Identify Deficiencies with IR Thermography

March 19, 2009

Thermography can provide a roadmap for building improvements that increase efficiency and safety, as well as improve business continuity

Did the contractor skimp on insulation when your new headquarters facility was built? Why is the accounting department complaining about drafts? What’s between the walls of the building you want to purchase? An infrared (IR) thermographic survey can help answer these (and many other) questions. The nondestructive assessment can provide a roadmap for building improvements that increase efficiency and safety, as well as improve business continuity. "Building and energy costs are on the rise; by inspecting a building with IR and other techniques, the owner can determine what needs to be done to manage the building asset better, use less energy, and save money," explains Gregory R. Stockton, founder of Randleman, NC-based Stockton Infrared Thermographic Services Inc., in the Infrared (IR) Thermography for Building Managers white paper.

An infrared camera is a diagnostic tool that can be used to conduct analyses of building conditions and systems. "[It] generates a digital image, where the different colors in the image represent different temperatures," says Flemming Lund, certified thermographer and president, Infrared Diagnostic LLC, Sudbury, MA. Differences in temperature, or anomalies, can be cues to problems that aren’t visible to the naked eye. "It could be moisture, it could be lack of insulation or a building material that should be there, [or] it could be an electrical condition, too," explains Ken Goodman, partner and environmental scientist, Garland, TX-based RME.

In addition to assessing mechanical and electrical systems, IR thermography can help improve the thermal performance of your building envelope by identifying air leakage and other deficiencies. "Insulation and draft issues in commercial buildings can significantly increase the utility cost," says Lund. "By doing an infrared energy audit, we can pinpoint areas that need sealing or insulation, and make the building more energy efficient."

According to Hal Smith, owner and thermographer, C&I Inspections, South Jordan, UT, the cost of infrared cameras has dropped over the last 10 years, which may have you wondering if it’s better to buy a camera and conduct a do-it-yourself survey, or to hire a pro. Consider the following as you make this decision:

  • Using the camera to get accurate readings requires training in infrared building science. "Without training, the potential for misinterpretation of the information that you’re obtaining is quite high," explains Goodman.
  • While the prices have dropped, the equipment still isn’t cheap. Goodman warns that you should expect to pay between $7,500 and $70,000 for a camera.
  • An incorrect diagnosis or overlooked problem can be costly. "When dealing with large buildings, the inaccurate assessment of a given deficiency can be repeated several times throughout the building and may, as a result, imply serious implications," explain Mario D. Gonalves and Pierre Gendron of Patenaude-Trempe, and Tony Colantonio of PWGSC, in the Thermal Solutions 2007 conference paper, Commissioning of Exterior Building Envelopes of Large Buildings for Air Leakage and Resultant Moisture Accumulation using Infrared Thermography and Other Diagnostic Tools.
  • Specific environmental conditions are necessary to achieve accurate results during a building-envelope survey. "Roof and exterior infrared inspections should be conducted after sundown to avoid solar impact on the building," says Lund. And, according to Smith, precipitation can wreak havoc on the findings. He recommends waiting until a few dry days after a rainy or snowy stint before attempting the survey.

When hiring the work out to a professional thermographer, ask about the level of training and certification he/she has received. If the survey is being conducted because your insurance mandates it, be sure to check with your insurance company about the level of certification it requires. Additionally, if the survey and its results will be used as evidence in a lawsuit, using a third-party thermographer will lend credibility to the results – just make sure the firm you hire has the experience and training to back up its assessment.

A professional thermographer will supply you with a complete report once the survey is finished. The report should include not only photographs, but also draw conclusions about the problems or deficiencies that were discovered. It should recommend the urgency with which the problem should be addressed, too. "I give them a priority," explains Smith, citing an electrical problem as an example. "I say, ‘This is Level 4,’ which means that it’s critical and needs immediate attention because it could fail at any time."

Jana J. Madsen is former editor at Buildings magazine.

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