A Picture of Heat: Thermography can detect, prevent and solve electrical problems

Recently, a Scottsbluff, Neb., home caught fire. Fortunately, the residents got out safely. The cause was a loose fuse holder connection that was glowing red hot and smoldering. Had an electrician performed any work on the Scottsbluff home prior to the fire, they could have used a thermographic camera to detect the loose connection, which might have been there for years.

In the past, bulky, cumbersome thermographic cameras were deployed sparingly. It was expensive to use them and often required hiring a separate contractor to shoot thermal images of switchboards, motor connections and any other areas required.

Today, you can order one online for under $500. They can weigh less than 5 ounces and could arrive on your doorstep in about four days. Thermographic cameras are much more available, and, for electricians and electrical contractors, they are a useful tool to aid in troubleshooting, quality control and finding safety hazards before they turn into bigger problems.

The wide utility of thermography

An ordinary camera uses visible light and captures an image’s associated light rays that provide it with color and clarity. Thermographic cameras use infrared radiation and capture heat. The recorded infrared waves are assimilated into a visual picture of heat that tells a story to an electrical worker using the science of thermography. Thermography can detect a hot motor bearing, a roof leak and many other things. It is most widely used by electrical workers as a maintenance tool to detect the health of an electrical panel or faulty physical connections that could easily lead to failure and even fire.

The cameras can detect a loose connection in a breaker panel by showing a hot spot. They may also show faulty components that are shorting. They detect loose and frayed wiring. They may tell you when a motor connection is loose or faulty. Hot wires will also show up. There are numerous uses.

For example, Bosch Power Tools’ GTC400C 12V max connected thermal camera can capture thermal images at 160x120 resolution. It can record temperatures ranging from 14–752°F, and costs about $1,100. Bosch, Farmington Hills, Mich., touts its utility to the electrical worker by noting its slick functionality and accuracy.

“The GTC400C gives professionals the power to quickly, easily and accurately identify and tackle job-site issues, while simplifying communication with clients,” said Ricardo Pedroso, product manager at Bosch. “Whether they are an electrician checking wiring or a window installer searching for a draft source, the device’s ability to visually inspect thermal variance at the work site provides professionals with clear and actionable information about what needs to be done.”

Many electrical problems can be avoided by scheduling all electrical panels, switchboards, lighting distribution panels, motor and electrical equipment connections to be “shot” or imaged by a thermographic device. Performing periodic maintenance in this way allows managers and other leaders to determine the health of such equipment.

Taking an image of such connections at certain intervals—e.g., once a year or more frequently—can detect problems that generate enough heat to cause an electrical fire. It also prompts maintenance to keep panels clean and free of dust (which may ignite) and also signals to engineers and other equipment managers that more cooling may be needed or that parts should be replaced.

This is valuable because the electrical machinery—running continuously or intermittently—may be in a remote location where warning signs aren’t so visible. By taking a thermographic image, recording and archiving such images, a more confident profile of the many electrical points throughout a distributed power or electrical network may prove valuable.

Fluke, a thermographic camera and equipment manufacturer in Everett, Wash., cites data from the Federal Energy Management Program, Washington, D.C., in an online article. It states that a robust preventive maintenance program “can lead to savings, to the tune of 30%–40%.”

Fluke cites another advantage of a preventive maintenance program that includes thermographic imaging: a tenfold return on investment; a 25–30% reduction in maintenance costs; a 70–75% reduction in equipment failure; a 35–40% reduction in downtime; and a 20–25% boost in productivity.

Electrical contractors already embrace thermography. As infrared technology improves, it enables them to do more things and have more data and information that can imbue safety into an electrical system. With such tools, incidents like the Nebraska house fire may be prevented. Whenever an electrician does any type of work on an electrical system, using a thermographic camera to check the integrity of connections, both recent and past, is a best practice.

About the Author

Jim Romeo

Freelance Writer

Jim Romeo is a freelance writer based in Chesapeake, Va. He focuses on business and technology topics. Find him at www.JimRomeo.net.

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