Can Thermal Cameras See through Walls?
No. No thermal camera can see through a wall or any solid object. The common misconception is that thermal camera can see heat and nothing else therefore if there is a heat source behind a wall or solid object it should pick up the heat. Fortunately, this isn’t the case as only the heat on the surface is what any thermal camera picks up. Still confused? Not to worry, we’ll do in depth about this topic and we will start with a little history.
The History of Thermal Camera
Let’s face it, a thermal camera is a league of its own - outclassing even the most sophisticated of cameras in more ways than one. Ever since its inception, its initial use in the U.S. military (e.g., Korean War) and its late adoption in firefighting in 20th-century America, the thermal imaging device has without a doubt produced groundbreaking results - eclipsing any point-and-shoot camera on the planet in revealing the unseen.
The Evolution of the Thermal Camera: Through Thick and Thin
Thanks to astronomer Sir William Herschel (1738-1822), infrared was discovered. Using a thermometer, Herschel, the astronomer whose claim to fame incidentally is his discovery of the planet Uranus, stumbled upon a dark region beyond the red end of the color spectrum produced by sunlight in his prism experiment, a replication of the testing done by Isaac Newton. To his surprise, the region under study was not only hotter than the rest but was also invisible to the naked eye.
Of course, we now call that spectrum as the electromagnetic spectrum and we know that in that spectrum, temperature readings increase s the color changes from violet end of the spectrum to the red end. Today, the thermal camera stands unchallenged as the foremost device to measure the presence of infrared light - aptly called ‘thermal energy’ - in various degrees. Seeing the immense benefits, it did not taking long for the military to quickly pounce on infrared technology.
A century or so later since Herschel’s experiment, thermal imaging was actively used in modern warfare - to gain a distinct advantage over the enemy. Some key milestones:
In 1929, an infrared-sensitive electronic television camera was used as part and parcel of the British anti-aircraft defense system. Years later, not to be outdone, American soldiers made the most out of thermal imaging cameras during the Korean War (1950-1953).
Steadily, infrared imaging technology was getting lighter with the ultimate goal of being able to use it on the move. Just about anywhere. And with thermal camera’s supreme ability to detect heat and all its intensity even with all the smoke, it was just a matter of time for the device to fall into the hands of firefighters in the American mainland. For their part, the American Society of Non-Destructive Testing soon developed teaching standards for thermal imaging courses starting in 1992. Eventually, by 2006 prices of thermal cams fell through allowing home inspectors - amongst them HVAC and electrical experts - to use them professionally.
How does thermal imaging camera work?
Thermal imaging camera, also known as a thermal camera and also known as an infrared camera or IR camera, renders infrared radiation as visible light. In short, these powerful devices detect heat. Specifically, they detect heat as it bounces off an object. Therefore any thermal energy behind a wall is thus bounced back from that side and not through the wall, but in some cases thermal cameras can see heat on a wall where the source is on the other side.
Lets go over in detail what a thermal camera can or cannot see through.
In areas where there is an absence of light thermal cameras can operate just as well as if it was in normal lighting conditions as it doesn’t require any visible light to function. This is the fundamental reason why security and police force across the world were quick to adopt this technology. Standard surveillance cameras don’t operate well in the dark and criminals are quick to hide in dark dense locations. A thermal camera will have no problem picking up any part of a human body not blocked by a dense solid material.
Fog or smoke
In both thick heavy fog and smoke a thermal camera is able to pierce through it and get a reading on the thermal radiation that might occur past or in it. This is because commercially-available thermal cameras operate on two fronts: Long-wave infrared (LWIR) and Mid-wave infrared (MWIR). We’re talking about 3µm to 14µm wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum. MWIR spectrum is at 3 to 5μm in wavelength while LWIR is at 8 to 14μm in wavelength. And, if not all, objects on the planet emit their heat in these ranges.
The hotter an object gets, the more it puts out electromagnetic radiation or EM. However, the smoke and fog particles are significantly smaller than the wavelength of infrared and therefore does not block their radiation. Read can read more about how fire fighters use thermal cameras here
A Solid Wall
As explained at the start of this blog, thermal cameras of any kind cannot see through a thick solid and well insulated wall. Now, emphasis on thick and insulated. Why? That’s because in several different situation a thermal camera will see like its can detect thermal radiation through a wall.
If a there is a cold or hot heat source on one side of the wall and it is strong enough to change a part of the walls temperature, this can be picked up. For example, you are looking at the ceiling of your kitchen which happens to be located underneath your bathroom. You don’t notice anything out the ordinary when looking at it with your naked eye but through a thermal camera you may notice a patch that's colder than the rest. The reason? You have a small barely detectable leak from your bathroom and its slowly collecting up but isn’t in sufficient quantity to cause any real damage, and its cold water that's leaking. The water is soaking into the ceiling and causing its temperature to be lower than the rest of the leak free ceiling therefore it is showing up on the thermal camera.
You can think of it this way, if you were to place your hand on a wall or other types of solid object and you can feel heat or cold from a source from the other side then a thermal camera is showing exactly what you are feeling but it can do it so much better.
Now, thick walls or well insulated walls do not conduct heat and therefore would likely block out any heat sources completely, which is normally the primary purpose for insulation. It gets a little but more tricky with some metal surfaces and glass. With shiny and smooth metal surfaces it will end up acting like a mirror and reflect the heat
Why you need a thermal camera to see through walls
You might be wondering now that if its a simple as seeing the heat is the same as using my hand then why would I need to spend money on this device? You’re not wrong in this way of thinking but consider my leak analogy. How often do you touch your ceiling or walls to check for temperature changes? Even then when the damage is quite small at the beginning the small variation in temperature may be so small you wouldn’t notice.
This is where the thermal camera truly shines. It is so sensitive that small temperature changes will be as clear as day through it. Locating leaks and abnormal temperature early on is critical in saving systems and preventing further damage.
Furthermore, suppose you had an inkling of a leak happening, where would you begin to open up the boards or punching a hole through a wall to find overheating electrical components? The thermal camera will point you in the right direction and save you time and money.
Checking for Thermal behind Walls, Floors or Ceilings
As mentioned above, it's not possible for any thermal camera to see through any solid object. So how it works is that there is an object or substance that is causing temperature variance on the wall, floor or ceiling.
To check this; a wall, floor or ceiling has a uniform temperature which means that under normal circumstances the temperature is the same across the whole surface.
However, if you suspect poor insulation or wish to detect pipes behind the wall, this is possible.
Let's assume you have the heating on inside a room and its freezing cold outside. if there are holes in your insulation it will show up in blue spots on the screen compared to the rest of the surface. A well-insulated house will have uniform temperature across windows, doors, and walls throughout the day.
Thermal cameras focus on the infrared heat energy and converts it into colors that represent the different level of heat on the thermal images. Brighter colors such as red, orange or yellow represent warmer temperatures while darker colors like purple, blue or black indicate colder temperatures. From the image above, you can see that the television and the sofa are warmer compared to other objects. You can also see that parts of the wall are cooler than others and this is how it can detect what's happening behind a solid object, in this case, a wall.
By looking at the infrared image of the surroundings of the house, inspectors can tell whether insulation is needed or not by checking for things such as heat loss or air leakages. Other factors to be considered would be weather conditions or the shape of the home. To check if there are any gaps in the walls, inspectors would usually perform a test called blower door test, which would be done to check which exact spots causes the air leakages so that the necessary action can be taken.
An Infrared image of the wall will visibly show the drywall screws because of the difference in temperature between the drywall and screws. The same can be seen for the studs since wood releases heat at the different rate than metal screws and drywall. The temperature range can be adjusted depending on which part you would like to see more details of, whether it be the screws or the studs.
To have a well insulated home, inspections such as energy loss, HVAC, moisture, roof leaks and plumbing leaks should be inspected in addition to just inspecting the heat radiation behind walls. Thermal images can also see the differences in temperatures caused by insects, mold and moisture. With a good understanding of thermal imaging and the help of a knowledgeable inspector, any insulation problems can be quickly solved.
Detecting Radiant Heat
Radiant Heating is is commonly used system in many places, including residential homes or commercial/office buildings. They are mostly used in buildings with many floor and are used most often during the colder seasons. These hot water supply pipes are not visible to the eye as they are located beneath the floor, which makes it easy to be ignored or forgotten. It is very important to keep an eye out for it and should be monitored on a regular basis, i.e. at least once a year. Thermal cameras can be used to monitor the situation to make sure the pipes are working properly and efficiently locate if or where the radiant heat leakages exist.
If a radiant heat leakage is present, it can use up a lot of energy and cause major property damage if it is not repaired in time. It can take up a long period of time and a lot of money to identify the exact location of a leaking hot water pipe and it is quite the physical process of tearing up or breaking up big areas of the flooring in order to locate the exact location of a leaking hot water supply pipe if not identified early. The more time it took to locate the leaking pipe, the more costly and difficult it would be to settle and repair the damages caused.
After detecting problems such as leakages, it is important to take action to fix the issue immediately. This can reduce and prevents further damage which would save you time and money.
Detect Moisture with Thermal Camera
By identifying the variance in temperature between a wet area and the surrounding dry areas thermal imaging can help locate moisture issues that would not be visible during a limited visual home inspection. Moisture is nigh impossible to spot with the naked eye. You don't know its there until its too late and the room is moldy and products contaminated. Thermal Cameras do a great job in helping inspectors or site operators to inspect critical locations and check for moisture, before its too late.
To do this; simply scan locations prone to moisture exposure with the thermal camera and check if the heat is uniform. Places with moisture will show up colder to the surrounding area as the water draws away the heat. This can be picked up with a thermal camera or imager enabling preventative actions to tackle the issue.
So can It Let You See Through Walls?
That is the one-million-dollar question. And the answer will get right back at us by looking at infrared’s unique characteristics. Looking into how infrared light behaves is paramount to unlocking the capabilities of thermography.
First up. When we use the language ‘see’, we are referring to the capacity of our eyes to view the world we live in. The mountains, the leaves, etc. We love old-school cameras as they give us an exact - if not better - rendering of the world around us. A world dependent on light to be seen.
But a thermal camera does not work that way. It does not see as our eyes can see. Instead, it detects heat around it - individualized as heat signatures. So when looking at a thermograph, the picture produced by thermal imaging, you see colors representing various thermal energy in its environment.
What the thermal camera see therefore is not how an ordinary camera would see. In its world, objects are defined by how much heat energy it is emitting. Thus, it can only register thermal energy bouncing off an object in front of it.
So when scanning a wall, a thermal cam detects the heat bouncing off that wall. The surface temperature changes of the perpendicular barrier so to speak. So if something so hot, like fire, is behind that wall, the heat of that fire will register on that wall. And the thermal camera will see it. The heat caused by that proverbial fire would be seen on the resulting thermograph.
Strictly speaking, infrared is capable only of detecting the heat signatures of the surfaces in front of it. So the answer to that layman’s question is a resounding NO. That’s only because the question is posited from the POV (point of view) of seeing as humans would. From the perspective of the thermal camera, however, we can say it can see through walls. And the answer is YES. That’s because it can detect heat behind the wall that’s affecting the wall. Again, this is in reference to the fact that heat is the language of thermography. And not the beautiful sceneries we look for in a traditional picture.