Thousands of professionals today in the field of building diagnostics are using a range of thermal cameras for electrical inspection, optical gas imaging, and even to lend support to industrial automation.
In facilities management, infrared camera technologies are most often deployed and used as handheld devices, but they are also available as unmanned aerial systems or vehicles (UAS, UAV), otherwise known as drones, for measuring hard-to-reach or vastly distributed locations.
Non-destructive inspections with a thermal imaging camera can help isolate cold and warm air infiltration/exfiltration issues, so improvements can be made to improve energy efficiency. Thermal imaging systems will detect anomalies and problems that are often invisible to the naked eye, including heat and certain gases. Specific to facilities, site managers and technicians will most often use thermal inspection to address common building issues that can prove costly: water leaks from roofs and pipes, moisture migration through the building envelope, and HVAC air duct leaking.
Checking the Air
Air can make its way through almost any opening. Indoor comfort and air quality can be compromised by poor insulation, failing windows, poor sealing around doors, windows and wall joints, loose ductwork, plumbing leaks, or mechanical issues relating to HVAC systems. Facilities managers who are armed with a thermal imaging camera can easily diagnose this wide range of problems across their facility.
As buildings age and get exposed to seasonal elements, there are multiple sources of potential water and moisture buildup, including humidity (during any season), condensation, pipe leaks, rain and snow, and even people and animal building usage. One of the most common practices for facilities managers is to find problems that will grow over time. A moisture meter with a thermal imager can guide them directly to the wet area and then provide additional tools necessary to assess the extent of the problem.
Moderate air humidity is fine, but leaks or heavy condensation can cause serious problems. Although a thermal imaging camera cannot “see” moisture in walls or mold directly, it can detect subtle temperature differences and patterns that reveal the presence of water, often appearing cooler than the dry areas as a result of evaporation.
Key Software Features of a Quality Thermal Camera
Cameras have a physical profile and, just as importantly, technology and software supporting it, creating a simplified workflow for inspectors. Within software, a web edit feature can be especially useful for modifying images from anywhere on a web browser-enabled device, while also adding notes and annotations as part of a comprehensive inspection report. The camera should leverage connected cloud for back-up of images and data access on the go, enabling fast and professional report generation anytime, anywhere.
Despite continued improvements in thermal imaging hardware and software, to promote safety and work within established best practices, facilities and building managers need to conduct inspections the right way, requiring a strong educational foundation. Not only must they understand the basic science of thermal imaging cameras, but they also must be knowledgeable about the structures and equipment they inspect.
Interpreting thermal imaging correctly comes down to training, experience, and first-hand knowledge. Proper training increases the safety of thermography personnel as well as their colleagues who remediate issues thermography uncovers, all the while cutting down troubleshooting time, improving productivity, and creating more effective predictive maintenance programs. It is also encouraged to validate thermal imagery with additional tools like contact moisture meters, electrical meters, and vibration meters so that decisions are based on both good measurements and image interpretation.
The overall goal is to help keep critical equipment running by maintaining the facility infrastructure that contains it. Good facility maintenance reduces equipment outages, and potentially, catastrophic failures.
Rob Milner is Director of Business Development at Teledyne FLIR.