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Image conscious: infrared imaging technology helps property managers discover energy losses.

KEEPING a lid on a building's energy costs is a top priority for nearly every property manager. Heated air escaping during the winter months and cooled air leaking out during the summer months are sure signs utility bills will soar.

Finding the source of energy loss--whether it's poor insulation in the walls and ceilings or shoddy construction around the windows and doors--can be a costly, time-consuming and intrusive endeavor. Finding the source of water leaks in roofs can be even tougher.

Thanks to the increasingly affordable technology of infrared imaging, however, real estate managers can quickly and easily track the causes of energy loss without resorting to tearing open walls or pulling up roofing tiles.



Infrared imaging is a diagnostic technology allowing users to instantly visualize and measure the thermal energy emitted from an object. Measuring thermal energy helps identify areas where energy is being wasted.

Because the human eye cannot detect thermal energy, infrared cameras are typically used to instantly display an area's thermal performance. While traditional cameras detect, record and display visible light, infrared cameras detect and record heat--or more precisely, the difference in temperature between surfaces--and display that information as a visible image.

Using an infrared camera is like having X-ray vision. Infrared cameras can reveal damaged insulation in ceilings and behind walls, uncover bad wiring and overloaded circuits, and pinpoint the source of roof leaks. They go beyond measuring surface issues, without requiring the demolition of walls or direct inspection of insulation.

Large industrial companies have used infrared imaging for decades. For years, the equipment involved was prohibitively expensive and extremely complex to use. Recent technological advances, however, have made infrared cameras smaller, easier to use and less expensive. These breakthroughs have put this sophisticated technology within the grasp of non-industrial professionals like real estate managers and residential property owners.

The benefits to managers and building owners can be tremendous. If a unit in a residential complex or the common area in an office building is losing a significant amount of heat during the winter months, an infrared camera can detect whether the insulation in the walls is moisture laden or otherwise damaged.

"The technology enables us to do things we were not able to do before without being terribly invasive," said Mike Sudano, president of Pro Chek, a Connecticut-based home inspection services company. "It made our inspection analysis considerably more advantageous for our clients. I no longer have to tell a client 'I suspect the problem is this.' I will more often than not be in a position to resolve a problem on site."


Most Pro Chek clients are managers and owners of residential homes, condominiums and apartment complexes. Sudano uses infrared cameras to look for damaged or inferior insulation behind walls, electrical and wiring problems, water leaks in the roof and even termite infestation causing wood damage.

"The majority of our customers have a problem with their home," Sudano said. "It's cold, it's drafty, and they don't understand why. By use of this technology, we can pinpoint the source of problems better than we ever could before."

Ron Isaacson, a certified thermog-rapher for Chicago-based SPACEMAN Consulting, uses his infrared camera specifically to inspect roofs of residential units, office complexes and shopping centers.

Isaacson said many of his clients contact him after experiencing a leak in their roof, and repeated visits from roofers fail to fix the problem. By using thermal scans to find the source of a leak, Isaacson estimates he can save his customers several thousand dollars in potential ceiling and structural damage.

"[Infrared imaging] is something building management and facility managers are just finding out about in terms of how much it can really save them in time and money," Isaacson said.

Beyond finding sources of energy leaks and roofing problems, an infrared camera can be instrumental during the construction phase of a building to obtain documentation of whether contractors are delivering the quality of service expected, said Paul Erickson, a mechanical engineer with Affiliated Engineers Inc., a Wisconsin-based engineering consulting company.

Using infrared cameras, Affiliated can verify whether the contractors have used insulated piping in a new construction building's walls. They can confirm if the contractor has sealed the windows properly and looked for leaks in roof membranes. Identifying these problems during the construction phase can potentially save building owners considerable time, effort and money.

"The infrared camera is like a smoking gun," Erickson said. "It provides evidence the contractors are building everything as specified and designed."


Smoking guns come at a price, however. An infrared camera typically costs around $15,000. Some models are priced as low as $8,000, and high-end models can cost more than $30,000.

Camera costs aside, conducting proper thermal audits involves more than learning how to operate the camera. Reading and interpreting a thermal image takes training, much like reading a medical X-ray requires a trained radiologist.

Without that training, an individual cannot properly analyze and evaluate an infrared image. Several camera vendors offer training courses, but hiring trained consultants to do thermal audits would better serve most real estate managers, Isaacson said.

"The technology is advanced," he said. "There are so many elements to take into consideration when you look at one of these readings, it's best to have someone who knows what [he or she] is doing read them. A trained thermographer is able to put it all in perspective."

The cost of a thermal audit varies, depending on the size of the building and the vendor. Companies mentioned in this article charge between $500 and $1,500 for their infrared imaging services. Prices generally cover the thermal audit and a detailed report analyzing the results of the thermal images.

Sudano estimates an audit can pay for itself in two to five years, depending on the extent of the repairs suggested as a result of the audit. For instance, if an audit indicates a new furnace is needed, the payback in increased energy efficiency could take five years. If only minor ceiling repairs are necessary, the payback could be as short as two years.

Isaacson said savings also come into play because infrared imaging can pinpoint the exact problem, and then a thermal auditor can typically offer an explanation and immediate solutions. He said having a variety of general contractors repeatedly come out and offer trial-and-error solutions can be costly and frustrating.

"The nature of thermography applications is people can actually see what's going on, and I can source the cause and effect [of a problem] for them," Isaacson said. "It gives them a plan of action with their contractors and maintenance people, and it eliminates the guess work."


James Markos, a vice president and senior consultant for risk and insurance services firm Marsh Inc., has been fielding questions about thermal imaging from several of his public utility and power company clients.

His clients are interested in the potential return on investment infrared imaging can bring by heading off catastrophic equipment failures. Because most equipment heats up dramatically just before it fails, infrared cameras can help auditors predict failure by scanning and analyzing electrical equipment while the equipment is up and running and then highlighting the heightened temperatures.

By finding electrical problems before the equipment actually fails, infrared thermography can eliminate costly outages--yielding returns on investment of between 4-to-1 to as much as 30-to-1, Markos said. The range depends on how extreme of a failure can be averted and how expensive the machinery is that can potentially be saved.


"Avoiding failures of large magnitudes is a huge benefit of this technology," Markos said.

To maximize the benefits from infrared technology, Isaacson said building managers should put thermal audits on their annual maintenance schedule. He said regular thermal scans can help catch problems early and avert widespread system failures.

Sudano said the effectiveness of infrared cameras--their ability to precisely determine problems or pinpoint energy inefficiency--will lead to a surge in use in the future. He said more inspectors will have to adopt the technology to stay competitive.

"An infrared camera resolves issues without a lingering doubt," Sudano said. "It solidifies the inspection, whereas without it there still might be some lingering issues. In the long run, more and more companies will be incorporating the use of the camera. From a competitive point of view they have no recourse but to keep up."

Darnell Little is a contributing writer for JPM. Questions regarding this article can be sent to
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Comment:Image conscious: infrared imaging technology helps property managers discover energy losses.
Author:Little, Darnell
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2007
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