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MIIA is a Membership Service of the Massachusetts

Thermal Imaging Technology & Municipal Facilities

Published in News on by Stephen Batchelder, Director – Risk Management at MIIA

Battling the elements, water leaks (and mold!), preventing heat loss, finding fire, and improving energy efficiency. These are just some of the reasons why thermal imaging is an important tool for municipalities. At MIIA, the cost for damage from a burst pipe averages over $80,000 with the capacity to exceed $500,000 – reason enough to look into thermal imaging as a preventative measure.

Thermal imaging technology goes back to 1800 when Sir William Herschel discovered infrared radiation – or “dark heat,” as he called it – with a prism and a thermometer. Scientists continued to study infrared (or thermal imaging) over the next century, working more and more toward practical technology and uses. The first infrared camera was invented in 1929, and during the 1940s and WWII, thermal imaging was used by both Allied and Nazi forces in night vision applications.

Since then, thermal imaging has evolved to become much more mainstream and widespread. Today the technology is used in a variety of settings, including in medicine and health care (such as for breast cancer detection), in military combat for both airborne and on-the-ground targeting, by local police and fire departments in the line of duty – even for navigating icebergs and safer sea travel in the Antarctic, and in monitoring volcanic activity.

The very first thermal imaging cameras were large, unwieldy, and required calibration, but today small, handheld versions are available for convenient everyday use. The models available vary in cost – from several hundred thousand dollars for the state-of-the-art system used to locate the Boston bomber in the back of that boat in Watertown, to under $1,000 for the handheld devices that are widely used by local fire departments to see through smoke and detect hot spots within walls. Even more user friendly, less expensive models are available to suit the needs of municipal facilities managers, custodial staff, and buildings personnel.

Technology and practical applications

Thermal imaging (or infrared) cameras allow the user to see light and heat that is not visible to the naked eye. Despite appearances, all objects actually emit light – not just lamps and computer screens. However, the light emitted from most objects is not visible to us because of where it sits on the electromagnetic spectrum. Thermal imaging cameras can detect longer wavelengths in the spectrum, calculate the temperature of each object and area in the frame, and display these differences in temperature in different colors. So, with a thermal imaging camera the user can determine hotter and cooler spots within an area being examined, based simply on the color spectrum visible on screen.

In the municipal setting, this technology can be of use in several ways:

  • Preventing Water Damage. As mentioned above, one of the largest areas of loss we see across municipalities is related to water damage as a result of burst pipes due to freeze-ups in the wintertime.  Because moisture is cooler than construction materials, a thermal imaging camera can be used to detect moisture behind walls – allowing for early detection of drips and leaks, thereby preventing costly damage and even mold growth.
  • Minimizing heat loss. As part of a winterization plan, facilities managers can use a thermal imaging device as they conduct building walk-throughs to check for areas of general heat loss. When a particularly drafty area of a building or a school classroom is located – such as a section that isn’t as well insulated as others – alternative, portable heat sources could be set up during a cold snap and/or over building closure times in order to prevent pipe freeze-ups.
  • Securing the building envelope. Thermal imaging can be used to check the overall security of the building envelope by checking for any heat or cooling loss on roofs. When areas of heat loss or cooling loss (in cases where buildings are air conditioned) are detected, facilities staff can check for poor insulation and make preventative repairs.
  • Fire prevention. Thermal imaging technology can also help facilities personnel locate hot spots that could become a potential fire hazard. For example, a handheld device can be used easily to scan electrical panels and check for loose wiring. With thermography, a faulty connection would appear hotter than other areas and could indicate a potential fire hazard, in which case a professional electrician could be called in for further inspection.

At MIIA we always recommend regular safety checks of town buildings, including roof and electrical inspections. Thermal imaging can be a great tool for conducting these inspections and for gathering data that can help in developing maintenance plans and preventing potentially costly building damage. Particularly now that smaller, more affordable units are available – and just one pipe freeze-up can cause several thousand dollars’ worth of damage – the return on investment can be very high.

SIDEBAR: MIIA Celebrates 35th Anniversary at Annual Meeting

During the MIIA Annual Meeting in Boston on January 21, Stan Corcoran, Executive Vice President of MIIA, announced several key accomplishments for the past year as well as dividends to be returned to members. “In our 35th anniversary year, we are happier than ever to be here serving our members – all day, every day – the same way that you are all committed to serving your communities,” he said during a luncheon for members.

For fiscal year 2016, MIIA was able to return to members a total of $2.3 million in credits through its MIIA Rewards program, as well as $1.1 million in grants for local programs and equipment that target loss control and risk management, Corcoran said. In total, MIIA was able to provide members with approximately $27 million in credits, discounts, dividends, and grants.

In terms of accomplishments, Corcoran noted that MIIA now covers 80,000 lives in the Commonwealth through its Health Trust (health insurance program) – a 5% growth rate over the previous fiscal year, and that the organization has now returned a total of $200 million to members since 2009 (in the form of both credits and savings).


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