Monday, March 16, 2015

Infrared in Home Inspections

A couple of months ago I came across a post from a DFW home inspector that surprised me. This gentleman claimed that using infrared in the course of a home inspection was a gimmick and a marketing tool with no real value. His assertion was that it requires hours to perform an infrared scan correctly and that no home inspector would spend the time to do this.


That really sums up my feelings on the opinion of this guy, but since I have a little time, I might as well expand on why he is so off base.

First let me give you a little background. I am a level III infrared thermographer. I have a company that travels the US doing electrical infrared scans of factories and sawmills as well as roof scans of hospitals, hotels and other flat roof buildings that have moisture issues. Not to toot my own horn, but I know a little bit about infrared thermography.

The inspector that wrote the post that I disagree with seems to be under the impression that the entire house has to be heated up (or cooled down) for hours before a scan can be performed, and it has to be done at night (or in the morning). Sorry, it's been a couple of months since I read the post and it was so crazy I didn't commit it to memory.

I think this guy was thinking of an energy audit (although he didn't get the procedure for that correct either). This can take a while to perform and involves pressurizing the house with a blower. Infrared is one of the tools used to see where the energy is leaking in these audits. I don't do these because they take a while and I feel like I can't charge what my time is worth for something that doesn't have that much value (in my opinion). There are guys that do this procedure better than I can for cheaper, so I leave them to it. There are also moisture specialists that will use a spray rig on the outside of the house, then look for moisture intrusion on the inside. I have never had any desire to do this.

Neither of these procedures have much to do with a real estate based home inspection.

I use infrared at every home inspection. I have to, because without it I can't justify telling someone that I did everything in my power to perform a good inspection.

Here's my procedure: I will usually do my infrared scan last, after I have tested all of the plumbing fixtures and the AC and/or heat have been running for a while. Then I go over the whole house with the IR camera. This takes 10 to 15 minutes. If I find anything that looks like moisture in the walls, I use my moisture meter to confirm that it's wet. Electrical issues are investigated as well. I rarely find electrical issues in the house itself except for the occasional hot outlet with a loose connection. Most electrical load issues can be identified at the breaker panel. Insulation issues are noted and confirmed from the attic side when possible.

How often do I find moisture in the walls or ceiling that weren't apparent to visual inspection? I would say in about 15-20% of inspections. So that's about one in five inspections that have a plumbing, drain, roof or HVAC leak in the walls or ceiling that are not being caught by inspectors not using infrared (correctly).

To put it another way, I find issues with infrared that I wouldn't find without infrared often enough that I can't believe that other inspectors are not using infrared.

Here's the crazy part. I don't charge extra to use infrared as part of my inspections. My camera cost about $12,000, my training and certification cost about $8,000. So why am I not upselling this service? Because it's not your problem. I have to drive my truck to perform inspections. I'm not going to charge you an extra nickel to pay for my driver's license renewal. I don't charge extra to use any of my tools in an inspection. I bought the tools to do my job better, not to try to make an extra $50 on inspections.

Getting back to the guy who said that infrared cameras are not usable in the time frame of the average home inspection, I did a little experiment. There is a wall in my house between the living room and the garage that I know is missing a piece of insulation. I waited until the outside temperature was the same as the temperature inside that house, which would be the worst condition for finding such an issue,  and I shot the wall with my camera. Here is the result:

I know it's really subtle, but if you look closely you can barely make out a huge purple rectangle in the wall that is missing insulation. And this is under the most challenging atmospheric conditions. When its hot or cold outside, this thing would really stand out. And yes, it drives me crazy to know that there is a piece of insulation missing in my wall, but what are you going to do?

Here is an image from a recent inspection that shows a leak from the upstairs bathroom into the kitchen ceiling:

This is a picture OF the camera, not a picture FROM the camera, so it looks kind of crappy, but you can still clearly see the moisture in the ceiling. There was no evidence of this leak to the naked eye (but there will be eventually if it isn't fixed).

Bear in mind, infrared is not the same as magic X-ray glasses. It is essentially useless for finding leaks in shingled roofs. It is not practical to use to find slab plumbing leaks. It won't show gas leaks (there are specialized cameras for this used in the oil and gas industry). It will find a lot of plumbing problems, insulation problems, electrical problems. I've even used it to find fire ant nests in the walls, but the conditions have to be perfect for this.

So I would recommend using an inspector that uses infrared as a part of his or her inspection process. I would also recommend making sure that the inspector has at least a level I certification. This is pretty basic, but is still better than no education at all and shows a commitment to understand what they are doing. If you find an inspector you like that wants to charge extra to do an infrared scan of the house, I'm not going to tell you not to use that inspector. But you may want to ask if there is an upcharge for them using their ladder, screwdriver, flashlight, etc. I wouldn't use a mechanic that charges extra to use the "good" tools, but that's just me.

Hope this helps understand the practical uses of infrared in the home inspection field. For some people it might be a marketing ploy, but for me its an important part of my process.  I hope you will go to the next time you need to have an inspection done.

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