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Some home inspectors claim thermal imaging provides better information than traditional methods of inspection. Thermal imaging is looking at the infrared emissions (essentially, the temperature) of an object. Thermal imaging can be useful in energy audit. The usefulness of thermal imaging in finding home defects is limited.
Heimer Engineering's℠ Licensed Engineers use infrared scanning where indicated while performing home, building, condo, and co-op inspections. Infrared scanning differs from thermal imaging in that there is no separate infrared image. The infrared characteristics of the scanned object and the visible light illumination are both used by the Engineer to evaluate the home, building, condo, or co-op.
There have been many claims as to what information thermal imaging provides. Clients have called and cancelled inspections in favor of non-Engineers, and told us the following reasons as to why they selected thermal imaging. Many of the clients subsequently rescheduled the inspection with one of our Engineers because they needed to know if the building was structurally sound.
- Thermal imaging can see through walls and solid objects
- Thermal imaging can find hidden structural damage
- Thermal imaging can find termite activity in a wall
Thermal imaging cannot see through walls. Thermal imaging allows one to look for hot or cold spots on the surface of the walls. A hot or cold spot does not, by itself, indicate a problem. The presence of a hot or cold spot may provide information to an inspector, but visible light often provides more information.
The image to the right is of a wall on an improperly constructed rear addition. The wall has rot damage and termite damage. Can you see any rot damage or termite damage in the thermal image? No, because there is no difference in the infrared emissions caused by the damage. However, the termite damage and rot damage are clearly visible under ordinary illumination.
- Thermal imaging can find leaks around a window
Thermal imaging does not show leaks. A cold spot may indicate the presence of a leak, but this can be deceiving and needs to be professionally evaluated. The Engineer looks at all available information to draw a conclusion.
The picture on the top right shows a window that is shaded from sunlight on a warm day. The yellow section in the upper right portion of the window is the glass.
The picture on the bottom right shows the same window, but with direct sunlight illuminating the window. The sunlight has warmed the window frame. The sunlight has also warmed the room, so the air-conditioner is now cooling the room.
While this may be interesting as a study in the thermal characteristics of a window, it tells you nothing about whether there is a leak around the window. Windows may be cooler than the surrounding wall because it is a cold day, or warmer than the surrounding wall because the radiator under the window is warming the window.
Air-conditioning, the position of the sun, the presence of window shades, and other factors affect window temperature. It is a mistake to assume that a thermal image of a wall or window will reveal hidden leaks.
- Thermal imaging can find wiring problems
Thermal imaging does not show most wiring problems. Some proponents of thermal imaging claim it can find hidden wiring problems, either by looking for wiring issues in a circuit breaker panel or behind walls.
The image to the right is of a circuit breaker panel. The yellow spot is a hot spot. The hot spot is approximately 74 degrees Fahrenheit, while the surrounding area is 72 degrees Fahrenheit. The reasons the breaker is warmer is that a room air conditioner is connected to the circuit. The two-degree difference is within normal limits.
Finding hot spots behind walls is very difficult, as there are hot spots produced by heating systems, the sun warming an exterior wall, hot water pipes, etc.
- Thermal imaging can find water in a basement
Thermal imaging does not show many basement water issues. When water evaporates from a surface, it cools that surface. Based on this, some have stated that they can find basement water evidence by thermal imaging a basement wall.
The picture to the right represents a thermal image of a concrete basement wall. A basement wall's temperature is affected by the ambient temperature of the basement, the temperature of the earth behind the foundation wall, and objects such as pipes, dryer vents, and heating or cooling ducts that run through a basement. This basement had indications of recent water penetration. However, there was no thermal affect on the basement wall.
The picture on the right shows the same foundation wall under visible light. There is evidence of chronic water penetration and water damage. There is a drainage system at the bottom of the wall. Elsewhere in the same basement, there were damp areas and a small puddle. Clearly, this is a wet basement.
If one relies on the thermal image, the conclusion is that there are no water issues. An examination using visible light shows evidence of chronic water penetration into the basement.
Clearly, any home inspector who relies on thermal imaging to the exclusion of visible light is not doing their job properly. However, assuming that a thermal image will provide useful information often has no basis. The surface temperature and all other visible characteristics, need to be evaluated together. Certainly, a thermal image will not tell you if a building is structurally sound.
Do not expect our Engineers to use infrared scanning where it is not indicated. Depend on our Engineers to use visible light, infrared scanning, and their Engineering experience on your behalf when performing pre-purchase inspections.
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Inspection orders are taken by senior staff members. A real estate purchase is complex, and you should be able to speak with someone who can give you real answers to your inspection questions.
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Heimer Engineering℠ serves the Metro New York area, including New York City (Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx, Staten Island), Long Island (Nassau County, Suffolk County, and Upstate New York (Rockland County, Putnam County, and Westchester County).
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Heimer Engineering℠ Standards of PracticeThe Licensed Engineers of Heimer Engineering℠ substantially adhere to the InterNACHI® Code of Ethics, to Subpart 197-4 of the State of New York Code of Ethics and Regulations for Home Inspectors, and to the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE®) Code of Ethics. All State of New York Licensed Engineers are also bound by New York State Education Law Article 145.
Heimer Engineering℠ Code of Ethics
The Licensed Engineers of Heimer Engineering℠ substantially adhere to the InterNACHI® Standards of Practice and the ASHI® Standards of Practice. In the event of a conflict, the Licensed Engineers of Heimer Engineering℠ use Engineering judgment to decide what standard or Engineering principle takes precedence.
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Heimer Engineering℠ performs home inspections, building inspections, condominium inspections, and co-op inspections in the State of New York. We do not perform inspections or recommend Inspectors or Engineers outside of the State of New York. We provide Licensed Professional Engineer consultation services including hurricane and storm damage and damage from adjoining construction. Expert witness services are provided regarding playground injuries, parking lot, walkway, and stairway slip, trip, and fall.
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Microsoft Web Expressions publication timestamp: June 15, 2018.
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