Battling the elements and water leaks (and mold!), preventing heat loss, finding fire, and improving energy efficiency. These are just some of the reasons why thermal imaging can be an important tool for municipalities.

The cost for damage from a burst pipe averages more than $80,000 and can exceed $500,000 – reason enough to look into thermal imaging as a preventative measure.

Thermal imaging technology goes back to 1800, when Sir William Herschel discovered infrared radiation – or “dark heat,” as he called it – with a prism and a thermometer. Scientists continued to study infrared (or thermal imaging) over the next century, working toward practical technology and uses. The first infrared camera was invented in 1929, and thermal imaging was used in night vision applications during World War II.

Thermal imaging technology is now used in a variety of settings, including in health care (such as for breast cancer detection), in military combat for both airborne and on-the-ground targeting, by local police and fire departments in the line of duty – even for navigating icebergs in the Antarctic and in monitoring volcanic activity.

The first thermal imaging cameras were unwieldy, but today’s handheld versions are available for convenient everyday use. Options vary in cost from several hundred thousand dollars for the state-of-the-art system like the one used to locate the Boston Marathon bomber in the back of a boat in Watertown, to less than $1,000 for a handheld device widely used by local fire departments to see through smoke and detect hot spots within walls. Even more user-friendly, less expensive models are available to suit the needs of municipal facilities managers, custodial staff, and buildings personnel.

Practical applications
Thermal imaging (or infrared) cameras allow the user to see light and heat that is not visible to the naked eye. All objects emit light – not just lamps and computer screens. But the light emitted by most objects is not visible to us because of where it sits on the electromagnetic spectrum. Thermal imaging cameras can detect longer wavelengths in the spectrum, calculate the temperature of each object and area in the frame, and display these temperature differences in different colors. With a thermal imaging camera, a user can determine hotter and cooler spots within an area being examined, based on the color spectrum visible on screen.

In the municipal setting, this technology can be of use in several ways:

• Preventing water damage: One of the largest areas of loss seen across municipalities is related to water damage as a result of burst pipes due to freeze-ups in the wintertime. Because moisture is cooler than construction materials, a thermal imaging camera can be used to detect moisture behind walls – allowing for early detection of drips and leaks, thereby preventing costly damage and mold growth.

• Minimizing heat loss: As part of a winterization plan, facilities managers can use a thermal imaging device as they conduct building walk-throughs to check for areas of general heat loss. When a particularly drafty area of a building or a school classroom is located – such as a section that isn’t as well insulated as others – alternative, portable heat sources could be set up during a cold snap and during building closure times in order to prevent pipe freeze-ups.

• Securing the building envelope: Thermal imaging can be used to check the overall security of the building envelope by checking for any heat or cooling loss on roofs. When areas of heat or cooling loss (in cases where buildings are air conditioned) are detected, facilities staff can check for poor insulation and make preventative repairs.

• Fire prevention: Thermal imaging technology can help facilities personnel locate hot spots that could become a potential fire hazard. For example, a handheld device can be used to scan electrical panels and check for loose wiring. With thermography, a faulty connection would appear hotter than other areas and could indicate a potential fire hazard, in which case a professional electrician could be called in for further inspection.

MIIA recommends regular safety checks of municipal buildings, including roof and electrical inspections. Thermal imaging can be a helpful tool for conducting these inspections and for gathering data that can help in developing maintenance plans and preventing potentially costly building damage. Now that smaller, more affordable units are available – and just one pipe freeze-up can cause several thousand dollars’ worth of damage – the return on investment can be quite high.

Stephen Batchelder is the Risk Management Director at MIIA.