Technology@Work: Infrared Imaging
By Dan Hounsell - March 2005 - Equipment Rental & Tools
$5.6 million. That is the estimated savings George Horn generated for his employer, ChevronTexaco, by applying infrared thermography technology to the company’s headquarters and research and development facilities.
Several years ago, company executives wanted to replace the roofs on all 14 buildings at the company’s headquarters campus in San Ramon, Calif. Horn, superintendent of operations and maintenance for ChevronTexaco Real Estate Management, argued that the roofs were in satisfactory shape and performing well.
“I was adamant that they didn’t need to be replaced," he says. “But (company executives) wanted to rush right out and replace the roofs.”
To make his case to insistent executives, Horn asked a contractor that had performed infrared surveys for the company to survey the roofs to determine whether leaks had damaged any roofing system materials. The results?
“Their findings backed up my story,” he says. As a result, the company avoided investing unnecessarily — and heavily — in new roofs.
Other maintenance and engineering managers might not be able to generate such savings for their organizations using infrared technology. Nonetheless, growing experience suggests that infrared technology has become an increasingly powerful tool for troubleshooting a range of problems in facility systems, equipment and components.
Infrared technology options available 10 years ago are much different than those of today. Sam Holder, a consultant to ChevronTexaco on infrared thermography, says the first unit he used in 1994 required him to carry a cooling unit into the field to prevent overheating.
As with all technology, advances in infrared technology have produced units that are smaller, lighter and easier to use. The units have evolved from handheld, spot digital temperature measurement into real-time, non-contact units that create area temperature profiles using a thermal imaging camera.
More often today, the infrared camera links to a computer that scans equipment and building components during normal operation. In a fraction of a second, the unit produces a heat pattern that reveals areas in which heat is concentrated, as well as the corresponding temperature ranges.
The computer then shows a normal operating heat profile, along with that for the on-site equipment to help managers and technicians identify changes and severity, as well as to diagnose the probable cause and determine corrective action.
Newer models also can produce digital photos of suspect areas.
Applications for the technology have evolved in response to user needs. Organizations traditionally have used infrared thermography on electrical distribution systems. More often, however, companies such as ChevronTexaco also use them to monitor heat levels and patterns for components such as motors, fans and piping.
Building-envelope applications also have evolved, moving beyond the rooftop. For example, in response to rising fuel costs, managers increasingly are directing technicians to use infrared imagers on windows, doors and walls to identify heat loss through these components to the outside.
Coming of Age
Horn initially became familiar with infrared technology working for the U.S. General Services Administration in the late 1980s.
“I took the idea with me to San Francisco, where I managed buildings,” he says. Unfortunately, Horn’s ideas on the emerging technology’s benefits for the facilities didn’t receive a warm welcome among his new employers.
“Building owners are different than government or corporations,” he says, adding that owners “usually are about 20 years behind in technology. Government is doing things that private owners never dreamed of.”
Horn arrived at ChevronTexaco in 1999 and expanded the use of infrared technology to troubleshoot equipment. Prior to that, technicians used infrared-imaging systems only sparingly.
“At that point, the company was using infrared on electrical distribution systems looking for hot spots,” Holder says.
Adds Horn, “They already had been doing electrical testing, but I wanted to see if it could be used on other equipment,” including ballasts, drive motors, and pump motors. Horn’s ultimate goal was to fully incorporate infrared technology into a PM program.
Early in the effort, Horn equipped technicians with small, handheld units that recorded surface temperature and produced numerical readings.
Setting and Achieving Goals
The challenge of effectively using infrared imaging as part of a PM program faced a number of hurdles.
One major challenge for the department in structuring PM to effectively apply infrared technology is the nature of the company’s 14 buildings — all of which are four or fewer stories — that contain about 1.5 million square feet. Unlike a single, multi-story commercial office building with the same amount of space, Horn says, the presence of multiple buildings means technicians must test each building’s machinery and distribution systems, such as pumps, boilers, fans and transformer equipment.
The company’s use of infrared imaging systems has remained largely steady in recent years, growing primarily to encompass additional systems and equipment, such as cogeneration systems and aboveground chilled-water piping.
A second challenge was deciding whether to purchase equipment or contract out the work. To date, the company has opted to use a third party. Horn attributes the decision to two factors.
First, the organization aims to keep in-house staff focused on the highest-priority tasks. Since the department uses infrared imaging only every four years on critical systems and six years on non-critical systems, purchasing the required equipment wouldn't be cost-effective, Horn says.
Second, the complex nature of the work requires that equipment operators use it regularly to retain their skills, something that wouldn’t happen if in-house personnel performed the tasks only every four or six years.
“To become good at it, you have to do it all the time,” Holder says.
In light of these challenges, managers in the market for infrared equipment — especially more advanced models that produce both infrared images and digital photos — must pay attention to training. The same holds true in selecting a third party to perform the work. In either case, training is essential.
“Taking photos and interpreting the data are two different things,” Horn says. “Some people know how to take pictures, and some people know how to interpret data.”
Holder recalls that he went out into the field in 1994 with little, if any, training in proper use of the equipment. Only when he went through training two years later did he realize how little he knew about proper procedures.
“I didn't have a clue about the technology,” he says.
Today, though, Holder, Horn and ChevronTexaco all are much more savvy about the benefits and potential applications of infrared technology and the savings opportunities it can deliver to facilities.