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Thermographic Consultant

Thermography isn't a household word. But most people are actually familiar with the concept. Using infrared light, which is emitted from all objects, thermographers create images that show patterns of light and dark.

The whiter an object appears when captured by an infrared camera, the hotter it is. Cooler objects appear black.

Thermography is often used in electrical inspections in buildings, factories and refineries.

"In this work, you need to go around and make sure that everything is going through evenly," says Tricia Alexander. She is the training coordinator of an infrared thermography academy.

Thermography is also used to detect leaks and temperature changes in roofing and floors. It can be used to find cold storage cooling loss, inspect furnaces and evaluate automotive cooling efficiencies.

It's helpful for electrical motor inspections, medical injury examinations, search and rescue operations and surveillance. It's also used in dentistry and veterinary medicine.

A large manufacturing company may have its own thermography department. Many other thermographers work for small companies specializing in infrared work. "This is definitely something where people can branch out on their own," says Alexander.

That's exactly what Mike Perry has done. Four years ago, he started a thermography inspection business.

"Basically, I was tired of working for someone else....[I] was looking for a good field to get into," he says.

He read a few articles about thermography and thought that the use of infrared cameras and computer software suited his tastes. "I've always been interested in gadgets, so I decided to go out and do some research."

By reading articles, researching schools that offered certification and talking to others already in the business, he was convinced.

"I only found a handful of people doing this work," he says.

But he found that the small number of thermographers didn't translate into a lack of opportunity. "There is more than enough work to go around."

The Professional Thermographers Association, based in Seattle, currently has 100 member thermographers across the United States.

Perry specializes in home inspection. By evaluating temperature contrasts, he can inspect homes for air and water leakage. In the winter months, cold outdoor temperatures make this work easy. "In the summer, I need more contrast and so I do other work," he says.

Because thermography is flexible work, Perry goes indoors during warm months. He does electrical inspections in all types of industrial facilities. "I get to see what goes on behind all those closed doors and see all different kinds of fields at work. It's very interesting."

There are more and more areas where thermography can be applied. "This is an up-and-coming field," adds Alexander. She notes that infrared use in health care, such as using thermography for breast cancer detection, is still in its infancy.

According to the American Cancer Society, thermography has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But it is not yet approved as a stand-alone screening test for breast cancer.

In other areas, the National Institute of Justice is currently developing infrared cameras that will be able to detect weapons concealed on individuals up to 40 feet away.

An organization in Canada is also currently researching the use of thermography for early diagnoses of disease or joint injury in livestock. With this technology, injured or diseased areas will appear hotter or colder than healthy areas.

The start-up costs for a new business aren't prohibitive. "It's relatively easy to go out and start up an infrared consulting company," says Jennifer Maychrzak. She is a volunteer at the Professional Thermographers Association and an employee at an infrared company in Seattle.

"But to succeed, you need the proper technology and training."

"My first camera cost $100,000, which is no small amount," says Perry. "But when you compare that to what you need to start up a restaurant or other business, it looks better."

In addition to purchasing a camera, thermographers need software. The software needs to be updated occasionally, but Perry says the rate of technology change isn't too fast.

One of the more difficult aspects of starting up a thermography business is simply getting people aware of thermography and how it could benefit them.

"Certainly, selling it can be difficult," says Perry. "Some people aren't into new technology, and others view it as a pseudo-science, which it definitely isn't."

He says that people are becoming more aware of the technology. Alexander agrees. "The technology has been around for 25 years," she says. "Word is getting around and it's sparking interest."

Thermographers have to take certification courses, which are currently offered at three different levels. Those wanting to branch out on their own generally need about six months of experience before they're prepared to go alone.

"There are also safety concerns," says Alexander. "You can be working in the electrical field. If you get too close, you can get zapped. It has happened. You need proper training."

Some fields have more opportunities than others. Thermography in electrical and industrial inspections is far more common than in health care.

"The main application for thermography has been electrical applications," says Maychrzak. "But more and more, there have been people looking at different applications."

With certification, some experience, financial backing and self-promotion, thermographic consultants are able to earn a living working on their own. "More thermographers are definitely needed," says Perry. "I see a very bright future ahead in this field."


Professional Thermographers Association
All about infrared technology: how to choose a business, buy a camera and get training

Academy of Infrared Training
Includes information on training

Find out about this conference for anyone involved in infrared inspections

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