Cool Tools: Thermal Imagers 2019

Flir DM285 all-in-one digital multimeter and thermal imager
Flir DM285 all-in-one digital multimeter and thermal imager

Thermal imagers have become a basic tool for many electricians. These infrared cameras detect and document abnormal temperatures of electrical equipment such as motors, electrical cabinets and wiring, alerting technicians to address potential problems before they become major issues.

“Such anomalies often indicate a problem or an imminent failure that can lead to downtime in plant settings or worse: hazardous conditions for workers nearby,” said Richard Wexler, Flir Systems’ director of marketing for instruments. “Thermal imagers can accelerate diagnostics by allowing electricians to scan larger areas quickly while equipment is operating. They also are useful for documenting repairs, with reporting tools that show before and after images and temperature measurements that increase customer satisfaction and trust.”

Recognizing these capabilities, “demand for thermal imagers continues to increase, resulting in more affordable options that have opened access for electrical contractors who hadn’t considered them in the past,” he said. “For first-time users, the intimidation factor of learning a powerful new tool has been mitigated by intuitive navigation and an app-style experience.”

Cost pressures also affect electrical contractors’ clients, he added. At job sites where ECs feel the pressure to minimize downtime and avoid costly equipment replacement, thermal cameras are a smart investment to find failures before they happen so repair interventions can be planned during scheduled downtime.

Fluke Ti480 infrared camera
Fluke Ti480 infrared camera

In addition, Wexler said, the average person is increasingly aware of thermal imaging through TV shows, movies and news reporting that use or feature the technology. Many homeowners are taking advantage of home energy inspections in which the utility uses thermal cameras to show customers where their homes are losing heat around windows and doors.

“This increasing consumer education helps promote overall acceptance, particularly in the trades, like electrical contracting,” Wexler said.

Another factor is the emergence of hybrid tools that bring together thermal imaging with other test equipment. Examples Wexler cited are clamp meters and digital multimeters providing new ways in which they are more seamlessly embedded in the workflow, enabling ECs to take a new approach to electrical diagnostics by performing no-contact thermal scanning followed up with contact electrical testing using one tool.

“This dramatically changes the troubleshooting aspect of an electrician’s job and makes thermal imaging more accessible to a broader range of electrical contractors,” Wexler said.

There have been many other recent advances in thermal imaging.

“As a research-driven organization,” said Wexler, “we continue to focus on innovation in a range of areas that matter most to electrical contractors.

“Pocket-size thermal imagers and add-on imagers that connect to smartphones means anyone can have a thermal imager handy, even without a tool bag. Higher quality images are made possible with advanced imaging technology such as UltraMax to quadruple image resolution and MSX to enhance clarity and definition using complementary visual images. At large work sites, GPS geotagging images make it easy to location-stamp images for better reporting.”

Larger touchscreens with intuitive navigation emulate what users have become accustomed to using with their mobile devices.

Milwaukee 22257-20 spot infrared imager
Milwaukee 22257-20 spot infrared imager

Robust, pistol-grip style thermal imagers continue to evolve with larger screens, wider viewing angles and auto-calibrating lenses.

“They also can now be outfitted with advanced imaging capabilities such as MSX technology, which superimposes the crisp definition of a visual image on a thermal image,” Wexler said. “Newer ergonomic thermal cameras with a rotating lens platform now have wider rotation ranges, allowing unencumbered viewing of the oversized touchscreen while aiming at hard-to-reach hotspots and hidden faults. Now, UltraMax technology dramatically increases the resolution of these thermal imagers using sophisticated algorithms to add increased details for more powerful diagnostics.”

Overall, more options with higher resolution, accuracy and sensitivity have become available in the last two years to give electrical contractors more choices when it comes to confidently choosing a thermal imager.

Today’s thermal imagers are sophisticated instruments, and to get the most benefit from them, users must understand the range of their capabilities and how to use them.

Manufacturers have training and support programs, and third-party organizations offer training.

According to Wexler, Flir’s Infrared Training Center offers thermography certification through in-person and online classes and tutorials in local language programs in more than 30 countries.

A wide range of thermal imagers from a variety of manufacturers are available.

Flir Systems offers a mix of thermal imaging tools for different uses, job loads and budgets. For quick access thermal imaging, compact thermal cameras are available as an add-on accessory for smartphones. Slim, pocket-sized thermal imagers offer professional thermal imaging in a very compact design. Newer multimeters and clamp meters with an integrated thermal imager have reimagined the way electricians can tap powerful diagnostics with fewer tools.

Fluke Corp. offers Performance Series handheld thermal imagers that provide a blend of IR and visual images up to 320-by-240 resolution to make it easy to see and solve issues on equipment and electrical systems. Fluke additionally offers professional and expert series cameras in addition to fixed-mount cameras.

Ridgid RT-9X thermal imaging camera
Ridgid RT-9X thermal imaging camera

The TiS75 model enables professionals to pinpoint issues with equipment and electrical systems quickly and accurately.

Milwaukee Tool’s line of thermal imagers includes the 102x77 spot imager with instant startup for scanning large areas quickly, a high-resolution image on screen, and precise single spot measurement

Dual Sense pixel technology allows the imager to individually optimize pixels to eliminate the blurring of hot and cold details in crowded areas. Users are able to scan, target and receive one simple on-screen temperature reading from a long distance or up close for greater detail.

Ridgid offers a line of reliable, easy-to use thermal imaging cameras with high-resolution image quality and scale assist that automatically sets optimum image scale for easy evaluation of comparable, error-free infrared images for both commercial and residential use. A thermal mobile app allows full image analysis and seamless data sharing. There are four models in the Ridgid product line.

With so many options, choosing the right thermal imaging camera requires careful consideration.


Considerations When Buying Thermal Imagers

Thermal imager technology is constantly advancing. It seems there are new features every year. This is what buyers should look for. (You can download a detailed guide at https://www.flir.com/discover/instruments/12-things-to-know-before-buyi….)

1. Buy an infrared camera with the highest detector resolution image quality the budget allows. Higher resolution thermal imaging provides more accurate quantitative results. Detector resolution matters more than display resolution.

2. Find a system with a built-in, visible-light camera with an illuminator lamp and a laser pointer. The built-in digital camera simultaneously captures visible light and thermal images. Digital photos that correspond to IR images help document problems.

3. Select a camera that delivers accurate and consistent measurement results. Look for a thermal imager that meets or exceeds ±2 percent (or 3.6°F) accuracy.

4. Look for an IR camera that stores and outputs standard file formats that are broadly supported rather than in a proprietary format that can only be read and analyzed with specialized software. Also, look for cameras that can stream MPEG-4 video through a USB connection to computers and monitors.

5. Consider the added value of an IR camera that links to Bluetooth-enabled T&M meters for assessing electrical load and moisture levels. Some thermal cameras also can measure the severity of moisture damage and electrical issues.

6. Select a camera compatible with technology that enables it to import IR images to smartphones and tablets for portable analysis, report generation and sharing.

7. Get a camera with the ergonomic features that make work as easy as possible. The camera’s weight can be a significant concern. Also consider the camera’s interactive controls.

8. A thermal imager with multispectral dynamic imaging instantaneously adds visible spectrum details such as numbers, labels, signage and texture to the thermal image without obscuring or diluting the infrared scene.

9. Most infrared cameras come with free software to perform basic image analysis and create simple reports. Advanced software provides more in-depth analysis. Find the product that’s right for the job.

10. Choose a thermal imager with a wide temperature range to measure ambient and high-temperature spots in the same image. The range should be broad enough to capture all of the temperatures of the objects or scenes typically encountered.

11. Look for cameras with a comprehensive, extended warranty program to protect the equipment investment for the long haul. Reputable manufacturers want to ensure their thermal imager is going to provide service for many years.

12. Ensure your investment is backed by strong customer service and ongoing, manufacturer-provided technical support and training.

About the Author

Jeff Griffin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Griffin, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at up-front@cox.net.

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