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Infrared Thermal Imaging Uses and Limitations

    Technology has radically changed the way home inspectors do business. Cell phones have replaced traditional land lines, tablets are replacing laptops (which themselves replaced desktops),and paper maps have been replaced with GPS turn-by-turn directions. When it comes to home inspection tools, the forward looking infrared (FLIR) camera is another innovation home inspectors need to consider adopting.


What an Infrared Camera See's

    The human eye is only able to see a small part of the light spectrum called 'visible' light. Just outside of the spectrum of light we see as red, there is an area of light radiation called infrared. A characteristic of infrared light is that is the spectrum that heat radiation exists in. 


    An Infrared camera is able to 'see' the infrared heat levels being given off by an object and it displays these levels to the user. Very simple infrared thermometers will display a temperature reading. But more complicated cameras use thousands of individual detectors (similar to pixels in a digital camera) to take a full frame of heat readings and translated those to a visual picture for the user. A common picture for infrared users which helps interpret heat levels is a red through blue spectrum where red is 'hot' and blue is 'cold'.


    FLIR cameras have a very high range of sensitivity which is useful for home inspections. It can easily detect heat variations of plus or minus 2-5C degrees depending on the material being observed. This allows home inspectors to see variations between a desired room temperature and 'cold' spots in the room where there may be insulation missing or water ingress issues.

Limitations of Infrared Cameras

    When using a FLIR camera for home inspections, a common goal is to look for heat loss from the building from poor insulation or building materials. FLIR cameras however cannot detect heat loss when the indoor temperature is roughly the same as the outdoor air temperature. In fact, it requires nearly 10-15C degrees of difference between outdoor temperature and indoor temperatures for a FLIR camera to be effective for detecting building heat loss. This means when outdoor temperatures are between 10C and 30C, FLIR cameras are largely ineffective at measuring heat loss from the building. In winter climates, FLIR systems may be useful for heat loss detection 6 months a year or more, but in temperate climates like the West Coast of Canada, there are very few days of the year when the daytime temperature is below 10C.

    Infrared cameras use a part of the light spectrum to 'see' heat radiation for scanned objects. However, like visible light, FLIR cameras cannot see through objects. For example, scanning a wall with Infrared will not reveal hidden plumbing or wiring. Inversely, like visible light, windows will allow heat radiation through and mirrors and glossy surfaces will reflect heat radiation. Users of FLIR cameras need to understand that what they are seeing may not in fact be the temperature of the object they think they are looking at but could include a reflection of another heat source, even possibly the operator of the FLIR camera itself.

    FLIR cameras cannot directly see hidden water damages. However, when water evaporates it loses energy and cools which is why your skin feels cold as water dries from it. This cooling may be detected as a cooler wall surface zone but this is not conclusive for home inspectors as it may also be missing insulation or a hidden air conditioning duct may be behind the wall.

Where Infrared Cameras Work Well

    There are some applications for Home Inspectors where FLIR cameras are very useful:

  • Radiant Heating - Using a FLIR camera, home inspectors are able to see where heating lines run and look for any signs of leaks or inoperable heating zones. Thick carpet and warm weather can make detection more difficult.

  • Confirming Room Heating - FLIR cameras are useful for confirming heat delivery to all forms of room heating. While forced air furnace vents may not be visible because of occupant belongings, heat differentials from the registers can still be seen confirming heat to the room. For those inspectors that want to go the extra mile, it is even possible to confirm the temperature of the air at each register and note any anomilies. 

  • Scanning Home Systems - The FLIR camera can give inspectors a new perspective of home systems like furnaces, boiler systems, and electrical components. Overheating wiring or fuses, blocked heat runs, and confirming heat flow can be much easier to identify with a FLIR camera.

Controversy for Home Inspectors

    The home inspection industry done to the standards of practice is a non-invasive, visual inspection. Using a FLIR camera by some definitions goes beyond the visual standards of practice and may open home inspectors to additional legal risks for finding non-visible hidden damages. The counterpoint to this argument however is that the FLIR camera is similar to a set of binoculars, in that it aids the inspector's visual ability with only their eyes and it serves the clients better. The decision to use FLIR cameras in home inspections is up to the individual inspector but for inspectors that choose to use this technology, clients should be expected to pay a premium for the enhanced service and extra equipment costs.