Turning the Infrared Camera On

When you see smoke filling the engineroom in the video above, you know right away that something’s wrong. But you don’t get the full picture until 49 seconds in, when the view switches to video captured by a thermal-imaging camera. First, the room goes dark. Then engine parts light up in fluorescent pinks and oranges against the black background. That’s when you see the dripping.

“There’s actually two things going on. One’s more obvious than the other,” says marine surveyor John Banister, who shot the video while inspecting a 1980 Detroit Diesel 8V92.

The first, and obvious, problem is that the manifold on the outboard side is so corroded that smoke is pouring out of it. The second, which Banister couldn’t see through the burning oil and exhaust smoke until he turned on the thermal-imaging camera was “a rip in the oil hose right at the clamp fitting. After we shut it down, there was oil all over the side of the engine.”

Banister, who is the owner of Sueños Azules Marine Surveying and Consulting in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, began inspecting boats with thermal-imaging cameras three-and-a-half years ago. He got the idea from a previous career in law enforcement and service in the U.S. Coast Guard. “Firefighters would use thermal imaging to look for the source of a fire,” he says.

He wrote a detailed explanation on his website, www.suenosazules.com, explaining how it works: “Thermal imaging (also sometimes referred to as thermography, infrared imaging or thermal scanning) is the means by which humans can see the infrared portions of the light spectrum. Every object gives off some amount of thermal radiation so thermal imaging is ideal for observing temperature anomalies that are abnormal in machinery, electrical equipment, and even in solids such as wood, fiberglass, aluminum, and steel.”

A thermographic camera operates and looks like a portable digital video camera. He owns two Flir-brand infrared cameras and has taken certification classes at the Infrared Training Center (ITC) based in Nashua, New Hampshire, an investment of about $26,000 for classes, cameras, and components. But though he says the ITC classes were helpful, they were geared toward home inspections, with no guidance for marine applications. To bridge that gap, he spent many hours going out with an infrared camera. “I would just go and play with boats,” he says.

It was time well spent. Banister estimates his business “jumped about 20 percent right off the bat” when he began using thermal imaging. On his website, he shares examples of problems he has spotted through thermal imaging, including issues with engines, electrical systems, core deterioration, and hull delamination. “I have about 12 different pictures that honestly I never would have found using conventional means.” For those who would like to learn more, Banister has also shared thermal-imaging videos like the one above on his YouTube page.

“Sometimes I find out that nothing’s wrong,” he says. “We have all this cool stuff that takes all the guesswork out. I just turn the camera on. I go, ‘There it is.’”

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