Thermal Camera Examples and Lessons Learned (so far)

Thermal (IR) cameras have been coming down in price over the past few years, and just recently took another pretty good dip -- this last drop was enough to make me take the plunge and buy one.   The camera I bought is made by FLIR.  FLIR now offers entry level thermal cameras in its I series.  The entry level I3 goes for $1200, and the I7 that I bought is $2000.  The main difference in the I series camera models is the resolution -- the I3 is 60 by 60 and the I7 is 120 by 120.  This may seem like pitiful resolution compared to regular digital cameras that well up over 3000 by 2000 resolution, but even 60 by 60 resolution is like being able to place 3600 thermocouples on the object you are studying -- its pretty impressive and will tell you things that are very hard to  learn any other way.  FLIR I3 thermal imager


My guess is that thermal cameras are likely fall significantly more in price.  I think they are in the process of going from a tool used by a few specialist to a much more general use instrument that will be find its way into a lot of tool boxes.  One of the FLIR docs mentions that the TOTAL sales to date of their IR cameras is only about 40,000 cameras -- practically nothing compared to the number of people who could make good use of these cameras.

This page goes over some first impressions, some surprises, some potential uses, some basics on using an IR camera, and a few sample pictures.  Some IR camera references are also listed.  This may help you decide if there is a thermal camera in your future. 

I need to mention that I have only had the camera for a couple months, and I'm still learning.   And, I've not even started to look at some of the major application areas I have in mind -- like a detailed examination of my house for heat leaks.

What A Thermal Camera Does

A thermal camera measures IR (heat) radiation from objects in its field of view.   A camera like mine with 120 by 120 resolution takes 120*120 = 14400 IR radiation readings over its field of view.   The software in the camera uses the IR radiation levels and your estimate of the emissivity of the surface of the object and a few other things to estimate the surface temperatures of the object.  The camera software then maps the temperatures into a color range for display.  In the picture below, hotter temps are shown in a whitish yellow-orange and cooler temps in dark blues. 

Software that comes with the camera can be used to refine the images, change the thermal range that is shown, show actual temperatures at any point, and export the estimated temperatures for all or part of the image to an external file that is spreadsheet compatible for further analysis.

Sample thermal image
Kristy the dog.

Some important things to note about thermal imaging cameras.

Some Example Pictures

Below are a few interesting (at least to me) thermal image examples.

Radiant floor heat spreader plates

I used these heat spreader plates in my radiant floor heating system:

radiant floor heat spreader plates
Spreader plates being installed -- a wood finished floor goes over these plates.

The heat spreader plates are supposed to increase the effectiveness of the radiant floor heating tubes by conducting heat from the tubes out over much wider area.  This is supposed to both increase efficiency by reducing the water temperature for a given heat output and to reduce the variation in temperature over the floor, avoiding hot spots.

thermal image of heat spreader
Floor with the heat spreader plates.
radiant floor thermal image
Two tubes in a floor section without the
spreader plates.

While you can delve into it further with the camera software, its pretty clear from the picture that the heat spreader plates are resulting in a much wider area of pretty uniform high temperatures.

Note that while the picture makes it look like you are looking through floor to the spread plate below the flooring, what you are actually seeing is the surface temperatures on the top of the finished floor which are warmer because of the hot spreader plate below the floor.  This is generally the case -- the IR camera normally sees the temperatures of the nearest surface in front of the camera -- when it looks like you are seeing through the first surface to something behind (for example a cold pipe inside a wall) what you are really seeing is the cooling or warming effect of the hidden object on the temperatures of the first surface.  The exception to this would be if the first surface is transparent to IR -- for example polyethylene film. 

Thermal Physics of the Stuff Around Us

One of the interesting things about the thermal camera is that it seeing images of everyday things in temperatures really makes you think about what's going on to cause those  temperatures.

The water storage tank below shows one simple example.  The top part of the tank in the sun has little mass and warms up quickly while the bottom half filled with water changes temperature very slowly.  What would the picture look like if you took it early on a cold morning before the sun was on the tank?

Thermal image of propane tank
Thermal image of  our new 2200 gallon gallon rain water collection tank. 
Very easy to see the level of the water in the tank.
rainwater collection tank
The rainwater collection tank.

I'm not suggesting its worth buying a thermal imaging camera for measuring liquid levels in tanks, but its interesting to see the different view of the world you get when you look at it in temperatures rather than visible light.

These cameras would make great tools for school Physics classes.

Solar Collectors

Solar collector thermal imageThe main reason I got the camera was to try to get a better idea what the is going on in some of the solar collector designs I'm looking at.  Its hard to see what might improve a collector if you can't figure out what the flow and temperatures are really like in the design you are starting with.

The picture to the right shows a thermal image of my shop solar air heating collector with the sun shining on it.  You might expect the collector to be hotter than the surrounding wall, but its actually quite a bit cooler -- why?

The wall next to the collector is hot (roughly 100F) because even though the siding is a fairly light color its solar absorptivity is pretty high.  So, a lot of the sunlight is absorbed by the wall and heats it up.  Inside the collector, the absorber is likely even hotter than the wall because its quite absorbent, but the camera does not see the absorber, it sees the temperatures of the surface of the collector glazing.  The collector glazing is cool because it lets nearly all of the solar energy through to the absorber.  So, the glazing runs at a temperature that is more influenced by the contact with the outside air and the heat it picks up from the absorber and the air inside the collector.

Note that the glazing does get warmer as you go up the collector --this is likely due to the collector absorber being warmer near the top and transferring more heat to the glazing.  

One of the marks of a good solar collector is that the glazing runs fairly cool -- hot glazing means that the lots of heat that should be going to the room is instead being lost out the glazing to the outside air.  So, this relatively cool glazing is a good thing.



The picture to the right is a thermal image of a backpass solar air heating collector I made to compare to other collector designs.  The two actual pictures below show the inside and outside of the collector.

In this type of collector, the sun shines on the front of the metal absorber plate and heat is.  Air flows only behind the metal plate and picks up heat from the plate. 

To try to get an even flow of air over the full absorber, internal baffles are used to make the air flow down the collector from the inlet on the top left along a back and forth curved path to the outlet on the bottom right.

As can be seen from the image, the baffles have not been fully successful in getting even airflow over the full absorber surface.  There are hot spots on the absorber that indicate dead air pockets that are not getting enough air circulation to remove the heat from the absorber.  This is bad in that these hot sections of absorber lose a lot of heat out the front of the collector.

To me, this is one of the areas where the IR camera really shines -- it would be very difficult to get this kind of picture of what is going on in the collector with any other technique I know of.

Note that this test has to be done with the collector glazing removed, or the thermal camera would just get the temperatures of the glazing and not the absorber.  Another alternative is to use polyethylene film for the glazing in that it is fairly transparent to IR radiation.

backpass collector
Prototype backpass collector

Backpass collector showing internal airflow baffles (black).
The metal absorber plate goes directly over these baffles.

Downspout Collector Test

downspout collector thermal imageThere has been an ongoing question on the Yahoo Simply Solar discussion group about how much solar heat gets transferred around to the back surface of the solar air heating collectors made from gutter downspouts. If a significant amount of solar heat gets transferred around to the back so that the back, front and sides of the downspout collector are all hot, then this increases the absorber to air heat transfer area, which is a major consideration on solar air heating collector.

In the downspout collector design, ordinary aluminum downspouts are laid side by side (or sometimes spaced apart a bit) to form the absorber. Sun shines on one side of the downspout heating it up. Air is forced through the downspouts and picks up heat from the hot downspout metal and delivers it to the house.

If you want to see what a downspout collector looks like -- there are a couple good examples on Scott's site...  And, here is the prototype full size downspout collector that I did...

One of the difficult design issues with solar air heating collectors is providing good heat transfer between the solar heated absorber and the air. Air is light in weight and low in heat capacity, so a lot of air needs to be passed through an air heating collector, and it has to be done in a way that puts a lot of the air in good thermal contact with the absorber. Downspouts are thought to have an advantage here in that they provide a large heat transfer area from absorber to air. But, this is only true if the solar heat gets transferred around the downspout sides and back. This test is aimed at finding out how well the downspout does in transferring heat around to the sides and back.

This little test used the thermal camera to take images of the front and back of the operating downspout collector to see how well the heat was transferred around to the back of the collector.  While a simple IR thermometer could be used to get a fairly good idea of temperatures around the downspout, the camera gives you a better view that is less subject to missing something.  All the details on the downspout solar collector test are here...

Material Emissivity

The thermal camera actually measures the IR radiation from the object and not the temperature.  To go from IR radiation to temperature, the camera needs to know the emissivity of the object.  Its up to you to estimate the emissivity of the object and to set the camera accordingly -- if you don't set the emissivity correctly, the temperatures the camera shows will be wrong. 

thermal image manifold thermal image of manifold
False temperature readings on manifold.

The thermal images above shown above are of my radiant floor manifold area where all of the floor heating loops originate (see actual photo below).

hydronic manifold

The emissivity on the camera is set 0.95 for these pictures.

The manifolds are made from brass and the pipes coming into the two manifolds are copper.  Copper actually has  an emissivity of anywhere from 0.05 (polished) up to about 0.8 (oxidized) -- so, the camera emissivity setting is way off for these bare pipes.

If you look at the thermal images of the two copper pipes coming into the manifold from the right you will see a bright spot in each.  The bright spot is a piece of painters tape wrapped around the pipe.  The emissivity of the tape is about 0.95, so the temperature reading on the tape is a true one.  The pipe right next to the tape is, of course, the same temperature as the tape, but shows a much lower temperature because the emissivity setting is not correct for the bare pipes.  The right picture is the same with temperature labels on the tape showing 126F and on the pipe near the tape showing 69F.  So, setting the wrong emissivity in this case results in a very large error in the temperature measurement on the pipes.

This is something that must be kept in mind all the time when using the thermal camera.   Luckily, many materials have an emissivity in the 0.9 to  0.95, and just setting this emissivity can bring good results on many scenes.  But, any kind of bare metal is likely to have a much different emissivity, and trying to read the temperatures of bare metals requires setting the emissivity correctly.  In many cases the emissivity of a bare metal will vary over a wide range depending on the surface condition of the metal -- it may not be possible to accurately measure the temperature of a lot of bare metal surfaces because you can't accurately estimate the emissivity of the surface.  Possible solutions in these cases are to put tape or paint of know emissivity on the surface, or to measure nearby surfaces that are at the same temperature and have a know emissivity.

Glass is another interesting material.  It is, of course, transparent to visible light, but in the IR, it has an emissivity of 0.97 and is essentially opaque in the IR.  So, if you take a thermal picture "through" a window your are actually "seeing" the surface temperature on the glass, and not objects on the other side of the window.

List of emissivity of materials: and


The Software

The software that FLIR provides with the camera is straight forward to use and includes a number of useful features.

You can adjust the temperature range for the image, chose from a variety of temperature to color schemes, adjust the emissivity used to calculate object temperatures, move a cursor around to read the actual temperatures at any point, add temperature labels to any point, and add notes or comments to document the images.

There are also some tools that can help with preparing reports for customers that I have not looked at.

thermal camera software
Screen shot for the FLIR camera software -- this is of a small prototype of the "downspout" solar air heating collector.


I'm not really qualified to review the FLIR I7 that I bought as its the first IR camera I have owned and I've no real basis for comparison, but, I'll pass on a few impressions.

The camera itself appears to be well made and fairly rugged.  It comes with a good case that holds the camera and charger etc.  and protects them well.  The mechanical design of the camera tends to protect both the lens and the display, and the lens has a nice built in shutter that can be closed when not taking pictures for further protection. 

The camera is very easy to use -- its basically like a very simple point and shoot digital camera.   Of course, as pointed out above, there are several ways to get images that result in inaccurate temperature readings, and its important to understand how the camera works and how to avoid the pitfalls.

An on display menu system is used to change the camera settings and it is generally straight forward to use.

Battery life is somewhat limited but certainly adequate once you know are aware of the issue.

The camera comes with a fairly extensive manual that covers both the operation of the camera and some material on how to use a thermal imaging camera.

The display is easy to read, but does tend to wash out in bright sun.  I've found this to be not so important in that the camera appears to save the raw radiation data, and everything can be fine tuned and optimized in the software.  That is, the software allows you to change emissivity, temperature range, color scheme, ...  so, its not so important to get them right on when taking the picture.

The warrantee is for 2 years, and I've not seen any complaints about FLIR not being good about honoring claims.  There is a website that provides some helpful material and there is a forum for FLIR camera owners.


A nice thermal imager list of applications with examples...

A good book to start with: Introduction to Thermography Principles, from Fluke and the Snell Group (available from Amazon etc.)

FLIR website...

FLIR manuals and datasheets...

Fluke thermal imagers...

Gary April 29, 2011