Infrared Thermography

Have you heard of an Infrared (IR) Camera? Or more accurately, a thermal imager? This amazing piece of technology is one more tool in our bag to help us inspect your home in the 21st century – so let’s review what it does, and what it does not do.

A few myths have popped up over the years about thermal imaging in the home inspection industry, let’s identify a few first:

  • Myth 1: An Infrared camera can see through my clothes. This is false. The rise in full body scanners at airports has put a concern in our minds, which is a thoroughly valid concern. Luckily, that technology has nothing to do with thermal imaging. To be honest, I don’t know what technology those full body scanners use – I suspect something including a mixture of X-Rays, metal detectors, and other very bulky (not to mention immensely expensive) technology. An Infrared camera has nothing to do with any of those technologies, and cannot see through clothes. Thermal imagers cannot see through ANYTHING. What they do is identify heat and create an image out of that. Check out the image above to see a side-by-side comparison of a photo taken of me, and an IR image taken of me – you just see a less detailed outline than you would see naturally. In any case, we work to inspect the house and not people.
  • Myth 2: Thermal imagers can see through walls. This is false. Because of the way the technology works, the untrained eye may look at the image and believe they have identified materials behind the wall. For example, with the thermal imager – it may seem that you can see the framing materials behind drywall. We are not seeing behind the wall. Instead, what we see in that instance is called thermal bridging. Walls are made from framing wood, separated by air gaps. The air gaps are filled with insulation that helps insulate the home from extreme temperatures outside. The studs, on the other hand, are not as good at insulating the home from extreme temperatures outside. So, some heat or cold is conducted from outside to the inside in the same shape as the conductive materials. What we see is simply the heat emanating through the wall – we are not seeing through the wall at all.
  • Myth 3: Infrared energy is dangerous. This is largely false. Technically, enough infrared energy could be bad; just as enough water could be bad – but we would last longer immersed in infrared energy than the few minutes we would last if immersed in water. Most of us are at higher risk of drowning than being harmed by IR energy. We encounter infrared energy all the time. We cannot see it, but we can feel it as infrared heat energy. We all know there are other wavelengths that are not visible to the human eye – such as ultraviolet light, that we cannot see. Or electromagnetic wavelengths that we can only see the effects of. Infrared light is just a wavelength that we cannot see. In any case, the camera is not creating IR energy, it is simply observing what already exists.
  • Myth 4: Infrared cameras release radiation. This is false. If I were to carry around a handheld X-Ray, you would have cause to be concerned. I would also be wearing a lead bodysuit and helmet to protect myself. However, this technology has nothing to do with radiation, x-rays, gamma-rays, or any other rays that cause harm or grant superpowers. Instead, an infrared camera works very much like a digital camera. A digital camera works on the visible spectrum of light wave, but an infrared camera simply works on the portion of the color spectrum that we cannot see. They both simply observe the light spectrum and map an image of what they see. The Infrared camera just maps non-visible light as if it were visible light.

So, when and why do we use this technology? It’s just like any other tool in our bag – we use it when we deem it helpful. When a home is brightly lit, and we inspect it in the middle of the day – we probably will not use a flashlight. Similarly, when conditions do not call for the Infrared camera – we will not use it. Our training and certification help guide our decisions, and there are simply times when this tool will not work properly, so we do not use them. To get an accurate reading, the thermal camera requires a high Delta T – or temperature difference. When the season is mild and both indoor temperature and outdoor temperature are similar – a thermal camera will be of little help because it is looking for temperature differences. Or when a home is not conditioned, so it’s hot both inside and outside – the tool will not help. Temperature similarities will provide false negatives, so we will choose not to use this tool when it is inappropriate to do so.

One notable fact is that water and air have very different properties based on thermal mass. What this means is that an area of carpet or drywall that is damp, even just barely damp, will not keep up with temperature changes as fast as the air or even the surrounding dry materials. So a thermal camera can help identify even the slightest dampness when conditions are just right. We are able to identify areas of interest that cannot be seen by the naked eye, and cannot be found by the average home inspector.

If an anomaly is identified with the thermal camera, we will then take more precise tools and inspect the area to investigate the cause. Those areas of interest may be perfectly inert, so we will put our training to work with other tools like a moisture meter to identify what is really going on. Sometimes it’s as simple as a cool air duct blowing directly across the roof, so never rely on simple tools without proper training and follow-up. Rest assured, the thermal camera is not replacing anything. We always perform a visual inspection according to Washington State standards of practice and rely on our training for your home inspection. We do not charge extra to use a flashlight, and we do not charge extra to use an Infrared camera. It helps us do the best job we can for you, and that’s what you are paying for.

Check out this helpful video to really get a good understanding of how the technology works!

Too Long, Didn't Read Version: Thermal imagers are one tool that helps us perform a Top Notch Inspection for you! They have no identified health hazards and do not have privacy concerns, but they do lead to a great home inspection!

-Marshall Tramp, CPI, RMP


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Marshall Tramp, CPI, RMP
Author: Marshall Tramp, CPI, RMP
Top Notch Inspection Services llc
Serving Eastern Washington & Northern Idaho