The Case for Owning a Thermal Imager
January 26, 2009
“Dang it! Not again,” you are thinking, turning into the Water Berry Crest development for the sixth time this month.
You cannot help but wonder what you are missing. You already know what’s coming. You can already hear the homeowner screaming: “My bills are too high! The furnace runs all the time! The air smells musty!”
Nearly a hundred houses in this development, and here you are stuck with this very demanding, now what seems borderline psychotic, woman for a customer. Your company was initially hired to install the furnace and air conditioning in the model home, the first in the development. Then, unfortunately, you lost all the other 200 homes to a lower bidder. This job is starting to sting from all angles.
How can anyone have utility bills that high? Is she really that picky that she is comparing her bill with her neighbors? What does she expect? Let’s see, you go from a 1,000-square-foot home to a 3,000-square-foot home, and you don’t think your utilities will triple? Ugh. Here we go again.
Thinking a little more, you mumble, “There is no other explanation. She has got to be cranking up that furnace as soon as my truck lights dip over the hill at the end of the street.”
Your mind continues to race. Does she have any idea what this is costing me? Six trips over two hours each, let alone the money lost because I’m not at my other jobs.
FIX THE PROBLEM OR ELSEWalking up to the front door, you reach for the bell. However, before your hand even reaches its goal, the door opens. You are not greeted with a “Hi, Scott” or a “Please, come in.” Instead, the first words from the mouth of Mrs. Jones, who answers the door, are: “I just got my gas bill and it’s worse than before!”
Feeling a little sheepish, you reach your hand out for the bill.
“Wow, $623!” you exclaim. “That does seem a bit excessive. Let me see what I can do.”
Mrs. Jones replies, “The builder says it’s something with your equipment. He says it has to be. He says that I have the only equipment like this in the development, and it’s got to be something you did because you installed the equipment, and he has no other complaints. I’m afraid if you can’t get this resolved, I am going to contact my attorney.”
Your heart sinks deep in your chest. Heading toward the basement, your mind is reviewing everything you have done. The airflow is correct, the gas pressure has been set, you have checked the gas line for leaks, and the only other appliance is a hot-water tank that has never been running when you are there.
The ductwork is sealed with mastic, and you have checked - and even replaced - the programmable thermostat, calculated and recalculated to load, and you know the equipment is slightly oversized per a request of the builder. This was done for this model home to help with recovery from the foot traffic. However, the system never seems to shut off. You have been over and over the installation and, as far as the equipment goes, there is absolutely nothing wrong.
PHONE A FRIENDYou pull out your BlackBerry and dial up Steve, your buddy who is an electrician. “Hey, Steve, you still have that heat camera?” you ask.
“You mean the thermal imager? Yeah, I ended up buying the one I rented. That thing has really come in handy more than a few times,” he answers.
“Think I can use it?” you ask. “I want to check the insulation of a certain house I am working on. I’m at my wit’s end here.”
Steve agrees to meet up with you that afternoon.
It’s the first time you have used a thermal imager, so Steve agrees to do the walk-through with you. The first thing he says is, “For this type of application, you’re not as concerned with the actual temperature as you are just looking for anomalies. Hot stuff will show up red and the cold stuff blue. It’s pretty simple to use.”
After powering up the camera, you do a quick scan through the room surveying the walls. There are large red streaks from top to bottom of the wall, which you quickly realize are the hot-air supplies to the second floor. The dimmer switch for the ceiling cans is bright red, showing a temperature of 104°F. Then pointing the camera at the floor, you see the footprints from where you were just standing.
“Boy that is sensitive!” you remark to Steve.
Pointing the camera up at the cathedral ceiling, you see a giant swatch of blue. It looks as though an entire bat of insulation is missing. It looks like the insulators missed a spot here.
Moving to the master bathroom, you find more of the same. Apparently, the plumbers had to reroute the vent pipes because there is no insulation in those bays either.
Out of the master bath and into the bedroom, you start scanning the walls. Nothing shows up until - bam! - there it is: a giant blue swatch, but this time it’s running down the wall. At the top of the wall is a return air grille. On each side of the grille, the walls are 72°, but in the return air chase itself the camera is registering 57°. The backside of the chase is in a finished closet, so this really is not making any sense.
Back down to the basement, you grab a screwdriver and proceed to remove the return air grille. Taking a videoscope, you peer up inside. At the top where the drywall meets the top of the wall, you realize you are looking into the attic.
The cathedral ceiling and the adjoining room were apparently finished at different heights. The wall was never joist blocked properly. You come to realize that, for over a year, the system has been pulling air right from the attic: hot air in the summer and cold in the winter.
Taking the imager again, you finish scanning the master bedroom walls. The second return air is the same way. You shake your head in disbelief. It all makes sense, though - high bills, musty smell, and the constant operation of the air conditioner in the summer and furnace in the winter, plus the dry and/or humid feel of the house. Conclusion: This darn thing has been pulling attic air since it was installed.
Trotting down the steps, you call for Mrs. Jones.
“Mrs. Jones, I think - no, I mean I did - find the problem,” you tell her. “You’re going to have to contact the builder. The furnace is fine. I found a couple of construction issues that are the root cause of the problem. Would you like me to show you?”
NO MORE ANGERWhile in the bedroom, you cannot tell if Mrs. Jones is relieved, dismayed, or about to cry. You assure her that it is a simple repair, and you would be glad to come back and check it out again after the builder fixes his mistake. Even Mrs. Jones can understand that the return air should be the same temperature as the room air. Seeing the screen on the imager, even she can tell easily that something is definitely wrong. Looking at the screen on the videoscope, she confirms what she has seen.
About a month after the repairs are made, you get a call from Mrs. Jones.
“Scott, everything is working fine,” she tells you. “I just called to thank you, and to say I am sorry. The builder really had me convinced that it was your equipment that was causing the problem. My bill is one-half what it was last month, and I finally feel comfortable. You really nailed the problem.”
You tell her you’re glad you could help, and it was a learning experience for all of you, one you won’t soon forget. Reflecting back, you wonder how much time and money you could have saved if you had just owned an imager in the first place.
Publication date: 01/26/2009