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IR Images Spot Water Leaks

"Cool" spots can provide valuable clues

IR Images Spot Water Leaks

"Cool" spots can provide valuable clues

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    IR image of a ceiling reveals anomalies that don't look like missing insulation. Instead the dark rings, which weren't visible to the naked eye, were cool spots as a result of accumulated moisture.

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    The wet spots were not visible on the surface of the drywall ceiling.

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    A moisture meter confirmed the problem that the IR image had revealed.

Because of the various state and federal tax incentives available for fixing energy leaks in buildings, the use of infrared cameras is definitely on the rise. But IR scanning can also be used for another, less-well-known purpose: finding the source of common moisture problems.

Using thermal imaging in this way — to investigate water leaks in buildings — is nothing new. The only reason the practice isn’t more widespread is that IR cameras are thought to be very expensive. However, prices have been dropping over the past few years, thanks to new sensor technology and increased mass production, and now even entry-level IR cameras perform quite well when they’re used for moisture mapping.

Of course, it isn’t actually moisture that IR scanning “sees”; it’s temperature. And differences in temperature — anomalies, as we inspectors call them — are clues that moisture might be present. Because of evaporative cooling, wet areas in a building assembly may be cooler than surrounding dry areas. Or, because water-soaked materials can hold heat longer than many other less-dense building materials, wet areas may at times be warmer than dry areas. Given these common anomalies, an IR camera can find moisture problems in a quick, nondestructive manner.

Get training. One problem with using an IR camera is that it’s easy to get yourself in trouble by misinterpreting what you see on the screen. We recommend that you gain a thorough understanding of the technology and how it applies to the application you have in mind before making any investment. There are several infrared certification organizations and many application-specific training programs that can give you a head start. You should also research the cameras on the market so that you get the one that best suits your business needs. As with most things, cheapest is not best: I’ve met far too many contractors who bought the camera they could afford, only to have it became a paperweight because it couldn’t do the job they needed it to do.

In this article I’ll share a few moisture investigations our company has done and explain how using IR helped map the damaged materials and speed up a process that could have taken a lot longer.

Peter Hopkins is a Level II Thermographer and co-founder of United Infrared, a national network of contract thermographers. He has been a professional building inspector in Southern California since 1996.