Inexpensive Thermal Imager

Started by EBuff75, January 18, 2023, 06:00:32 PM

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For years I've been fascinated by FLIR cameras, but obviously put off by the huge cost.  Well, last week in our CERT meeting we started talking about technology which could be used for search and rescue.  One of the members mentioned that they use small FLIR cameras that plug into smart phones and that they work pretty well and aren't hugely expensive.

I'd seen them online before, but started checking them out.  The actual FLIR branded cameras were around $300, but I found a competitor by TopDon (the TopDon TC View TC001)  that was on sale.  Not only was it cheaper, but the actual imager in it has 3x the resolution (256x192 rather than 80x60) of the FLIR.  So I went ahead and bought it.  Since I'm not a huge fan of just holding my phone up all the time, I also bought a smartphone grip (which turned out to be a really good idea).

It comes with a nice case, a USB-C (with USB-A adapter) cable, lens wipe, and some instructions that are completely worthless.  Fortunately, once you install the app, the full instruction manual is included.  Unfortunately, my phone case is a bit too thick to leave it on during use, but I've ordered some USB-C extenders which should let me leave it on.

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The app is decent.  There are a number of different color scales that you can pick from and there is some adjustment for the temperature range.  I'm still trying to figure out if I can lock the top/bottom of the color scale so that it won't change what colors mean what when you aim the camera somewhere else, but no luck thus far.  Here's what it looks like with the thermal imager on my phone and the grip attached.

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Outside of my house.  It was about 45F outside when I took this.

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And a lamp in my office

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There is no upper limit on the distance at which the imager will work, unlike some which have a specific focal length.  To use the phone in landscape mode you must manually rotate the image in the software.  This is because you can also just use a long USB cord if you needed to get the camera inside somewhere and manual adjustment gives you the ability to manipulate it as needed.  It can overlay an image from the phone's camera, but won't rotate it to fit, so the only way they will match up is if you're using the phone in portrait mode.

I've already discovered that the windows on my house are about as bad as I thought they were.  Surprisingly, the insulation in the attic wasn't as bad as I thought.  But the rim joists in the basement could definitely use some insulation.  A friend has just bought a house and I've already suggested that we could do a walk-through of it before he moves his stuff in, just to check for any leaks or other issues.  While I didn't find any outlets which have issues in them, I am planning to check some of the wiring to see if there are any overheating issues.

So far I'm quite pleased with it.  The idea was to be able to use it for stuff around the house, but also that I could bring it along if our CERT was ever called out for search and rescue (at least in colder weather, as it might not help much in warmer months).
Information - it's all a battle for information. You have to know what's happening if you're going to do anything about it. - Tom Clancy, Patriot Games


A few more photos.  Since I bought it with the partial intent to use it for S&R, here are a few pictures that I got this evening.  By this time the temps had dropped to around 40F. 

One of my neighbors bringing in his trash cans.  Notice that the cans are basically invisible, since they're the same temp as everything else outside.  The distance here is about 80ft from where I'm standing.

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Another neighbor walking toward her car.  This is at about 180ft distance.

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And finally, a picture of the back of my house.  You can see the warmer windows (where heat is leaking through) as well as the band of warmer temperatures right at the base of the house.  This is the rim joist that needs to be insulated.  The gap in the heat is because that part of the rim joist is blocked by the air return, which is acting like insulation.

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Ooooo!  Spooky!  (hand print on the wall) 

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Information - it's all a battle for information. You have to know what's happening if you're going to do anything about it. - Tom Clancy, Patriot Games


I spent several hours this past weekend scanning every inch of the walls/ceilings in my house with the camera.  The takeaways were:

  • The windows suck (I already knew this, but it just confirmed how bad they are)
  • The seals around the doors suck (ditto the above)
  • There are a few spots where insulation is missing - this was a surprise, but fortunately, the worst area (part of the stairway wall/ceiling) is easy to get to and should be a quick fix
  • The insulation in the angled ceilings on the 2nd floor isn't very good (yep, knew this too)
  • Insulation needed on the rim joist in the basement (knew this too)
  • Tons of heat goes right up the chimney from the furnace - intuitively, I knew that this was the case (it's an old furnace), but I hadn't realized how much heat goes out that way. 
  • Insulation in my kitchen is terrible (already knew this, because of how cold the cabinets get)

  • The walls on the first floor were better than expected, particularly given the crap insulation in them (some old stuff called "InsulCotton" that dates back to the original construction in 1950; I found some info years back that said it was only about R-2)
  • No electrical issues spotted!  No overheating outlets, wires, or anything in the electrical box.  I did some load testing in the kitchen (which has some aluminum wiring) and even running the toaster didn't cause any significant heating in the wires, at least not that the imager could spot through the walls.
  • No leaks spotted in my ductwork.  It all gets pretty hot when the furnace is running, but nothing seemed out of place.
  • No non-air cold spots, i.e. no water leaks
  • No indication of critters anywhere (not that I was expecting any)

Here's part of the angled ceiling in my office.  Hot spots are the light (both at my desk and on ceiling) and the TV/monitor.
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Missing insulation in my stairway wall and poor insulation on ceiling.  This part of the stairway wall/ceiling passes through the attic and kneewall space, which makes it easy to get to and fix.  The hot spot at the lower left is where the heating duct for my office comes up through the wall.
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The reverse side of that wall, as seen from the attic.  In this case, the attic is cold, so the wall without insulation shows up as hot, relative to its surroundings.
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Information - it's all a battle for information. You have to know what's happening if you're going to do anything about it. - Tom Clancy, Patriot Games


A great article. 

I have been waiting for something like this. I knew the cost of FLIR was coming down and harnessing  the technology of a smartphone for viewing is very sensible. 
Folks you are on your own...Plan and act accordingly!

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