Advances in thermal imagers are affecting the way electricians monitor the operation of electrical systems. These devices provide an effective method to gather vital information about electrical components, cooling levels in data centers, backup uninterruptible power supplies, and electrical support equipment. By using infrared (IR) cameras to take noncontact heat measurements of energized equipment, it is possible to diagnose potential problems before they occur.
Because of rapid advancements in IR camera technology, training is essential to understand the full potential of thermography equipment.
Flir and Fluke Corp. are prominent names in the thermal imaging field, and both companies make training available to their customers. Flir provides training for its thermal imaging products, and Fluke partners with a third party.
Flir’s Infrared Training Center (ITC) offers a broad range of training programs on IR camera operation and functionality, and it is the authorized training center for Flir thermal imaging products.
“The Infrared Training Center provides a wide array of training options to meet the needs of a diverse set of learners,” said John Waggoner, ITC senior instructor and Level III certified thermographer. “We offer classroom-based certification training at our Nashua, N.H., headquarters and also offer regional certification training classes nationwide for students who cannot travel far for training. ITC also offers customer-site training where our instructors will travel to a company facility to teach their staff at its facility. In addition, ITC offers online web tutorials and online trainings to help electricians who are thermal newcomers learn about the wide array of applications where thermal imaging can be used.
“Depending on the electrician, his or her schedule, and location, and available support from an employer, having options can make the difference between training and no training,” Waggoner said.
Fluke Corp. has a close relationship with The Snell Group to provide training, said Brian Knight, business unit manager, thermography. The Snell Group offers training classes worldwide in the form of on-site training, web-based seminars and online classes.
“In addition, the Fluke Thermal Imaging Solution Center is a great resource for general information relating to conducting thermal inspections and using thermal imagers for preventive maintenance practices,” Knight said.
Today’s electricians have multiple choices of thermal imaging products, and it is critical to have proper training to optimize the settings of the image to fit the application, to distinguish normal anomalies from true abnormal conditions, and to ensure safety, Waggoner said.
“ITC offers a Level I Electrical Thermography Certification Course that is specifically focused on electrical applications and is geared to the new infrared camera user, as well as practicing thermographers who are looking for more focused training, primarily on electrical inspection,” he said. “This course also equips electricians with a variety of condition monitoring and predictive maintenance applications.”
The course is appropriate for both electricians and datacom technicians.
“We always encourage users to know and operate an infrared camera with skill,” Waggoner said. “There is so much more to an IR camera’s operation than merely ‘point and shoot,’ and we want to ensure users are fluent with the myriad settings and configuration options on his or her imager. This applies qualitatively when it comes to image analysis and quantitatively in terms of measuring temperature and determining what the readings are suggesting.”
Familiarity with the thermal imager also reinforces how important it is to come to the job with a solid understanding of the basic principles of IR science in relation to the equipment that is being imaged and analyzed.
“One example of insufficient training is misdiagnosis of the emissivity of infrared material properties and also reflected temperatures,” Waggoner said. “To the untrained or undertrained electrician, these can affect the measured temperature and temperature differentials and potentially lead to inaccurate conclusions about the condition of equipment being examined.”
Thermal imaging technology is very dynamic, and there have been many developments in products over the past 10 years, bringing new products and expanded capabilities.
“Along with thermal cameras now available in a smartphone, and pocket-sized thermal imagers, we’re seeing exciting new developments in the test equipment arena, such as clamp meters that complement thermal imagers by offering built-in basic infrared imaging,” Waggoner said. “IR cameras are more affordable than ever, making it easier for more electricians to own and operate an imager. In terms of usability, the operation of today’s equipment is also significantly more straightforward than just 10 years ago. However, it is still important to know the abilities of a new IR camera, such as pixel count, focal length of lens, spot size ratio and so forth.”
In addition, newer capabilities related to workflow and device interoperability are evolving.
“Advanced apps help electricians pull images from a thermal imager to an iPad and then prepare reports on the fly using the mobile device,” Waggoner said. “Many technicians still practice a more time-intensive workflow, back-at-the-computer approach to report preparation.”
Newer technologies are helping electricians and thermographers convey their findings to plant managers and other stakeholders that might be less familiar with thermal imaging technology.
“Newer imaging technologies can blend thermal with the added details and context of equipment labels or markers previously only found in a visual image,” Waggoner said. “A mind-set of continuing education helps keep electricians up-to-date with current best practices and technologies. Refresher or continuing-education training can highlight these so-called ‘practice-changing’ developments.”
A number of third-party organizations offer thermal imaging training.
“Electricians certainly have choices when it comes to thermal imaging training,” he said. “However, the ITC is considered by electrical professionals as well as technicians from other trades to be a market leader. Our students enrolling from around the country and around the world are a testament to that.”
Knight said that the consequences of an electrical event can be catastrophic and even deadly.
“Thermal imagers allow technicians to take noncontact measurements from energized equipment from a safe distance,” he said. “This enables teams to safely measure the apparent temperature of operating equipment. Heat is often an early symptom of equipment damage or malfunction. Regularly checking the temperature of switchgear, motor control centers or electrical panels allows maintenance teams to track operating conditions and quickly identify unusual readings that may be indication of impending failure.”
While the basic functions of a thermal imager are easy to learn, training and practice are required to precisely capture an image that includes the information needed. In addition, technical knowledge is necessary to correctly interpret the data communicated on the image.
“While technological advances have made the process of capturing images much easier, thermography training programs are highly valuable,” Knight said. “Today’s infrared cameras have advanced features that can aid with everything from focus to ongoing data collection and reporting.”
On a regular basis, the Snell Group offers levels 1, 2 and 3 and specialty IR training classes worldwide. It also can provide customized on-site courses, web-based seminars and online training courses. Electronic web-based seminars are available for those who are new to the technology and want to learn more or who have already completed other thermography classes.
“Properly trained and qualified infrared technicians provide companies with a greater return on their investment,” Knight said.
These days, too many electricians are using thermal imagers without sufficient training.
“We suggest that training is actually more essential today than ever because of this new reality,” Waggoner said. “Improper operation of thermal imaging can lead to false alarms about equipment that isn’t failing on the one hand and imminent failures on the other hand that are completely overlooked. Training keeps electricians up-to-date, and it helps build the skills needed to operate today’s advanced thermal imagers effectively and efficiently. Plus, electricians can learn how to manage reporting demands more efficiently using today’s available tools.”