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Thermal/Infrared Imaging: More Than Meets the Eye

Imagine for a moment that you have heat vision and can virtually ‘see the unseen’ by sensing temperature, just like a scene out of a sci-fi movie. This is essentially what thermal/infrared (T/IR) imaging is – the ability to view the normally invisible infrared (or heat) waves radiating from an object. An actual T/IR camera translates varying radiant temperatures into colors to produce a visible image that can offer numerous benefits in the area of preventive maintenance. In fact, a preventive maintenance program involving regular T/IR imaging inspections of various building elements and systems, such as the electrical distribution, envelope, roof, and mechanical system, can lead to greatly reduced operating costs for building owners.

T/IR imaging of a building’s electrical distribution system provides a visible view of the thermal patterns in the electrical equipment. This thermal image allows potential problems such as overheating due to loose connections, circuit overloading, load imbalances, or failing equipment to be quickly identified. These types of problems not only waste energy, but they can have an adverse effect on power quality and greatly reduce the life of the electrical equipment. Discovering these potential pitfalls before major damage occurs allows for quick repairs and, more importantly, an opportunity to avoid a prolonged power outage due to equipment failure.

Inspection of the exterior walls of a building is another way to help with preventive maintenance, but it also provides a method for examining the building’s energy performance. T/IR imaging will give a visual representation of any excessive heating and/or cooling losses through a building’s exterior. By looking at patterns in these images, for example, it can be determined if insulation within the walls is missing, damaged, or not working effectively. Window performance and air infiltration can be clearly seen as well. This information can allow a building owner to make more informed decisions regarding areas of a building that may need maintenance or renovation to improve energy efficiency.

“Typically, by the time a leak is discovered, a significant amount of the roof insulation has already been saturated.”

Another building component often ‘out of sight and out of mind’, until it does not perform properly, is the roof. Typically, by the time a leak is discovered, a significant amount of the roof insulation has already been saturated. T/IR imaging of a flat roof system can show if there is moisture in the insulation and the extent of that moisture intrusion. This knowledge is valuable when evaluating whether a roof system should be repaired versus completely replaced. Also, the same elements that can be seen in the imaging of the walls can be seen in the imaging of the roof, providing information on where repairs should be made to either prevent further degradation of the roof or improve its energy performance.

In addition, periodic T/IR imaging inspections of a facility’s mechanical systems can dramatically extend equipment life. Items to include in a periodic maintenance schedule are electric motors, belt- and chain-driven equipment, motor drive couplings, and coils on HVAC equipment. Most of the problems that occur with these types of equipment stem from excessive friction from worn bearings, misalignment of belts and chains, misalignment of drive couplings, and inadequate fluid flow. Taking T/IR images of these items when they are new and operating properly provides a baseline for comparison against which future images can be compared to see how equipment has been functioning. Again, this preventive measure makes maintaining equipment easier and drastically reduces the possibility of a catastrophic failure without warning.

T/IR imaging has a broad range of preventive maintenance applications. The above examples only scratch the surface of T/IR imaging’s capabilities to help improve maintenance programs and increase the performance and life expectancy of a building.

– Mark Rose