IR - Worth a Thousand Words

An infrared camera can become a top tool in your home performance toolbox.

September 07, 2008
September/October 2008
A version of this article appears in the September/October 2008 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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An infrared camera and the ability to understand and interpret thermal images help contractors to find sources of energy loss, and to confirm that the problem has been solved.

Energy conservation is the hot topic today, and the need to reduce ever-increasing energy costs is a priority. Homeowners are looking to contractors for help in finding the sources of energy loss, and in making improvements that will realize the greatest possible savings. To meet this demand, today’s residential remodeling contractors need to be about more than design and aesthetics.  They need to think in terms of high performance and energy efficiency on every job. An infrared camera and the ability to understand and interpret thermal images helps contractors to find sources of energy loss, and to confirm that the problem has been solved after the necessary work on the home has been done.


IR 101

Thermal, or infrared, energy is light that is not visible because its wavelength is too long to be detected by the human eye. It is the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that we perceive as heat.  Unlike visible light, everything in the infrared world with a temperature above absolute zero emits heat.  Even very cold objects, like ice cubes, emit infrared radiation. The higher the object’s temperature, the greater the infrared radiation emitted. Infrared cameras produce images of this invisible infrared radiation and enable users to measure temperatures in a noninvasive manner.


Remodel and Energy Retrofit

Paul Eldrenkamp, president of Byggmeister, in Newton, Massachusetts, is a residential remodeling contractor who has long specialized in high-performance renovation projects. With the high cost of energy required to run a home, Byggmeister’s work is in demand. Good diagnostic tools and infrared cameras have become the key tools in his company’s toolbox. “Not having an infrared camera in your toolbox is like a carpenter not having a tape measure,” says Eldrenkamp. “Without infrared, you are flying blind.” Eldrenkamp originally began using infrared cameras to do comprehensive audits for his company’s home remodeling projects. Later, he began doing home energy audits for homeowners who simply wanted to understand what was going on in their homes in terms of energy loss (see “Infrared Thermography: (Nearly) a Daily Tool,” HE Mar/Apr ’08, p. 31).

As a diagnostic tool, the infrared camera is used in the initial inspection and investigating phases. The camera allows for quick identification of problem areas. “If trim is tight and windows are installed squarely, you can see that, but to know if the insulation seal is correct you need a camera,” says Eldrenkamp. Byggmeister employees use the camera to identify leaks, locate problems with plumbing, check radiant heating pipes in flooring, and more.  A home project can represent a significant investment for a homeowner, so doing a quality check on work should be a no-brainer. Byggmeister uses the infrared camera at the end of a project to quickly and easily determine if the work has been done properly and to determine if the project efficiency goals have been achieved.


A Picture Tells the Story

Experience has taught Eldrenkamp that the audit report is an important part of the work, because it provides homeowners with detailed explanations of problems found in an audit.  The infrared images included in the report allow homeowners to see any hidden problems for themselves. A typical audit report includes a list of measures to take from basement to attic in order to achieve higher levels of comfort, better indoor air quality, and energy efficiency as well as a strategy for reducing the overall energy load of the house. Digital and infrared images graphically depict some of the recommended measures.

As homeowners become educated about their homes, and about possible solutions to energy problems, they are beginning to look for much more from their remodeling and maintenance projects.  A standard and often typical insulation improvement project yields a 10%–15% reduction in energy loss. “Today people are looking for greater results. They are looking for reductions sometimes of up to 80% improvement in home efficiency,” Eldrenkamp explains.


Making the Grade

Byggmeister uses the HERS index as part of the initial evaluation. The HERS index was established by the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET). A home built to the specifications of the HERS reference home (based on the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code) scores a HERS index of 100, while a net zero energy home scores a HERS index of 0. The lower a home’s HERS index, the more energy efficient it is compared to the HERS reference home. Each one-point decrease in the HERS index corresponds to a 1% reduction in energy consumption compared to the reference home. Therefore, a home with a HERS index of 85 is 15% more energy efficient than the HERS reference home, and a home with a HERS index of 80 is 20% more energy efficient.

Byggmeister was hired to help the owners of a three-story fieldstone foundation Victorian home in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, which had an initial HERS index of 184. There were a number of problems with the home, but after some investigation, it was clear that missing and poor insulation was the major cause of this home’s poor score.  

The improvements included insulating and air sealing basement walls and attic rafters with spray foam.  A couple of the rooms were undergoing major renovations, so the walls had been torn down, making it easy to see if the walls had been insulated. However, for the walls that could not be torn down, the infrared camera helped find the sidewalls that had no insulation, so that proper insulation could be installed. At the completion of the project, the HERS index had been reduced to 87.

In Newton, Massachusetts, the owners of another older home were paying about $8,000 a year in natural gas when they decided to take action. The Victorian-style home had a partly finished third floor with a sloped roof.  There was little to no insulation under some parts of the complicated roof. Although several improvements could have been made to reduce heating costs, they would have proven expensive, so the homeowners chose to address only the insulation issue.  Spray foam was installed in the rafter bay and in the attic crawlspace.  “When spray foam sets, it gets warm.  We use an infrared camera to show us if we’re getting good coverage, and it allows us to adjust our spraying technique,” says Eldrenkamp. The homeowner’s natural gas bill was reduced to $5,500 after the spray foam insulation was installed, and the home’s HERS index went from 190 to 89.

From Home Inspection to Home Performance

Mark Forkey of Certified Home Inspection Corporation has been a home inspector for 12 years.  Forkey began using an infrared camera several years ago to enhance his home inspection work.  When the slowdown in the real estate market caused homeowners to stay put, many homeowners chose to improve the comfort of their homes while reducing energy costs. Forkey saw this as a business opportunity.   

Forkey doesn’t use the word “audit” in his business. “The term ‘audit’ is very limiting,” he says.  “It makes me think of when the energy companies were mandated to do audits. It was typically a 45-minute home audit, and the result was usually recommending a few energy-efficient lightbulbs.”  Mark’s home energy report runs 25 to 30 pages. It identifies problem areas after he has conducted a thorough inspection, and it recommends solutions, with the cost of each, and the payback over time (see Table 1, based on recommended solutions in a Forkey report).

In addition to being a certified infrared thermographer, Forkey is a certified energy conservation inspector. Forkey’s evaluation is not a random check.  He counts every window and door, and scans the entire house to find missing insulation and major air leaks. He uses his infrared camera and PC-compatible reporting software every day to generate his reports. Forkey is hired strictly to do the evaluation and is not involved in the improvements, so he is truly an objective third party.

More Than Comfort and Efficiency

Today, anyone paying utility bills is painfully aware of the rising cost energy—all energy.   Homeowners are motivated to learn how their homes use energy, and the benefits of better home performance are immediate and clear: saving money and a more comfortable living environment. But there’s a big-picture added bonus for those willing to pay for energy retrofits that don’t offer an immediate payback, and that’s   reducing carbon emissions and playing a role in protecting the environment.  

The average American produces about 40,000 lb of CO2 emissions per year (see “Another Good Reason to become a Vegetarian,” p. 14). Many Web sites have tools and recommendations that will help customers to calculate their carbon footprint before and after you perform an energy retrofit on their home. By reducing energy use in your customer’s home, you are reducing the demand for, and the burning of, fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas. An infrared camera can provide your customers with a clear picture of energy loss, a clear path to a more efficient and comfortable home, and the added good feeling of knowing that they are contributing to a better environment for themselves, their neighbors, and their children.

Maureen Collins is a public relations professional with Advertising to Business and writes for her client, FLIR Systems, Incorporated, in Billerica, Massachusetts.


For more information:
FLIR’s Infrared Training Center offers infrared training, certification, and recertification in all aspects of infrared thermography.  To learn more about FLIR IR cameras and IR diagnostics, go to www.goinfrared.com. For more on FLIR’s training opportunities, go to www.infraredtraining.com.

Other IR training is available through Academy of Infrared Thermography
Web site: www.infraredtraining.net
Infraspection Institute
Web site: www.infraspection.com
Snell Infrared
Web site: www.snellinfrared.com
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