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As recently as a decade ago, infrared imaging cameras were not a viable purchase option for maintenance and engineering managers. Large, unwieldy, and costly, older cameras typically needed carts for transport, required liquid nitrogen to cool the sensors, and carried a price tag of well over $50,000.
Times have changed. Today, infrared imagers are hand-held, easy-to-use, and priced as a realistic option to help front-line technicians detect issues inside their institutional and commercial facilities. Infrared-imaging technology can give in-house technicians the power to detect small problems with facility systems and components before they become large — and more expensive — headaches.
"An infrared camera was an item that was purchased and then locked up," says Gary Lux with Palmer Wahl Instrumentation Group. "People did not have ready access to it in the plant. That's changing now."
Prices tumble, quality rises
The look, feel and accessibility of thermal imaging cameras has changed dramatically in the last decade or so. But according to many manufacturers, the technology itself remains much the same.
"There have been small advances, and people are always looking for newer technologies with the primary goals being to drive price down," says Zach Haas of Milwaukee Tool Corp. "But how those sensors measure infrared energy and then use that to put together and display two-dimensional infrared images that somebody can use to troubleshoot a system, that really hasn't changed."
Imaging cameras once were considered a significant investment, but the prices have dropped to where many now cost less than $10,000 and, in some instances, around $1,000.
As the cost of cameras has dropped, however, the quality of the product has actually increased. The devices now allow users to blend images and do quick on-site analysis, as well as receive multiple temperature measurements all at once. Additional features, such as extra laser pointers and lights, also aid in the more precise recording of images. Specialized software also enables users to more quickly create reports and store them for future use or analysis.
Such improvements mean infrared imagers have found their way into the hands of more technicians in maintenance departments across the country.
"The major advances are in size and weight and by far the resolution capability to provide great detail in thermal imaging now," Lux says. "The associated reduction in cost has brought hand-held thermal imagers into a reasonable-type budget item."
Imagers once were only used by select people inside a department and often rented and not purchased. As the imagers became easier to use, more technicians are using the product.
"Thermal imagers used to be a real scientific tool that required a lot of training and a lot of background in the field to know how to capture an image," Haas says. "Now, not only is it easy to use. You can pretty much pull it out of the box, throw in a battery and start capturing images right away."
Putting Infrared Technology to Work