Three reasons you need a thermal imager

03/25/2013 | By Jennie Morton

All facilities are subject to thermal loss, moisture intrusion, and equipment failures – do you have the right tool to track these problems?

Thermal imaging cameras were once common in utility and industrial plants, but commercial buildings have just as many opportunities to benefit from thermography. These point-and-shoot imagers have earned their place in the FM toolbox – use them to find heat loss and moisture intrusion within seconds, take no-contact measurements from a safe distance, and create pictures of problems that are easy to understand.

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words
Using infrared wavelenths, these cameras can measure the thermal signature of an area as small as an electrical box to as large as your entire building envelope.

“This data is converted into a visual image that colorizes heat, making it quick and easy to identify thermal variance,” explains Roger Mavrides, vice president of engineering and product development for General Tools and Instruments.

The resulting thermographs reveal a spectrum of heat signatures that we can’t see with our naked eye, making them invaluable for spotting hidden problems, says Eric Woodroof, a certified energy manager and chairman of the board for the Certified Carbon Reduction Manager program.

Note that thermal imagers don’t measure temperature. “They measure radiated thermal energy from which a temperature is derived based on the amount of energy detected,” adds Gary Lux, a Level II thermographer and vice president of sales for manufacturer Palmer Wahl.

More than just a nifty-looking toy, these cameras can save you thousands of dollars – if you can’t manage what you don’t measure, then it’s equally true that what you can’t see and fix is draining your budget.

The very problems that can end up costing facility managers the most – poor insulation, roof leaks, and electrical malfunctions – are often the hardest to catch because they are hidden from view. Start by investigating these common problem areas.

1) Spot Electrical Issues
Count the number of motors, circuit breakers, and other electrical equipment in your building – are you confident they’re all working properly?

Because thermal imagers allow you to take measurements from a distance, they’re ideal for finding issues in equipment that could pose a safety issue to workers or are hard to reach, notes Lux. FMs will often find circuits that are overheating or motor bearings that are about to fail.

“You can diagnose problems in electrical distribution systems very quickly with thermal imagers,” says Tom Scanlon, vice president of thermography sales for the Americas with tool provider FLIR. “When a motor isn’t working right, for example, the outside of the bell housing will be noticeably warmer.”

Thermal images are also used to find loose connections. “Dirt will create additional resistance over time, which causes them to overheat. You can actually lose one of the phases of a three-phase system, putting you at risk of a power failure or fire,” Woodroof cautions.

Using thermography for predictive maintenance is another great way to catch problems that could blossom into major failures down the road.

“For example, we work with a motorcycle factory that recently installed new electrical motors on its production lines. They had only been running a week, but during their first inspection with thermal cameras, they found that all three of the new motors were overheating,” recounts Lux. “It turns out that the wrong models had been installed – they were being overtasked and were close to failure.”


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