The Benefits of Using Infrared Sensors on Your Boat

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The Thermal Detective

When sussing out potential problems on board, some experts turn to infrared light. You can, too.

Ever notice how things often change temperature before they fail? Cold things get hot, hot things get cold? So it figures that an infrared, or thermal, camera would be a great tool for preventive maintenance. Shoot a thermal picture of your engine, for example, and you’ll see a range of temperatures in the image. If something that should be cool, e.g. the raw-water pump, shows up hot, it’s time for investigation. If something should be hot—for instance, raw water exiting the heat exchanger—but it’s not, check it out. And if a thermal scan of your electrical system turns up overheated, and probably overloaded, it’s time to call the electrician before something gets fried, or catches fire. 

Teamed  with a Raymarine eS128 MFD, FLIR’s Ax8, a thermal/visual camera, provides continuous monitoring and alarming.

Thermal cameras have lots of uses: Scanning the aluminum skin of an airplane can reveal structural problems underneath; firefighters use thermal cameras to see through smoke and look for victims or the source of a blaze; medical diagnosticians use thermography to detect allergies and, sometimes, flu viruses; HVAC technicians analyze thermal images to locate faulty insulation and lower the costs of heating and cooling; yacht surveyors use thermography to find delamination, voids, and water intrusion in composite hulls and decks. The list goes on and on.

Finding a Thermal Detective

Many surveyors have added thermal detecting to their services, but do your due diligence before hiring one. Not all are qualified—some have the camera, but not the experience and expertise to interpret the images accurately. Jack Allinson (www.allinson.com), a marine surveyor and Level III Certified thermographer from Jacksonville, Florida, says the first thing you should do before hiring a thermography-rate surveyor is make sure he has at least Level I Thermography certification. Level I certification includes training in the fundamentals of thermal science, the basics of infrared thermograpy, and the nuts and bolts of setting up the camera. (Learn more about this in “Thermography Training” on page TK)

Also, determine if your thermographer has enough hands-on experience to interpret thermal images, or access to other professionals who can help, says Allinson. Can he or she identify anomalies? For example, materials vary in “emissivity”—how efficiently they emit thermal radiation—and this can affect the image. Two materials could be the same temperature, but because of their different emissivities, they will show up differently in the thermal image, fooling the inexperienced thermographer. A trained thermographer knows how to adjust his camera to compensate.

Finally, a professional thermographer will have better equipment than you or I will buy, unless we want to get silly with money. Allinson’s primary camera, a FLIR P65HS, cost more than $40,000 when it came out, but it has a high-resolution thermal detector, excellent thermal sensitivity, removable memory for unlimited image storage, the ability to add voice-over to images, and optional supplementary lenses and other accessories. It can record 20 minutes of radiometric data at 30 frames per second (essentially thermal videos) that Allinson can then analyze frame-by-frame; many thermal cameras record, but don’t allow analysis later. It’s a lot more camera than most of us need.

Allinson uses the radiometric feature of his thermal camera when surveying laminates, a technique that involves heating the laminate, then letting it cool, while recording thermal images during the process. This is called “flash” or “active” thermography, and it takes more training and expertise than simply scanning machinery and systems for problems. Using flash thermography, an experienced technician can locate voids, delamination, water intrusion, damage, and other laminate issues. For more information on this, see “Some Like It Hot,”. Mark Ashton (www.infraredboat.com), the thermographer featured in that article, now has offices in Newport, Rhode Island, and Sanibel, Florida. 

Be Your Own Thermal Detective

Hiring a thermal detective for a one-time scan only tells you what’s what at the time, but problems can appear unexpectedly on a boat. So the best way, I think, to use thermography in a scheduled maintenance program is to invest in a thermal camera (you don’t have to spend 40 grand), acquire the know-how to use it skillfully, and make it a step in your maintenance program. Moreover, I’d suggest uploading all or most of the images that result to a digital maintenance folder, so you can compare them over time. If you find something doesn’t look right, send the thermal images to an expert. The payoff can be fewer breakdowns, less time in the yard, and money saved on repair bills—maybe even enough to pay for the camera.

Thermography Training

You’ve bought a thermal camera, and now you have to figure out how to use it. There are many paths to enlightenment, and they all start with Googling “thermography training.” You’ll get a boatload of Web sites to check out, offering both classroom and online programs. I like the Infrared Training Center (www.infraredtraining.com), which offers both; since it’s a branch of FLIR Systems, the ITC has programs on how to use various FLIR cameras, a 2.5-hour Introduction to Level I thermography course, and several other focused short courses. Many are free, or cost very little.

Certification training, however, isn’t free: A four-day Level I Certification course, taught in a classroom, costs $1,995. (Level II and III courses all cost the same; each builds on the previous level.) I think certification is a necessity if you’re planning on making money with your thermal camera. The marine thermographers I know mostly have Level I Certification, which most experts say is enough.

 But if you just want to maintain your own boat, maybe you should save your money. Amazon.com has a raft of thermography books, from expensive textbooks to nearly free e-books. Before dropping two grand, plus travel expenses, for classroom training, maybe just try a little reading. I’ve already downloaded a sample of Dean Cowley’s $9.95 Kindle book How to Make Money with ANY Thermal Imaging Camera. If I’m not here next month, I’ll be out thermographing.

FLIR Systems, Inc. (www.flir.com) is a leading manufacturer of thermal cameras for industry, scientific research, surveillance and marine applications. Andrew Cox, of the company’s Maritime Sales division, says the company’s E8 model is the most popular choice for marine surveyors and “do-it-yourself guys.” The top model of FLIR’s Ex-Series, the E8 sits on the border between high-end consumer and low-end professional models. It has all the features a marine tech or surveyor should need, including 320 x 240-pixel IR detector resolution, on the high end for a thermal camera. The E8 is kind of the Swiss army knife of thermal cameras, says Cox. However, it costs $4,000

There are three other models in the Ex-Series. The E6 has lower resolution (160 x 120 pixels), but most of the features of the E8, and costs $2,500; the least expensive Ex-series model, the E4, with an 80 x 60 sensor, runs about $1,000. All four Ex-Series cameras have FLIR’s MSX Thermal Image Enhancement, a neat feature that combines details from an onboard visible-light camera with the thermal image to create a detailed picture that makes it easy for even a novice thermographer to accurately identify potential problems. The FLIR C2 ($699) also has MSX, and it’ll fit in your pocket. Jack Allinson swears by the FLIR ONE ($150), a plug-in thermal camera for an iPhone. He says it’s fine for troubleshooting, and you can send the images to your mechanic directly from your phone. (To get a better handle on all these products, download “12 Things to Know Before Buying an Infrared Camera” from the FLIR Web site.)

Go Thermal Full-Time

The ne plus ultra of thermal inspection is FLIR’s AX8 Marine Thermal Monitoring System, essentially a network of smartphone-sized cameras you can install just about anywhere. Based on the Lepton micro-thermal camera, the AX8 system connects one or more cameras with a laptop or Raymarine multifunction display running the LightHouse II operating system and offers full-time thermal monitoring. Andrew Cox says the Lepton camera is analogous to the video camera on a smartphone. “It’s a leap in thermal-camera technology,” he adds. 

At 80 x 60 pixels, the AX8 camera ($1,299) isn’t high-resolution (it’s the same as the C2 and E4), but it’s fine for short range, like in an engine room. It uses MSX technology to create detailed images. The boat owner can draw regions of interest on an image, add spot meters to watch them closely, and set too-hot and too-cold alarms. Since thermal cameras can “see” through smoke, if there’s an engine-room fire you’ll be able to see if anyone is in the space before activating the fire-fighting system.

Cox says the AX8 system is easy to connect. “If you can plug in a cable, you can do it,” he maintains. The system is wired with Ethernet cables; each camera has an I.P. address, so you connect to it like you do any other network device over an Ethernet. It works very much like a video surveillance system. When linked to the Raymarine MFD, the AX8 system provides you with constant IR images of your engine room, electrical panels, galley—anywhere you can mount an iPhone-sized thermal camera. (Connect up to eight cameras.) You can split the screen and display the images next to your electronic charts, sounder image, or radar screen.

That’s pretty cool, eh? Or hot, depending on how you look at it.

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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