IR camera borrowed for classroom, saves energy for university

Western State Colorado University is located in Gunnison, frequently one of the coldest areas in the 48 states.

Western State Colorado University is located in Gunnison, frequently one of the coldest areas in the 48 states. (Photo by Western State Colorado University)

Anyone who picks up an infrared (IR) camera quickly becomes aware of the possibilities of being able to “see” the temperature of objects. Some WAPA customers find that once they borrow a camera from our Equipment Loan Program, coworkers from other departments suddenly appear with ideas for their own projects, as happened at Western State Colorado University You are leaving WAPA.gov. (WSCU).

John Mason, an associate professor of physics in WSCU’s department of Natural and Environmental Sciences, recently borrowed an IR camera primarily for class demonstrations. He heard about it through a colleague who attended an energy fair in Gunnison, Colorado, where then-Equipment Loan Manager Gary Hoffman had a display table for WAPA.

Showing, not telling
“The camera is great for making abstract concepts concrete to students,” Mason noted. “Take thermally induced electromagnet radiation, for example. Instead of trying to explain it to students, I can focus the camera on a black plastic trash bag, and it shows right through it. Then, I point it at a piece of glass and they can’t see what is on the other side. The students perk right up when I bring out the IR camera,” he added.

Other teachers found uses for the camera, too, but it was in the hands of the WCSU facilities manager that the loan really paid off for the school. “It didn’t take long for word to get to facilities that we had an IR camera, and Bryce [Hanna] showed up asking to borrow it,” Mason recalled.

Gunnison, always one of the coldest spots in the Colorado Rockies, was experiencing a particularly cold winter during the period of the camera loan. Facilities Manager Hanna saw the opportunity to show the administration why Hurst Hall, a building of classrooms, labs and offices, needed a thermal envelope upgrade. The department performed an IR inspection of the building and shared the picture with the insulating contractors to get their input on what measures needed to be taken. “Then we showed the thermal images to the WSCU Sustainable Action Committee to get their approval to fund the project,” he said. “The committee is the ultimate decision maker in terms of how—and whether—sustainability funds get spent.”

Finding, fixing
Hurst Hall’s frigid upper floor and frozen water pipes were plenty of proof that the building had a leaky envelope. But the IR camera helped to pinpoint the areas that needed repairs and make the case for investing in the improvements. “The problems are not always where you expect them to be,” Hanna pointed out.

Hurst Hall; containing offices, classrooms and labs; was very much in need of an envelope upgrade.

Hurst Hall; containing offices, classrooms and labs; was very much in need of an envelope upgrade. (Photo by Western State Colorado University)

The light areas of the thermal image show where Hurst Hall is losing heat to air leaks and inadequate insulation.

The light areas of the thermal image show where Hurst Hall is losing heat to air leaks and inadequate insulation. (Photo by WSCU Facilities Management)

The camera uncovered a bad case of “gaposis” just below the roof where the exterior wall and insulation didn’t quite meet the insulated roof. The opening allowed heat to escape while an uninsulated steel tube vented cold air into the building. Adding spray foam insulation to the gap raised the temperature by almost 40 degrees in some places. “Filling the big holes also helped us to locate the smaller leaks, which are just as important to sealing the building envelope,” noted Hanna.

The results from the project are still coming in, as the heating system controls must be fine-tuned to adjust to the tightened thermal envelope. However, a normalized comparison of 2015 gas bills to 2016 indicated that the building used 20 percent less gas during the coldest month. Hanna explained that because of the low cost of natural gas, the return on investment for the upgrade is practically nonexistent. “We did it because it was the right thing to do,” he said. “Not to mention, the building occupants are a lot more comfortable.”

Which water pump would you rather touch? Thermal image showing pump on right clearly overheating.

Which water pump would you rather touch? This thermal image clearly shows the pump on the right overheating. (Photo by WSCU Facilities Management)

The lighter the window, the greater the heat loss. Windows on the bottom floor are new. The dark mound below the windows is snow.

The lighter the window, the greater the heat loss. Windows on the bottom floor are new. The dark mound below the windows is snow. (Photo by WSCU Facilities Management)

Safe, efficient maintenance
As impressive as big upgrade projects are, keeping equipment and systems in good working order is even more important over the long term. While Hanna had the camera, he used it to detect and correct mechanical and electric issues. “If you are having a problem with a hard-to-reach piece of equipment like an inline water pump, you can see what is happening right away on a thermal imager,” he explained. “If you are dealing with an electrical short, you don’t want to be handling it without knowing if it is live or not.”

Instead of wasting a thousand words on the importance of efficient windows, Hanna simply compared a picture of recently installed windows to old windows. “We could see an immediate difference between the two,” he declared. “The old windows appeared as bright in the picture, indicating high heat loss. The new windows were much darker, showing that less heat was escaping them. In some spots the new windows were even out-performing the stucco wall around them.”

Many lessons to learn
This story offers more than one take-away besides the obvious, “Infrared cameras are awesome!” You might conclude that customer outreach can pay off in unexpected ways, or that facility managers can be a utility’s greatest ally. You may decide that customer service representatives and key account managers need to take an IR camera along when they visit customers.

The Equipment Loan Program can help with that last one. Contact Chris Lyles, 720-962-7249, to reserve a camera for your next customer meeting or public event. And don’t forget to tell us your story afterward.