Not long ago a customer called to ask whether or not I offered infrared inspection services. Soon we were discussing this type of inspection at length. I felt it was my duty to explain more about the history of IR inspections, how infrared devices have made their way into the world of home inspections, and why I personally choose not to offer such services. This same information may benefit you, or anyone considering an infrared inspection.
IR cameras have utility but they are not a replacement for a seasoned home inspectorIR Inspections: Buyer Beware
Home inspectors that offer infrared inspections will often tell customers that this type of inspection will detect problems that other inspections may miss. Through technological advances, these "miracle tools" are now available that will help inspectors see through walls. Sounds good, right? Not so fast. The history of such devices and the varied opinions of seasoned home inspectors need to be considered.
IR Camera History
The U.S. military is credited for the invention of the IR camera. Created to be used in the Korean War, these cameras were used to allow for better night vision. They proved very beneficial in combat situations, as well as detecting enemy objects. Recently, IR cameras have been used to try to locate missing children. One example is the case of Nadia Bloom. In 2010, an infrared camera costing over $200,000 was attached to a helicopter which was sent to search for Nadia who had become lost in a swamp near her home. Though she was the only person in the area, the camera failed to detect her heat signature.
The reason given for the failure was that the camera had a hard time penetrating solid objects.
If this is the case, what does that say about the ability of such a camera to peer into the walls of a home?
The truth is that a home inspector cannot see into walls through the use of an infrared camera. Instead, the camera may pick up temperature differences that could indicate problems. However, there are no guarantees.
The timing of an infrared inspection makes a difference. The sun can change temperatures within the home. This could result in a false reading. IR cameras work best during early morning hours, or in the evenings when it's cooler. Most home inspections are not performed at these hours, making an IR inspection of little value. Wind can also significantly affect the results.
Are home inspectors that offer IR inspections using these cameras as a sales pitch? Quite possibly. Veteran inspectors know that as of today, no tool can take the place of the senses. Real estate agents may want to steer clients clear of such inspections, as they are of little value unless the conditions are perfect. False readings could result in buyers backing out of the purchase of a home.
UPDATE: Just this week, a well respected Realtor told me that his home inspector in Daytona Beach identified a moisture issue in a window box of a home. To help salvage the deal, the listing agent fronted money to do some further investigation. Contractors came in, tore the wall apart, and found nothing!
Other problems with IR camera inspections include:
The need for the inspector to include plenty of fine print in his inspection agreement (some even have you sign an additional, IR addendum) in order to cover themselves should the IR inspection produce a false result
The cost of a high quality IR camera is high. For this reason, most home inspectors own lower quality cameras in the $2-3K range that produce images at far lower resolution
New inspectors may receive no training in regard to how to properly use an infrared camera.
Let's hear from the experts regarding infrared inspections:
"It is harder to detect temperature differences on the outside surface of the building during windy weather."
- U.S. Department of Energy
"Thermal imaging can be used to find roof leaks. The one caveat to finding roof leaks is that the conditions have to be right; if it’s a hot summer day and there hasn’t been any rain for a week, forget it."
- A certified infrared thermographer in Jacksonville
"I have personally come across situations where electrical cables have been identified as foundation cracks and drywall corner beads have been determined to be water leaks. Imagine the shock to a home buyer, especially when in-accurate information is provided by the inspector."
Level 1 thermographer (home inspector)
"Some cameras specify accuracy of 2%, but when tested can be off by as much as 20%. Not only is this troublesome because you pay a premium for a camera that measures temperature, but in predictive-maintenance applications, inaccurate temperature data is more dangerous than no temperature data."
Marketing Manager for a popular IR camera manufacturer
"Getting our clients through the inspections is hard enought right now. Suggest you offer this service to clients after the deal is closed."
A husband and wife real estate agency
Is an infrared home inspection better, or just a clever sales pitch?
Most veteran home inspectors can make educated assessments of a building using their invaluable human senses. Years of experience in the field as a construction professional provides a seasoned home inspector with a wealth of data to draw on when investigating a building issue. Infrared camera technology in the home inspection field, labeled as ‘Thermography’, is highly sophisticated and has special applications where it's use is better suited outside of our industry.
Real Estate transactions are not the time to do infrared inspections.
The right conditions must exist for one of these cameras to discover or ‘see’ a latent deficiency. Too much wind, too much heat (or cold) and the results are meaningless. Perfect environmental conditions cannot be guaranteed during your home inspection, hence, numerous exclusions will be stated in the fine print of a home inspector’s report.
Inferior camera models, which most all home inspectors own due to cost, are sold to newbie home inspectors who receive little training on the proper use of these devices.
Focusing too much effort on what the IR camera is telling the home inspector could distract him from doing his job, which is to engage his natural senses of sight, touch and sound along with focus on cause and effect relationships in building science to deliver results that you can take to the bank.