Thermal cameras can help detect potential issues in your home, such as a termite nest in the wall or a leak from a pipe. These devices detect and measure a heat signature, which is the infrared energy given off by most objects. The thermal camera converts this heat signature data into an electronic image for you to view on a digital display. Without a thermal camera, you would probably need to cut multiple holes in your walls, climb ladders, open up your ceilings and floors, and test with specialized devices like a moisture meter or leak detector to discover the same types of problems.
Often used by electricians, building inspectors, exterminators, plumbers, and HVAC technicians, many of today’s thermal cameras are designed to be easy for nonprofessionals to operate. The best thermal camera for you can depend on several factors, including the type of thermal camera, the temperature range, resolution, image enhancement capabilities, and task-specific accessories, like wall probes for leak detection. Take a look at some of the top products below to get an idea of which product suits your needs.
- BEST OVERALL: FLIR TG267 Thermal Camera
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: FLIR ONE Thermal Camera for Smart Phones
- BEST RESOLUTION: Hti-Xintai Infrared Thermal Imaging Camera
- BEST WITH WIFI: FLIR C5 Thermal Imaging Camera with WiFi
- BEST FOR LEAK DETECTION: FLIR MR160-KIT2 Building Inspection Kit
- BEST FOR ELECTRICAL CHECKS: Hti-Xintai 220 x 160 IR Infrared Thermal Imager
- BEST SMARTPHONE ATTACHMENT: FLIR ONE PRO LT iOS Pro-Grade Thermal Imaging Camera
- BEST THERMAL DRONE: Parrot Thermal Drone
Types of Thermal Cameras
Thermal cameras are categorized into three main types based on how they are used. The types are handheld thermal cameras, smartphone thermal camera attachments, and thermal drones.
Handheld Thermal Cameras
Handheld thermal cameras are commonly used for household inspections and for many industrial applications. This type of thermal camera can have a small body the size of a smartphone, or it can be large enough that it’s helpful to hold it with a camera grip for proper focus.
For the majority of thermal camera applications where you will be looking inside a home’s walls, floors, or other spaces, a handheld thermal camera is suitable. While these cameras are larger and more expensive than a smartphone attachment, they also may have thermal camera-specific screen resolutions and a wide range of features, including contactless body-temperature readings, a built-in laser guide, or a visual light camera.
Smartphone Thermal Camera Attachments
A smartphone thermal camera attachment allows you to use your smartphone to see the heat signatures of infestations and your electrical, HVAC, and plumbing systems. The attachment plugs into the base of your device so that you can simply control the camera through your touchscreen and upload the collected pictures or scans directly into your phone.
This type of device is inexpensive and easy to use, making it a great option for infrequent or DIY home inspections, but it is not recommended for professional use. This is because smartphone thermal camera attachments lack the high image quality and precise measuring accessories that handheld thermal cameras will normally have. They also may drain your smartphone battery very quickly, which means that you would likely be limited to about an hour of continuous viewing.
The idea of thermal drones may seem a bit strange for a home inspection, but there are many issues that cannot be detected from inside the house. Unless you are willing to get up on a ladder, a thermal drone is a great way to find out if you have any hidden problems.
Possible problems that a thermal drone can help detect include nesting insects or other animals, blockages in your drainage system, and areas in your roof or exterior walls where heat is escaping, indicating the need to repair a hole. These devices combine the flight capability of a drone with the thermal detection abilities of a thermal camera. However, they are usually quite expensive and are usually better suited for those with a professional roofing or home inspection business.
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Thermal Camera
When searching for the best one for you, there is more than just the type of thermal camera to consider. Before choosing a thermal camera to inspect your walls, check out some of the most important features to consider when shopping for a thermal camera.
Size, Weight, and Grip
The size and weight of a thermal camera is a necessary consideration for anyone who is planning on using it for an extended period of time. Whether a thermal camera will help reduce hand fatigue is collectively determined by the size, weight, and grip.
Small thermal camera smartphone attachments are easy to carry, but they don’t have the same kind of stable grip as thermal cameras. Smartphone attachments are great for travel and quick inspections, but they are not suited for long periods of use. Handheld thermal cameras can range in size, but those best suited for comfort typically come with a padded camera grip that is easy and comfortable to hold. Thermal drones can range in size, but weight isn’t as much of a factor because they can fly. However, a drone controller that fits comfortably in your hand can make operating the drone easier and more precise for the entire flight time.
When you are looking for a thermal camera you will notice that the manufacturer typically states the minimum and maximum temperatures that the camera is capable of accurately reading. Smartphone attachments normally have smaller temperature ranges from -4 to 248 degrees Fahrenheit, while handheld thermal cameras may extend the temperature range to between -13 to 716 degrees Fahrenheit. The larger temperature ranges allow you to detect problems with the ignition of your HVAC system, hot water tank, or your vehicle. Thermal drones typically have a similar range as handheld thermal cameras, with the added bonus of flying. When shopping for a camera, keep in mind the highest and lowest possible temperatures that you would normally find during your inspection.
The thermal resolution of your thermal camera is designed to help you find any potential issues. Not being able to pinpoint an issue may require cutting more holes or larger holes to fix an unclear problem. For example, a low-resolution camera may present a broad spectrum image of your plumbing system that vaguely shows an increase in temperature that extends outside of the pipe. While it helps to determine that there is a hot water leak, it does not show the exact location of the leak. With a higher resolution camera, you can identify the flow of water and open a hole just wide enough to stop the leak.
For this purpose, you need a high enough thermal resolution to be able to accurately determine what you are seeing through the thermal camera screen. This helps prevent doubt regarding a potential abnormality that needs to be addressed. Thermal resolution quality is measured in pixels and can range from a 60- by 60-pixel resolution more commonly seen on smartphone attachments to as high as 320 by 240 pixels. The higher resolution may be necessary for professions that require precise thermal imaging tools.
Accuracy and Repeatability
The accuracy of thermal cameras is measured in degrees Celsius or degrees Fahrenheit, and it is used to help determine if there is a problem or if the readings are normal for your home’s systems. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration suggests that your hot water heater heats water to a temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent the spread of certain diseases. With your thermal camera, you can verify that your hot water heater is performing to the appropriate standard or if it needs to be repaired or replaced. Typical thermal cameras have a range of plus or minus four degrees Fahrenheit, though there are more accurate thermal cameras.
The plus or minus range that is offered as a general accuracy rating takes into account several factors that can affect how the infrared energy is being read. These can include ambient temperature, camera response, emissivity, transmittance, calibrator temperature accuracy, and atmospheric temperature. The more repeatable a result is, regardless of these intervening factors, the more accurate a camera will be.
Thermal Image Enhancement
Along with a high-definition thermal resolution, you may want a camera that can enhance the thermal image by using overlays of nonthermal video. This feature allows you to see low-contrast objects even in areas with very wide temperature ranges, allowing you to differentiate between two similar targets.
The result is a detailed thermal image produced by the thermal camera with overlays of sharp corners and edges from the visual camera to give the thermal image some identifiable structure. This feature can help identify studs in a wall, plastic pipes, and even furniture in a dark room. It also is typically used by firefighters to quickly identify their surroundings so that they can take appropriate actions to put out the fire and help anyone nearby.
Visible Light Image Enhancement
Thermal cameras do not typically need visual light in order to view a thermal depiction of an object or objects it is directed toward. However, it is easier to identify possible problems and anomalies in electrical, plumbing, HVAC, or even your vehicle engine if there is a structure for our eyes to see and identify. To this end, some thermal cameras have a visual light enhancement feature that adds light to low-light video to better illuminate the outline and structure of the objects you are scanning. With this feature, you may also be able to change the visual tone and appearance on the screen so that you can find a visual output, which is like a photo filter, that gives you the best view of the problem.
File Formats and Data Output
Thermal cameras can be used to view and identify possible issues inside a wall. You also can take a picture or video to send to your repair technicians so that they are better informed before showing up to help fix it. Home inspectors and many other industry professionals use thermal cameras regularly and need to be able to take photos, store them, and even send them wirelessly to others. Thermal cameras may have BMP or JPEG file formats; BMPs are problematic to convert into a readable form, while JPEGs can be read by most devices.
Data can be saved on the camera or it can be saved on your computer or another device. This usually requires a USB cord, but some cameras can connect to WiFi. Smartphone thermal camera attachments connect directly to your smartphone so the data can be used on your phone the same way as you would use it on a computer.
Thermal cameras can be used for many different purposes and typically do well as an individual tool. However, many thermal cameras may come with an accessory that is designed to help detect a specific problem, such as using moisture meter probing bars to better find plumbing leaks. Another frequent companion tool is a voltage detector that can alert you to the presence of electrical voltage with vibration, lights, or sound alarms.
Depending on your purpose, you may be able to choose from a variety of useful companion tools including clamp meters, moisture pens, voltage detectors, moisture detectors, and even thermoprobe connectors that allow you to take infrared measurements through narrow gaps. This can be a great addition if you need to scan HVAC systems for blockages.
Our Top Picks
Considering price, quality, and some of the important features described above, this guide recommends the following products for detecting issues behind your walls.
The FLIR TG267 Thermal Camera has a range of uses, from typical household inspections to measuring body temperature without needing to make contact. This contactless body temperature measurement ranges from 89.6 to 108.5 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the full temperature range is from -13 to 716 degrees Fahrenheit.
This handheld thermal camera has an accurate measurement of 4 degrees Fahrenheit, storage for up to 50,000 images, and Bluetooth connectivity for file transfers. The thermal resolution is 160 by 120 pixels. The camera has a thermocouple probe that can extend the sensor into the ventilation ducts or behind the walls. A built-in laser pointer displays a circle on the area you are measuring to identify where you are looking inside the wall.
Unless you are regularly taking thermal image scans, you probably don’t necessarily need a handheld thermal camera. Instead of emptying your wallet for a tool that you will rarely use, you can get this inexpensive smartphone thermal camera attachment to capture thermal readings from -4 to 248 degrees Fahrenheit. The attachment connects directly to the base of your Android device, allowing you to use your smartphone as a thermal camera.
The thermal camera has an 80-by-60-pixel thermal resolution. It comes with a secondary camera that captures visual details to help create a blend of thermal and visible images. This feature makes it easier to identify the object that you are viewing. The connection with your phone provides immediate access to WiFi or your mobile network so that you can send photos or videos from the thermal camera.
To ensure a clear image of your housing system or your vehicle’s engine, a very high thermal resolution would be beneficial. This handheld thermal camera has a high resolution of 320 by 240 pixels and a 3.2-inch color display screen. A comfortable, lightweight grip makes it easy to use without hand fatigue.
Use this thermal camera for home inspections, firefighting, or even archaeology, and save the pictures with the built-in 3GB memory card. You also can connect the camera to your laptop, television, or other compatible device using the micro USB cable to display your photos or transfer files between devices. The camera has a -4 to 572 degrees Fahrenheit temperature range and measurement accuracy of 4 degrees Fahrenheit.
Instead of relying on your handheld thermal camera’s internal storage and transferring files through a USB or micro USB cord, this thermal camera can connect to WiFi for automatic file backup on the cloud. This allows easier file transfer, file storage, and file sharing. The handheld thermal camera has a thermal resolution of 160 by 120 pixels for a detailed thermal image on its LED display.
This visual inspection camera has a visual light image enhancement floodlight to help identify objects and present them in a combined view. The camera can measure temperatures from -4 to 752 degrees Fahrenheit with an accuracy rating of 4 degrees Fahrenheit and has a 3.5-inch integrated touchscreen for simple, effective control.
Use the 80-by-60-pixel thermal resolution camera to capture the thermal images that can help to identify problem areas inside your walls. The kit also comes with a thermal imaging moisture meter that can be used with the included hammer and wall moisture probes to provide an accurate measurement of moisture in the selected area of the home.
The thermal camera measures temperatures from 14 to 302 degrees Fahrenheit and has an accuracy rating of just 3 degrees, while the moisture meter has both a pin and pinless function. This allows you to probe the target surface or simply scan the top layer. The thermal camera also has a laser crosshair display to better identify the area you are scanning.
The electrical system in your home can be problematic if the wiring has many splices. Thermal imaging can show issues where the electrical resistance traveling through the wires has begun to build up in the system. This buildup can indicate a potential problem and can lead to a short in the wiring and dangerously hot electrical circuits.
This handheld thermal camera has a temperature range of -4 to 572 degrees Fahrenheit and a 220-by-160-pixel thermal resolution. This high resolution is displayed on the 3.2-inch full-color screen that has a choice among five color scales, including rainbow, iron red, cold color, black and white, or white and black to shift the color of the image. This camera has a measurement accuracy of 3 degrees Fahrenheit and a 3GB memory card to store up to 20,000 images, which you can transfer with the included USB cable.
This smartphone thermal camera attachment is a lightweight alternative to a handheld thermal camera. It is impact resistant for drops up to 6 feet. It has a helpful adjustable connector that extends out from the smartphone attachment so that you don’t have to remove your phone case to use this camera. The thermal camera works only with iOS devices and has an approximate battery life of just one hour.
The thermal camera has an 80-by-60-pixel thermal resolution, producing time-lapse videos, regular videos, and still images that are saved in JPEG format. While this camera does not have the same range as a handheld thermal camera, it can measure temperatures between -4 and 248 degrees Fahrenheit within 4 degrees of accuracy. The camera also can connect through the free FLIR One app to share live video from the camera or access helpful tools through the free FLIR Tools app.
The Parrot Thermal Drone has two cameras, including a visible light camera with a 4K resolution and a thermal camera with a 160-by-120-pixel thermal resolution, allowing you to see fine details while you fly the drone. The thermal camera can measure temperatures between -14 and 752 degrees Fahrenheit, and it has a 180-degree tilt, 3X zoom, and three batteries to keep the drone in the air for up to 26 minutes of flight time.
This thermal drone has an accuracy of 4 degrees Fahrenheit, and the compact, lightweight design can fly to a maximum working altitude of almost 15,000 feet. During flight, the drone can connect to WiFi up to 2.5 miles away from your smartphone. However, compatible devices must have a screen size that is smaller than 10 inches so that it can comfortably fit into the drone controls.
FAQs About Thermal Cameras
After learning about the features of thermal cameras, you may have some lingering questions. Before selecting a new thermal camera, these frequently asked questions, and their answers below may help.
Q. What is the difference between an infrared camera and a thermal camera?
The difference between an infrared camera and a thermal camera is that infrared cameras use short wavelength infrared light, while thermal cameras tend to use medium or long wavelengths of infrared energy. Due to this difference, thermal cameras do not pick up the reflected light. This means that the image is not distorted by lights, smoke, haze, dust, or any other particulates in the air.
Q. How does a thermal camera work?
Most objects give off infrared energy that is known as a heat signature. A thermal camera detects and measures the infrared energy and converts the data into an electronic image, which displays the measured surface temperature of the object or objects.
Q. How accurate is a thermal camera?
Accuracy varies among individuals products, but on average a thermal camera has an accuracy of plus or minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit.
Q. What should I look for when buying a thermal imaging camera?
You should look for the type of thermal camera that can view your home’s suspected issues. The size, weight, accuracy, resolution, and other features can help you decide on a thermal imaging camera.