How Vault uses infrared scanners to discover leaks, short circuits, and other dangers lurking behind walls
In the movies, the hollow space behind a wall might hold a long-lost treasure or a weathered parchment explaining an ancient mystery. In the real world, walls are much more likely to be hiding leaky pipes, frayed wires, and any number of other potential hazards you can’t see.
Brett Soety, on the other hand, can see them. No, Soety doesn’t have x-ray vision. But the risk-services specialist for Vault Insurance does have the next best thing: an infrared scanner able to detect problems long before they damage a home and injure the people living in it. We asked Soety how he uses infrared scanning when inspecting homes.
What is an infrared scanner, and what does it do?
Infrared scanners employ the same technology—thermography—that contactless thermometers use to scan people for fevers. The hotter an object, the more infrared light it gives off. The scanners we use can generate an image of a surface, with redder colors indicating warmer areas and bluish colors showing cooler parts.
Like all electronics, these scanners are getting smaller and better every year. The first one I used was the size of a water bottle and had a built-in display. Now I can see the heatmaps on my iPhone by plugging in a two-inch scanner attachment.
How do you use the scanner when inspecting a house?
I check out the electrical system, especially the circuit breaker panel. A lot of times, the panel is cool to the touch but one of the breakers is glowing red like the sun. That suggests a connection is loose or just wasn’t installed correctly. Undiscovered, that sort of poor connection can cause a fire.
As I walk through the home, I scan all the outlets and light switches. They should have a neutral temperature. Again, If I see any glowing red, that’s a sign there could be a short. I also examine the walls, ceiling, and floor to check for water, which shows up blue. Even a leak from the hot water heater cools quickly and shows up as blue. It’s important to look at all the plumbing fixtures, behind the toilets, and under the kitchen sink. You can find all sorts of leaks there that people don’t notice.
Finally, we also check for leaks from the outside by scanning where floors and ceilings meet and around windows. We find a lot of leaks near fireplaces because there is always something going wrong with the flashing meant to keep water from seeping down the chimney.
What’s the most unusual thing a scanner has turned up?
Bees. I was scanning a room and noticed an unusual bloom of heat that didn’t look like an outlet or breaker. It was on an exterior wall, so I went outside to take a look. The scanner led me right to a nest of honeybees you would never have noticed.
How reliable are infrared scans?
Scans don’t prove anything. They turn up what we call anomalies that have to be checked out. With water, you never know where it is coming from. Water is a ninja. It can leak in through a hole in the roof, run 40 feet past several rooms before it accumulates over a bedroom, and eventually starts dripping. When we find something, we’ll refer the homeowner to an electrician, plumber, or other professional to investigate further and deal with the problem.
How much difference has the scanner made?
I’ve been surprised at how many things I found. In the year before the pandemic, I inspected 300 homes across the country. I found anomalies in 78 of them, mostly with the infrared scanner.