The hard truth about infrared (Real Estate Agents Read This)
I recently had a real estate agent ask me if infrared was a good thing and should she recommend it to her clients, my answer was a definite maybe, here is why.
Every few years a new trend comes along that affects the home industry. These trends include mold, lead, radon, asbestos, moisture meters, microwave leak detectors and now infrared or thermal imaging. These trends come with the homeowners protection in mind, however there are always people there trying to make a quick profit from the latest trend.
Allow me to start by saying I am a home inspector and many of the home inspectors that read this will be very upset with me because they feel that the proper training and programs are not necessary, I will let you decide. I will also state that I believe mold, lead, radon, and asbestos are all items that may need to be checked, however any testing needs to be performed by a trained professional and not someone that bought a sampler and attended a eight hour class and now calls themselves “certified”.
Anyone in the US can purchase a thermal imaging device for a price starting around $3,000 but most quality units start in the $7,000 range. These units are incredible; however, just because you can buy a camera, does not make you a thermographer. Real training is needed to properly operate the thermal imager and to interpret the images. (this is why inspectors charge more for this service.)
Like any tool these units have their limitations: They only measure surface temperature. (They can’t see through walls) There may be issues in a wall like moisture or missing insulation that effect the surface temperature of the wall and the thermal imaging device may detect those differences but infrared is not an X-Ray.
Insulation is missing. 10 degree difference in an 18 inch span
Many surfaces are reflective and if not properly addressed can provide false readings. For example the heat from ceiling lights can be viewed on a wood laminate floor, Glass and ceramic tiles have a mirror effect when scanned with a thermal imaging device.
The units are so sensitive that they can measure 1/10 of a degree F. This leads the inexperienced operator to spot items that appear to be major issues, only to discover later that there was a temperature difference of <1°F. I have been called to many projects where someone had an infrared camera and called out issues. When a contractor is hired to address the issue they are told “everything is fine, I couldn’t find a problem.” That is when I get called in. I will look at the pictures from the first person and try to recreate the conditions preset when they did their work, then determine if there is a real problem. Most f the time the problem is the previous operator.
Here is the short version. Most people with infrared cameras have had some training and many will call themselves “Level One thermographers”, however even they don’t understand what that term means. A true “Level one certification is a single component of a Thermography program Standard that follows the American Society of Nondestructive Testing (ASNT) guidelines for certification. That program needs to be overseen by a Level three thermographer. If someone tells you they are “Level One Thermographer” simply ask them who the level 3 thermographer is in their program; If they don’t have an answer than they are not meeting the ASNT standards. You also need to be aware of the certification stamping companies. Some are no more that a pay and be certified, some provide minimal training but there is no one there to verify who took the training or if the student can field demonstrate how to use the thermal imaging device.
There are also ASTM standards on how to use thermal imaging to perform different inspections, for example, there is a standard for an insulation inspection on wood framed buildings. That standard requires several things like recording the interior and exterior temperatures and making sure the difference between those temperatures meets the standard. The inspector needs to measure the wind speed and direction, the solar conditions, The building construction, levels, orientation, surroundings etc. If your inspector is not recording this data then they are not meeting the standard of care set up by ASTM.
A qualified and ethical inspector will also understand building science and apply that knowledge while performing the thermal imaging. Simply put the infrared unit will not see moisture if it is not there so if it hasn’t rained in two weeks, it may not find the leaks. If the interior and exterior temperature are the same (very common in the spring and fall) then it is likely the camera will not be able to identify insulation issues.
Now I return to the agents question: should she recommend it to her clients?
Yes if the person performing the thermal imaging is properly trained to do so and you are aware of the conditions needed to properly conduct a thermal imaging inspection.
If If your inspector is charging extra for scanning walls with infrared and it has not rained for a month and all of the windows of the home are open, then it is time to find someone else..
Scott Warga, is the Qualifying party for ACSI American Construction Specialists and Investigations LLC,(ROC216772) a dual licensed residential and small commercial contractor. He is also a qualified home inspector certified by the Arizona Board of Technical Registration (#38062) and was appointed to the Arizona Board of Technical Registration’s Enforcement Advisory Committee. He has 9 years construction experience and has performed residential and commercial property inspections for over six years. He has specialized in forensic inspections, investigating failed, damaged and defective construction for over 4 years. He is a member of the American Society of Home Inspectors, (#205826) and currently sits on their board of directors. Scott is also a member of the International Code Council (#5095644). He has been an instructor of home inspection at Mesa Community College and Arizona Sun-Tech Home Inspection School. He is an instructor for Inspection Training Associates, a Kaplan Professional School. He has served an District Chairman & Vice President for the Arizona chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors and an approved instructor for both them and the Arizona Department of Real Estate.