Art Tompkins points his camera at the back wall in the kitchen of Angie’s List member Steve Chase’s Indianapolis home.
A rainbow of yellows, pinks and blues cross the screen as the energy auditor sweeps his $8,000 thermal imaging device across the window and sliding glass door before hovering at an outlet on the tile backsplash.
“Here, on the backsplash, it’s very dark,” explains Tompkins, owner of Infrared Technologies based in Greenfield, Ind.
On this camera, warm temperatures appear white and yellow, while darker hues signify cold areas, often an indication of insufficient insulation or moisture. He shows the nearly black orb and pinpoints the outlet with the camera’s laser pointer.
“We get a lot of draft there,” Chase says. “On really cold winter days, we darn near get frost there.” He touches the metal outlet cover, pronouncing it cool to the touch.
After making several efficiency upgrades and renovations to his Westside home, Chase wants to see what he overlooked. He added attic insulation, installed a tankless water heater, upgraded his windows and installed a geothermal heat pump.
“We’re doing a lot of things to improve efficiency, but I don’t know if it’s like a door is open somewhere letting air out, so those [upgrades] don’t even matter,” Chase says. “This provides peace of mind.”
Homeowners call Tompkins and other energy efficiency auditors mainly to increase comfort or reduce energy costs, he says.
“The camera doesn’t lie, so you’re going to find out exactly where the problem is,” Tompkins says. He started in the industry full time in 2009 with a construction and rental-home background.
Since then, he’s noticed an upswing in requests for audits along with more consumer awareness driven by energy-efficiency tax credits and media coverage. Ninety percent of Indianapolis members submitting energy auditing reports detailed positive experiences.
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After reading about the procedure in Angie Hicks’ column in The Indianapolis Star late last year, Ken Wright wanted his Indianapolis home evaluated with the thermal camera and “blower door” test, which measures air turnover inside the home.
The Angie’s List member often felt a noticeable temperature difference between the master bedroom and adjacent bathroom.
After shadowing Tompkins during his audit — something most thermographers encourage, although they also deliver detailed reports with photos and recommendations — Wright paid David Lambert & Associates of Mooresville, Ind., about $3,500 in January for the 2011 Best Contractor to add insulation.
“I’ve not yet seen a heating bill to know if I saved the estimated 5 to 10 percent, but I want to be as energy efficient as I can be,” Wright says. “I don’t want to throw money out the window because I have leaks all over the house. I also want the rooms to be comfortable.”
Insulation deficiencies top the problems thermographers find in new and existing homes, according to Travis Dunn of Thermo-Scan Inspections based in Carmel, Ind.
Other issues include hot outlets indicative of electrical problems, or leaky or disconnected ductwork, which Dunn calls a common problem, especially in custom homes with high ceilings and complicated systems.
“We find problems with compressed insulation in about 90 percent of new homes,” Dunn says. “In about 10 percent of new homes, we find missing insulation or disconnected ducts. In existing homes, probably close to half have major problems.”
Dunn says Thermo-Scan’s audits with the blower door and thermal camera start at $350. Tompkins charges $299 for his standard audit.
Thermo-Scan also offers an option that includes sealing small air leaks as part of the inspection, Dunn says. Both companies work independently of other contractors, so they maintain credibility and lack financial incentive to find specific problems.
Member Bob Fulling hired Energy Efficient Homes Midwest of Indianapolis to perform an energy audit on his home in 2009 after noticing his furnace seemed to run too often and temperatures varied between rooms.
“It was a huge educational experience,” Fulling says. “The biggest surprise for me was in the attic. Our vents upstairs go through the attic, and when he shined his thermal cam around, it was surprising how much heat loss was coming through the joists. It was almost like having a door
He took the report’s prioritized list and started on the highest payback items. Tompkins found only minor problems in Chase’s home energy audit, some with quick fixes like placing insulation pads on exterior outlets.
“I don’t try to tell people what to do,” Tompkins says. “I tell them where the problem is, and if I know what the fix is, I elaborate on that. Homeowners have got to look at the return on the investments.”