I know that professionals have expensive thermal imaging devices to look for heating and cooling leaks in homes. I can’t afford the hundreds of dollars they cost and wonder what you can tell me about thermal cameras that can attach to a smart phone or tablet. Would you recommend the average person purchase one? — Dave L., Wayne, Mich.

I’ve seen the professional heat-imaging tools you talk about. This technology has been around for several decades. Up until now, you really had to have a professional interest in the magic of infrared to justify the expense to see fuzzy images that range from bright yellow to orange to blue.

Technology marches on, and now you can purchase an affordable phone thermal camera for just about any late-model smart phone or tablet. Once you download a free app, you can have the camera working in seconds. That was my experience.

The thermal camera I tested was the Seek. If you’ve seen a person that has a small credit card swiper that attaches to their smart phone or tablet, then you’ll love how small the Seek thermal camera is. Believe it or not, it just as wide and 65 percent the length of my thumb. That’s small!

I tested this thermal camera at my own home at the end of winter, and the results were stunning. Within minutes I was able to detect sources of heat leaking out of my house. Some of these places are easy to fix, while others would be quite difficult.

I can tell you if I were buying an existing or new home and wanted to check out the invisible and latent defects lurking behind walls and under roofs, this would be a must-have tool. Currently, the price of this smart phone camera is under $200. It’s well worth that price if it allows you to negotiate a better deal from the seller or builder of a home. Using this camera you can see thousands of dollars’ worth of potential repairs.

This camera is by no means a toy, although when you start to use it you’ll think you just opened the best Christmas present ever. You’ll start to see hot and cold spots you never thought existed before in your home or car.

The camera has enough sensitivity to locate radiant heating pipes under concrete slabs. I used it in my basement to help me identify the exact location of radiant heat plastic piping in a basement bathroom. It could do the same in walls or ceilings. You want to know where these pipes are in case you decide to drill or cut into a floor, wall or ceiling for a remodel job.

If you’re a pet owner and your cat or dog likes to play hide and seek with you and not come indoors, you’ll now be able to see them with no difficulty even if Fido or Tabby is hundreds of feet away. There are different color settings in the app on your phone that allow you to use it very effectively outdoors in daylight or in the dark.

If you live in a big city and have to walk around scary places at night, this is an amazing tool that can let you see people lurking in the shadows. The only people that will be able to hide from you are those wrapped in aluminum foil. (I can’t recall seeing a person doing that!) Of course, this thermal camera is going to take all the fun out of kids playing kick the can or hide and seek at night.

A thermal camera will also help you identify leaks and how far water has spread in case of a leak. Water will typically create a cool spot in a thermal image because it’s evaporating. Evaporation is a natural cooling process.

If you do your own plumbing, this camera is a great tool to help you locate the exact spot of a clog in a drain pipe. If the water standing in the pipe is warm, believe me, you’ll see exactly where the clog begins.

You’ll be able to spot electrical hazards before they become serious problems. Shorts that are creating micro arcing in switches, outlets or light fixtures will be spotted in seconds. Circuits that are running at peak loads, creating heat in the cables, will be identified in moments. You can then decide to run an extra new circuit that should help cool down the original cable handling all the load.

If you’re a camper or hiker you can use a thermal camera to alert you to wildlife that you may want to avoid. It can tell you if your campfire is really cold. You’ll discover all sorts of uses for it once you start to use it.

I’m convinced that as more people use the phone thermal cameras, they’ll become indispensible for many. Anyone buying a home will discover it will save them from all sorts of unexpected surprises, especially water leaks in basements behind finished walls and pesky roof leaks that may have been painted over by a homeowner trying to disguise a problem. These phone thermal cameras are game changers.

Tim Carter is a columnist for Tribune Media Services. Contact him through his Web site: www.askthebuilder.com.

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