Thermal imaging can be used to spot heat signatures, something our naked eye can’t see. In the world of sustainability, this tech is particularly applicable to spotting heat escaping from underinsulated areas of buildings, as well as excessive heat or heat loss in industrial equipment. Previously, this technology was cost-prohibitive for most homeowners and small business owners, but earlier this year, both Seek and Flir released small thermal imaging cameras designed to plug into micro-USB ports on smart phones. These phone attachments retail at $250 each, and I asked both Flir and Seek to send me a camera to review here on CleanTechnica.
The opportunity to create energy and money-saving improvements to a home through better insulation is one of the best “bang for the buck” initiatives available in our fight against climate change. Proper insulation of a home or small business can yield considerable savings of money and energy while improving the user environment for a more comfortable feel.
Insulation is like a blanket for buildings. However, if that blanket gets thin, worn, or develops a hole, all the heat the blanket is supposed to keep in seeps out. Insulation, especially poorly applied insulation, can similarly wear out over time, causing buildings to leak heat (or coolness in the summer) that can drive heating and cooling bills through the roof (pardon the pun…most insulation leaks are, in fact, in the roof…).
Spotting an insulation leak with thermal imaging technology is now much more affordable for a lot more people, thanks to the development of smart phone compatible cameras and software.
First I tested the Seek Thermal camera. This simple device comes in a very handy protective case with a keyring to help it from disappearing to the bottom of your toolbox. It’s simple, intuitive and effective.
The camera itself uses 32,000 thermal pixels, according to the manufacturer, and allows vision in complete darkness. It claims that an object can be detected at 1,000 feet away. The free downloadable app that accompanies the Seek Thermal camera also has the capability to add a laser thermometer reading:
Goods: Simple, effective. There is no need to charge the device, as it simply draws power from the phone while in operation. The app is simple to use, and provides enough options for most DIYers to gain considerable knowledge of their environment.
Not so goods: Image quality is subpar, which might be important in professional uses. This is exceptionally minor, but the micro-USB plug is also too short for my phone’s protective case. So I have to remove the case every time I want to use the camera. One additional challenge I faced is in the sharing feature. The app doesn’t allow you to send several images at once through your phone’s mail server, but rather requires one-at-a-time emails. It is possible that this feature is there, but if so, it’s not intuitive.
The Flir One camera is actually two cameras. One is the thermal imager, and the other is a digital overlay camera, an innovation Flir uses to improve the picture quality of the resulting images. It’s very effective, as the Flir One takes terrific photos. Like the Seek, it also has a laser thermometer which is accurate when tested against a regular laser thermometer.
In addition, the Flir One has a couple of other wiz-bang features. One is a time lapse photo setting, which you can program to your desired criteria (taking a thermal photo every 3 seconds or every 3 minutes). These then get saved onto the device as a movie image, which, if you have a tripod or other stabilizing device (I don’t), I imagine would produce some really neat videos. Imagine an exercise video of someone on a treadmill that can show them how much they’re heating up, which muscle groups get active during which parts of the run, etc. For insulation purposes, this feature might also help to show what happens during a cooling cycle on your A/C next to a particular window, or show air leaks in ductwork. There’s a video feature as well.
Goods: The imaging is the Flir’s superpower. It is hands-down a better option for resolution. This provides a tremendous advantage for diagnosing thermal leakages around the house. The video, panorama, and time lapse features I can imagine would be very helpful for many applications.
Not so goods: The device needs to be charged up before use. Its operating system in the camera is glitchy. I had to send the first product back to the manufacturer because even after 12 hours of charging, it would power on and then immediately turn itself off. The second one they sent had similar issues but stayed on for a little while longer. There might be a power saving setting on the device somewhere, but it was not intuitive to find, if so. You plug in the device and the app doesn’t recognize that it’s there, and simply tells you to plug in the device. The on button will blink several times and then just go off. Even when you think the app and the device have recognized each other, it still manages to turn itself off. A popup window will say “Open FlirOne [the app] when this USB device is connected?” and you say OK, but then the app will just close.
Images and Interpretations
Flir’s imaging is superior.
Notice that in the bottom photo (the electronics behind my entertainment center), the Seek shows only mild blurry heat sources, whereas the Flir shows very distinctly that, despite my antenna being on a smart strip, it is clearly still sucking power and creating heat.
This post was made possible by the donation of a Flir One Thermal imaging camera and a Seek Thermal imaging camera to our staff. No financial compensation was made by any party beyond the hardware of the two cameras.