When BUILDINGS asked me to review mobile applications for energy management, the first one that came to mind was a cell phone app for taking infrared (IR) photos. I have heard about such apps and was intrigued by the concept. I quickly discovered that I was not the only person interested in such an app – when I searched the web for “IR camera app” and “thermal camera app,” I found more than 4 million results!
Because I have an infrared camera that cost me several thousand dollars and is capable of images with temperature data like the one below, I must admit that I started the search with some concern in case I found a tool that could deliver the same results for less money. And some of the images I found were impressive. They might even lead one to believe that these apps allow your cell phone camera to see infrared wavelengths. However, let me save you some time – I did not find a suitable replacement for my infrared camera, but I did find some noteworthy apps.
I discovered a “phone accessory,” the IR-Blue (see below), for $195 that provides some thermal imaging capability. The unit has an IR sensor and its thermal images are low resolution (sample below). Nevertheless, the tool might be useful for some simple energy audits. However, I could not find a store where the accessory can be purchased!
I also found cell phone apps that deliver “thermal effect” images like the sample below of a baby on a blanket. However, this is not a true thermal image. As you can see, the baby has a cooler color than the blanket’s color, the opposite of what the colors should be. This software merely renders the image in colors similar to those of a thermal image but without actually distinguishing infrared wavelengths. Such apps are not useful for engineers, but they may be popular among artists and Photoshop users (and perhaps explain why there were so many web results when I searched for “thermal camera app”). My conclusion is that you need an IR sensor in order to have an IR camera.
What about an App for Solar Energy?
While investigating apps, I also thought about the kinds of site evaluation tools that solar contractors use and wondered whether any of these might be adaptable to a mobile app. Some of the key data that needs to be collected during a solar site evaluation are:
1) The coordinates of a potential PV system
2) The solar radiation possible at those coordinates
3) A ground-level assessment of shading.
The first and second items can be collected remotely with a desktop computer, but all three might be done with a phone app on site. The phone’s GPS could determine the coordinates of a given site, access a database with annual weather conditions and solar radiation, then assess the shading. If you took a skyward photo on a clear day, the phone app could determine the amount of shading that would occur at the exact location of a potential solar panel. With the sophisticated gyroscopes that are available on many phones, the phone could also take pictures of the sky at various tilt angles to determine shading and optimize the solar panel orientation before installation. I would think that with a few camera clicks, the app would have all the data needed to estimate the kWh production of a solar system at a specific location.
My Challenge to App Developers
I think the potential of mobile apps is great, so I would like to issue a challenge to developers around the world: Develop apps for energy management and I will review them. Contact me if you would like to discuss mobile apps for energy.