ICS Magazine

IR Cameras: Not Quite Like Superman's X-ray Vision, But...

May 1, 2012
No, our infrared cameras used in the restoration industry today do not use X-rays to view into walls or through doors, but they are almost as effective when used to understand where water is in flood-damaged properties.

What once was a luxurious toy to show off for clients is becoming more commonplace and even a necessity for some. The first infrared (IR) cameras I auditioned for use in our business had seven-digit price tags and five of those digits were to the left of the decimal point.

Technology is a wonderful thing, but when price point was tens of thousands of dollars, they were beyond many budgets. That has changed. There are models available today for less than $1,200. Like faster computers, these budget models may have specifications exceeding cameras selling for $20,000 a decade ago. Now that more can afford infrared cameras, let’s discuss what they can and can’t do.

First, a little background without too much “geek speak.” Everything on Earth emits infrared energy. Infrared is part of the light spectrum with wave lengths longer than red – remember your rainbow colors? You can’t see it, but your IR camera can sense it. These wavelengths correspond to thermal radiation emitted by the objects around us. The IR cameras pick up that energy and convert it to pictures. The higher an object’s temperature, the more thermal or infrared energy it emits. An IR camera puts this into picture form. IR technology is used in night vision goggles issued by the military and for cameras on police and military helicopters to track people or objects at night that have surface temperatures different than their surroundings.

Most of today’s IR cameras not only give you a picture, but can also give you the surface temperature readings. That is the important use of the IR camera for restoration contractors. Some models also take a visible light photo for comparison with the thermal image.

IR cameras do not use X-rays. They can’t “see” through walls no matter how many movies or sci-fi shows you’ve seen to the contrary. Although they are used extensively by water damage restorers, they can’t see water in materials, either. They simply show you the surface temperatures.

So if they can’t sense water, why do we use them for water restoration? Well, they can see the effects of water on a surface. How? Well, much the same as when you sweat, you fan yourself and feel cooler. You are experiencing “evaporative cooling.” A surface cools as the liquid is evaporated from it. When a wall, for example, is wet and air movement is applied to the wall, the wetted surface will cool. The IR camera can sense that cool area compared to the rest of the wall.

Not all cool areas are from water evaporating. Missing insulation, air leaks and draft from an air conditioner, for example, would also be seen by IR as cooler. Manufacturers offer training, both online and in person, to guide technicians on how to interpret these images. If you’re going to purchase an IR camera, locate a distributor who can offer free online training along with your new camera.

To confirm whether a cool spot is actually from excess water, you need to verify with a moisture meter. IR cameras are very helpful for surveying a loss quickly to find areas to verify with your moisture meter, saving valuable time and helping avoid missing areas using a meter only.

IR cameras are also used for assisting technicians utilizing heat drying methods to be sure their heat energy is being applied to all the wet materials. This is the goal for them to accelerate the evaporation process. Due to gravity, the wettest areas are usually at floor level. Hot air naturally rises. Your thermal camera will provide the visual feedback, letting you know if you are successfully directing and containing the heat to the wet material.

Another important use for the IR camera is to quickly and easily assess whether surface temperatures are close to the dew point of the air where secondary damage can occur.

When deciding which camera will best suit your needs consider the detail you will be able to view as determined by the number of pixels. Much like a standard digital camera, the greater the number of pixels, the more detailed an image is seen. With IR cameras, the range in our industry goes from 2,000 to above 100,000. More pixels also spells higher cost.

Also consider the size of the screen on which you will be viewing the images. Some models allow the image to be broadcast to a screen away from the camera. This can be very helpful when you want to view confined or hard-to-reach locations. Other features include the ruggedness and durability of the unit, the length of time it will operate on one battery charge, the storage capacity for photos and data and the option of adding an SD card to hold more photos. Software for analyzing and retrieving photos may also be included.

Back to showing off for your clients: IR cameras are very impressive to the clients. The clients may be homeowners, insurance agents, adjusters or others who need your services. They may not be able to understand moisture readings and psychrometric graphs, but the blue spot on the red wall makes the problem obvious. Cameras can record and store this data making them a very good documentation tool. IR cameras, because of improvements and lower cost of investment, are becoming more popular, but are still not being utilized by the majority of contractors. This can be a marketing advantage for those utilizing the technology and providing that service.