also identify poorly or uninsulated pipes, another source of costly heat loss.
•Moisture intrusion and potential mold in walls and ceilings. IR thermal imaging is way faster, noninvasive, and provides evidentiary-quality, intuitively understandable data having a much higher degree of accuracy and reliability than other moisture detection technologies used to trace the source and scope of water damage, and thus potential mold in buildings. Once the IR camera identifies areas with significant thermal differences, a moisture meter can be used to confirm that they represent moisture and not some anomaly, such as air infiltration.
•Post-fire inspections. After fires, IR can quickly locate remnant hot spots, assuring the fire is completely extinguished and provide invaluable data for insurance companies’ Cause and Origin investigations. The clear IR images of normally invisible diagnostic evidence can assist in the planning and execution of the restoration effort and in the settlement process.
•Even termites. Although considered cold-blooded creatures, termites are hosts to bacteria, which help break down and digest cellulose, the main ingredient of the wood they digest. The digestion process generates heat, and when large numbers of termites in nests congregate, a substantial amount of heat is concentrated in one area. As this heat moves through the walls or floor of a building, an IR camera can detect it on the surface.
In addition, infrared can be used to perform energy audits and surveys, indoor air quality investigations and plumbing and radiant floor heating inspections.
Finally, there are many instances where an infrared camera will find problems that the cleaning and restoration professional wasn’t necessarily looking for. Such serendipitous findings can only enhance the contractor’s reputation and standing with his or her client and reinforce the business relationship.
One such find occurred when Four Star Cleaning & Restoration of Fremont, CA was called in to document the water damage for insurance purposes at the site of a serious electrical fire at a garment dying facility. In addition to the wet walls, which had been soaked by the sprinkler system and fire department hoses, Four Star’s IR camera found an unexpected thermal anomaly, an excessive heat source within a closed 32-gallon drum containing sodium hydrosulfite, used in the dying process.
Some water had apparently penetrated the drum to produce poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas and enough heat to cause a potentially explosive condition due to the risk of spontaneous combustion. A hazardous waste hauler was called in, and under the supervision of HAZMAT and local County Health Services, the drum was disposed of.
The Need for Training
Regardless of what an IR camera is used to look for or at, its effectiveness is dependent not only on the contractor’s knowledge and understanding of the component being inspected, but also his or her skill in operating the camera, and understanding of the science involved in the assessment of the thermal evidence. The trained and experienced thermographer knows that not every hot or cold spot represents a problem, but may in fact reflect a component’s normal operation, performance, or location in the structure. Alternatively, a thermal image may actually show heat from sources other than the target that is reflected from or transmitted through the target material. That’s why it’s often said in the industry that: “There are IR camera operators, and then there are thermographers.”
To meet the demand of the building diagnostics market, the Infrared Training Center (ITC), which is the world’s largest thermographer training organization, in conjunction with the Building Science Institute (BSI) has created a curriculum in Building Science. ITC’s three-and-a-half-day Building Science Certification class is the only training course in the U.S. that’s ISO-9001 registered. Upon successful completion of the class, students become Certified Building Science Thermographers, so if they work for an ISO-9000 company, they’ll have fulfilled their obligation for proper training. ITC also offers a two-day class for supervisors and a one-day class for technicians.