Home inspectors are known for using all manner of tools and nifty gadgets. I myself have a few. Tools are a great addition to your main arsenal of tools, your five senses. Most everyone is blessed with these basic senses and they are fantastic for doing most anything we need to accomplish. But sometimes we need to supplement or aid our natural gifts. That's where tools and gadgets come in. They can enhance our ability to perform a job but with one stipulation; they must be understood and used correctly.
As a home inspector I see the results of poor tool use constantly. When I see inferior workmanship I often say, "That guy should have his hammer taken away".
But what about bad tool use by the home inspector? Misinterpreting information derived from tools such as infrared cameras, CO and moisture meters can be just as problematic as contractor deficiencies. Just as anyone can buy a power drill the same is true of an infrared camera or anemometer.
The newest tool in the home inspector arsenal is no doubt the infrared camera. Infrared cameras are by no means new technology having been around for about 50 years. Up until rather recently they have not been practical for inspection work mostly due to cost and size. The issue with these devices is they require a fair degree of training and experience in order to operate them in a manner that will yield usable information. Further that information needs to be correctly interpreted.
In the example at the right are two infrared images of a common dimmer switch found in many homes. Both these images show the switch to be "hot". But only one of these switches should be shut off immediately and a call made to an electrician.
Which switch is the bad switch? The top or first image is cause for concern. Looking at the temperature scale along the right side shows that the range peaks at just over a 150 º F. meaning that the white areas in the image are around that temperature. The other switch is about 115 º F very warm which is expected with a dimmer, but not dangerously hot.
What this illustrates is that identical images can both appear to be serious problems, but in fact one or maybe both components are fine. The camera alerts the inspector to a potential problem, but other tools need to be used (including the five senses) to gather more information to make an informed recommendation.
With the two switches it was determined that the bottom switches circuit was well below the rated maximum while the top switch was above its maximum.
Yet there are instances where infrared cameras are used and red flags raised without further quantification. Many images found on the internet proclaim "serious issue" with for instance a wall or wire when in fact to a trained eye no problem would seem to exist. It then becomes apparent that not only must the thermographer understand his instrument, but also the object at which it is pointed. Without knowledge of electrical a switch may be misdiagnosed as in need of repair or a wall said to be missing insulation when in fact the image is showing solid wood framing.
Thus the most vital instrument becomes one not found in a store, but between the inspectors' ears.
JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC
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