Many home inspectors incorporate thermal imaging into their home inspections—so many, in fact, that we have to break this article into two parts due to the volume of excellent responses from ASHI members. We asked ASHI members to share their perspectives on thermal imaging and infrared cameras and, on the pages that follow, you'll read what some of them said to answer the questions:
- Do you have a thermal imaging / infrared camera and, if so, do you use it? Why or why not?
- If you do, offer tips or strategies for best practices and share what was important to you when selecting a camera for purchase.
- Also, what other principles should home inspectors consider if they are thinking about adding thermal imaging to their inspection toolkit?
Paul Cummins No Surprises Home Inspection, Alexandria, VA
I was a science teacher, so I love new gadgets that can extend our senses. I stocked up on a moisture meter, thermometer, wall radar device and endoscope when I started my business. I soon found out that the moisture meter just tested surface humidity and that my finger was a much better water sensor; that measuring the temperature differences at a register and return did not necessarily give me a good read on the AC performance; that the wall radar device is a fancy stud finder; and that my endoscope was useless due to its poor resolution.
I took an imaging course from that other professional association and their temperature losses were at very obvious places: around openings, light cans in the ceiling and attic hatch. Their energy efficiency training unit actually contradicted itself. At the end of the evaluation, the instructor doing the air loss tests said the house was bleeding 20%, so there was 20% room for improvement. In the next segment, the expert said if you have a 30% loss, that is OK. As an experienced mold inspector, I prefer to lose some energy efficiency in the service of better airflow. Indeed, in all the new houses where they have sealed every opening, they’re adding fresh air vents in the basement and that nice Broan fan in the master bath, which should be run constantly.
So, in regard to thermal imaging, I would be happy to be convinced otherwise, but it seems unnecessary and perhaps a liability if you misinterpret the images. The thermal cameras detect temperature differences. If they are used to detect moisture, they may be right, they may be wrong. A wall could be cold for many reasons. I prefer to look for obvious evidence of moisture like efflorescence, wet drywall, downspouts discharging to the foundation, overflowing gutters and leak rings on ceilings. Furthermore, what if you fail to get a picture of a problem wall?
The digital thermometer is useful for detecting hot circuits. And, without a doubt, the best return on energy efficiency is making sure there is adequate insulation in the attic and foam board coverings over the hatch or stairs.
Jim Edwards Preferred Home Inspection Service, LLC, Murfreesboro, TN
When I first started out, I didn’t have a thermal imaging camera. On the advice of my ASHI instructors, I started with the basic tools to start my home inspection company. As the business increased, I invested more into it. I’ve been using an infrared camera for about two years now and I use my camera at most inspections. For the most part, I’ll scan the ceiling around bathrooms and when inspecting the electrical panels.
I recommend buying the best camera you can afford. I asked a few other local inspectors and decided to go with a FLIR E8. I rarely buy the lowest priced in any catagory; I’m a middle -of-the-road kind of guy. I couldn’t pull out a little phone app-type camera and expect to look like a professional.
I highly recommend the training class from Monroe. As with any tool, learn to use it properly. You don’t want to look confused in front of your client and their agent.
Doug Gialluca Smart Move Home Inspection LLC
Having a thermal imaging camera is an absolute must for my business since the camera can be a cross-check for visual concerns or even a cross-check for other instruments. The most inexpensive FLIR camera is an asset and the tool that should be with you on all inspections. Thermal imaging in some cases will even help with detecting insects. With more equipment, you will have more options and you will make your clients comfortable that their inspector is well equipped to do the job.
Roger S. Herdt Herdt Home Inspections, Florence, South Carolina
I have chosen not to carry a thermal camera in my inspector toolbox. The answer is simple: litigation.
I have been called to provide expert witness testimony where an unqualified inspector has used thermal imaging to illustrate a problem in the electrical system, but did not use the camera to disclose a leak inside an adjacent wall (staining on ceiling/wall joint). This inspector is no longer in business because the claimant’s attorney asked why he didn’t evaluate the entire structure since he had the technology to do so.
Unfortunately, our litigious society creates this type of headache. Even an inspector who has been through the full training necessary to be a qualified user of thermal imaging doesn’t have time, under normal inspection circumstances, to evaluate all aspects of a structure.
In my experience, operating under the visible and accessible standard of practice has been the best course of action. I would rather not have to explain why I exceeded the standard in one spot and didn’t exceed it in all.
Michael Hesterberg Building Inspections LLC, Kentucky and Ohio
We have used thermal cameras in our practice for many years. We use the cameras in two ways:
- All my inspectors use a FLIR C3 camera that they carry with them. This is strictly to give additional information or show us areas that would not normally be visible. It is a low-resolution infrared (IR) camera, 80x60, 4800 pixels, but with a sufficient temperature Delta between the interior and exterior, and it provides great information. This camera has found issues that were not visible, but would have manifested later. Yes, this is a visual inspection and, in a perfect world, would avail us from liability; however, we all know “don’t miss it.” We just do not want the call back.
- My company also offers a separate add-on that we call a Thermal Assessment. In this case, we use a FLIR T540 with a resolution of 464x348, 161,472 pixels. We scan the interior surfaces of the home and provide a report for our clients.
Since we started using IR cameras, when we inspect the bathrooms, we now run hot water into the fixtures while testing the bathrooms. We do this so that when we finish running the water, usually on the second floors, we can briefly scan the ceilings below for any anomalies. It has been amazing how many leaks we have found that were not visible, but just drips from traps that area buried up in the ceiling.
This additional service is becoming popular and has added to our bottom line. Also, it has reduced our liability by providing early warning information or just additional information to issues found in the home during the home inspection.
If you are charging for this kind of inspection, I recommend obtaining a high-resolution camera (for example, no less than a FLIR E85 with a 384x288, 110,592 resolution). Then, when you enter the home, force the Temperature Delta by either turning up or down the thermostat, depending on the time of year, about an hour prior to camera use. This helps accentuate any issues and lets them stand out.
In addition, I have crafted a specific comment, placed in my report, depending on whether I am charging and doing a full assessment or if I am just using the C3.
For example, if I am not doing a full assessment, but using my C3, I use this comment: Any use of a thermographic infrared camera during this inspection is for screening purposes only. This is not intended to indicate that a full thermographic assessment was conducted on this home. The information is provided only for the purposes of screening areas of the home and presenting thermographic anomalies that may indicate an issue requiring possible repair. In order to do a full thermographic inspection, the home should be prepared, e.g., with the temperature being set so there is a proper difference between the interior or exterior. If a full thermographic assessment is desired, then an additional fee and equipment with higher resolutions will be used and there will be requests to set the thermostat at proper settings. THIS WAS NOT A FULL THERMOGRAPHIC ASSESSMENT, ONLY AN INFORMATIONAL SCREENING OF SELECTED AREAS OF THE HOME.
If I do an assessment for which we charge the client, I use this comment: A thermographic assessment was conducted on the interior of this home. The pictures and comments attached to this report reflect the opinions of the thermographer who took the infrared images. Infrared is a technology that can detect radiated heat in the form of infrared light and present this in a photographic manner. The color pallet used in the radiometric pictures is to present to the viewer the best contrast that will show the thermal anomalies present at the time of the inspection. Infrared requires specialized interpretation that can be made by a qualified thermographer. Any anomalies should have further assessment to confirm the source of the anomalies and to determine the repairs that may be needed.
We charge depending on the square foot in our area and it can range from $150 for smaller homes to $250 for larger homes.
Some items that have been found using IR have included water leaks, missing waste pipes buried behind drywall where there is no clean- out, the presence of animals, severe air leakage, missing or nonperforming insulation in both ceilings and walls, verifying under the floor or in the ceiling heating elements, water inside block walls and behind EIFS, wet flooring and carpet, and leaking shower doors.
Finally, my advice is that if you are going to use this type of technology, be a prudent inspector and obtain the training appropriate for your service. At a minimum, I would take an introductory certification course. I personally took Monroe Infrared’s CRT (Certified Residential Thermography). This will give you the basic understanding about IR and information about the different camera options.
If you plan on charging for this inspection, I recommend obtaining a more advanced training course such as a Level I or Level II Thermographer designation. Both are offered through companies such as ITC, Infrared Training Center and SNELL. My feeling is, if you are going to charge for the service, you should offer the best resolution and have the best certification commensurate with your level of service.
Thermography is here to stay and I feel that the younger, more tech- savvy clients will start to demand this in the years to come. We have found some dramatic issues using the IR camera and it’s a real “wow” factor during the inspection, not to mention the “I would not have found that without an IR camera” factor.