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Thermal Imaging – Helpful or Hype?

We regularly receive inquiries as to whether we utilize thermal imaging as part of our inspection process. Early on, we thoroughly researched and discussed thermal imaging at length and feel that it is important to share what we learned about the science of these inspections and why we choose not to offer this service:
 

Thermographic Inspections: Buyer Beware

 
Home inspectors that offer thermal imaging will often tell customers that this type of inspection will detect problems that other inspections may miss. Through technological advances, these “miracle tools” are now available. Sounds good, right? Not so fast. The truth is that these cameras only pick up temperature differences that could indicate problems. However, there are no guarantees.

We found that when home inspectors offer thermal imaging services they often include plenty of fine print in order to cover themselves should the thermal inspection produce a false result; and there is often a disclaimer on their website that states something similar to the following:

What thermal imaging is NOT:

  • It is NOT X-Ray Vision – it cannot see into walls and only shows temperature differences
  • It CANNOT detect moisture – the best it can do is detect thermal anomalies
  • It is NOT a “silver bullet” or “super tool”
  • It is NOT a risk eliminator – it can only identify areas that require further investigation

 

Environmental Requirements

 
The sole purpose of using a thermal camera is to look for temperature differences between various building components and trying to determine if they make sense. The right conditions must exist to accurately discover or ‘see’ a latent deficiency. Perfect environmental conditions cannot be guaranteed during a home inspection. Too much wind, too much heat (or cold) and the results are meaningless. Once the sun is out, much of the ‘evidence’ is obliterated as the surfaces heat up under the rays of the sun. This will very quickly affect the readings on exterior walls and could result in a false reading. Thermal cameras work best from early evening through early morning hours when it is cooler. Most home inspections are not performed at these hours, making a thermographic inspection of little value.

Additionally, to properly prepare for an interior thermal scan, the US Department of Energy states,
“the homeowner should take steps to ensure an accurate test result. This may include moving furniture away from exterior walls and removing drapes. The most accurate thermographic images occur when there is a large temperature difference (at least 20o F) between inside and outside air temperatures…Some times of the year, because of a phenomenon known as “Thermal Loading”, it might be necessary for the homeowner to create and maintain a specific inside/outside temperature difference for a period of up to 4 hours before the test will be performed.”
 

Other Problems with Thermographic Inspections:

 
The cost of a high-quality thermal camera is high. For this reason, most home inspectors own lower quality cameras that produce images at lower resolution and a narrower scope of field with limited accuracy. A marketing manager for a popular IR camera manufacturer stated, “Some cameras specify an accuracy of 2%, but when tested can be off by as much as 20%. Not only is this troublesome because you pay a premium for a camera that measures temperature, but in predictive-maintenance applications, inaccurate temperature data is more dangerous than no temperature data.”

Focusing too much effort on what the IR camera is telling the home inspector could distract him from doing his job, which is to engage his natural senses of sight, touch, and sound. A home inspector with a Level 1 Thermographer Certification shared, “I have personally come across situations where electrical cables have been identified as foundation cracks and drywall corner beads have been determined to be water leaks. Imagine the shock to a home buyer, especially when inaccurate information is provided by the inspector.”

Infrared cameras are diagnostic tools that have many applications, most of which have nothing to do with inspecting homes. They CANNOT see inside of or through walls, or anything else. They CANNOT see water, mold, or termites. In fact, all they see is the temperature of a surface.
 

Is a Thermographic Inspection better, or just a clever sales pitch?

 
Are home inspectors that offer thermographic inspections using these cameras as a sales pitch? Absolutely! The thermal imaging services that most home inspectors are advertising are not providing the client any real level of additional risk reduction. Experienced home inspectors know that no tool can take the place of their senses, training, broad base of knowledge, and hands-on experience which allows them to make educated assessments of the systems and components of a home.
 

Why it’s not for home inspections

 
A home inspection as defined by the Texas Real Estate Commission specifically excludes the “use of specialized equipment including thermal imaging equipment”.

Most cameras purchased by home inspectors are at the bottom end of the technology and have low resolution and a narrower scope of field with limited accuracy.

There are no required certifications or licensing needed to use a thermal camera. Proper environmental conditions cannot be guaranteed during a home inspection.

Thermal imaging by home inspectors can create unrealistic or uninformed expectations, especially if clients have read some of the wildly exaggerated claims made about thermal imaging on many inspectors’ websites.

They are of little value. False readings or inaccurate interpretation of the data could result in buyers backing out of the purchase of a home or sellers performing unnecessary deconstruction based on a false positive.
 

Real estate transactions are not the time to do thermographic inspections – Don’t fall for the Hype!

 
 

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