New Technology Makes Home Heat Loss Visible

BOSTON — Winter is definitely settling in, and that’s putting our homes to the cold test.

A large amount of heat can literally seep out through old windows and poorly insulated walls and roofs. Now, new technology shows people exactly where it’s escaping, and heating efficiency programs are helping homeowners plug those gaps.

Heat Images In Cambridge

The heat is on at St. James Episcopal Church in Cambridge, but the worship hall is chilly. Jason Taylor knows why.

“Oh, can you see that?” Taylor says, as he puffs a smoke stick down a hole to show how cold air is coming into the church. “It’s basically just the air pressure is pouring out of there, so that you’ve got cold air coming up into the church and cooling it off and you want seal that.”

This courtesy image from Sagewell Inc. shows a half-insulated house in Belmont.

Click to enlarge: This image from Sagewell Inc. shows a half-insulated house in Belmont.

Taylor is with the Home Energy Efficiency Team, or HEET, a nonprofit in Cambridge that works with other nonprofits to give them energy audits and efficiency upgrades.

Energy auditors also access new technology now. There are a number of companies, including Sagewell Inc. in Cambridge, that use thermal images to detect heat loss.

“We are looking at our operations screens,” says Sagewell’s Pasi Miettinen, as he looks online at infrared pictures of the front and sides of some 400,000 private homes and businesses in the state. The screen is aglow with pink and purple in well-insulated spots — and blue where heat is escaping.

Sagewell employees took these pictures while driving around neighborhoods with a thermal camera, which can image 10,000 homes a night. The camera does not see through walls; it only registers heat coming out of buildings.

“This is an interesting house in Belmont and it’s a house that was half-insulated and on our screen here what we see is on the right side of the house, the walls look considerably cooler, they are darker colors,” Miettinen says.

Homeowners often receive letters from their utilities comparing their energy use to their neighbors, but Miettinen says thermal technology lets homeowners see exactly where they are losing heat.

“When the homeowner comes through and looks at the report, we’ll look at things like insulation and we’ll say, ‘Your home is in the top 30 percent in heat loss, maybe this is an area that you should focus your attention to,’ ” he says. “This particular home, in general their windows are in pretty good shape, maybe that’s not a priority for that particular house.”

Belmont Embraces The Technology

Belmont has fully embraced the technology. Sagewell has imaged all homes as part of a concerted effort by the town to encourage its residents to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“We’ve met with remarkable success,” says Jan Kruse, vice chair of the Belmont Energy Committee. Kruse says the thermal images, along with prompts from Sagewell to sign up for energy audits, have residents taking action.

“To date 12 percent of the entire community that heats with gas has requested their scans and a majority of those have also signed up for home energy audits,” Kruse says.

“If your house were a boat and it were sinking under water you would understand, you would see where the water was coming in.”
– HEET's Audrey Schulman

Sagewell only gives the thermal photo to verified homeowners and earns a referral fee by helping owners connect with companies that make the improvements.

Massachusetts has one of the most generous grant programs for people who want to make their homes energy efficient. The program MassSave, paid for by utility customers, gives free energy audits and pays 75 percent, up to $2,000, toward insulation improvements.

Audrey Schulman, president of HEET, says these incentives should be enough to encourage people, but it’s estimated that less than 2 percent of people a year get an assessment.

“I feel happy that Massachusetts is so efficient and at the same time it depresses me because I see so much inefficiency,” Schulman says. “For instance, this church, the heating bill is $1,500 in January and it’s primarily only being used on Sunday. That’s incredible to make a congregation pay so much money to pollute the planet.”

Schulman says she believes more people would take action if they could see the problem.

“If your house were a boat and it were sinking under water you would understand, you would see where the water was coming in,” she says. “But because every house is filling up with cold air, we can’t see it, so the blower door and the thermal camera help us figure out where the house is leaking.”

The cold weather makes it obvious, too. And that’s the best motivation for buttoning up your home.

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  • steve_the_teacher

    Thermal Cameras have been on the market for a while, but remain extremely expensive. A good FLIR thermal camera is just shy of $10,000. A technology the is more economically accessible is an inexpensive Do-It-Yourself thermal camera made using a low cost ($75) thermal imaging element, a couple of servo motors ($10), and a programmable chip (like the $30 Arduino). I’ve used mine to go from room to room, basement to attic, to identify the locations of thermal leaks.

  • calmone

    This line “The screen is aglow with pink and purple in well-insulated spots — and blue where heat is escaping.” doesn’t match the image.

  • Eric

    We are about to realize that you can build a comfortable house that does not need a furnace. We build them today. They should be the standard in 10 years, I hope. And we can make existing buildings a lot more efficient too.
    Cameras like this are awesome, I hope they thermal survey every town in the state. There are now less expensive (and slightly less capable) hand held models that are below 3,000 – I think. Certainly they are affordable enough for a “green” town to buy one and make it available to loan to residents through the library. But if you want to get scientific right now then buy a smoke stick like the one Jason is using in the story and you can see the warm air pouring out of your leaky house. It uses a chemical reaction to make the smoke and there is no fire. There is a non toxic version that is really inexpensive. If you are not a building science geek, the best deal is to get an audit. The price is totally right. do it today

  • Kristina S.

    Interpreting thermal images must be performed by a trained person, who knows how to use the camera correctly, and knows the various reasons for different heat levels. In many situations, air loss is a significant contributor to heat loss. But achieving a continuous air barrier can be significant work, and will change the risk of condensation inside your house. With each change, or improvement, the designer must be sure not to increase the risk of other problems.

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