The basic functions of a thermal imager, also called an infrared camera, are not hard to master. With rudimentary training and practice, you can learn what the buttons are for, how to navigate the menus, how to focus, and how to capture images. Much more difficult is knowing how to precisely capture an image that includes the information needed to accurately diagnose an equipment or building issue, and how to interpret that image correctly.
The amount of training a thermographer should have depends on the application and the requirements of the company or organization. For example, a technician performing basic screening is likely to require less training then a coworker who must correctly interpret the images before ordering further inspection and repairs.
The better courses include all areas of relevant and practical theory, best and safe inspection practices, image analysis, and camera and software operation. Look for classes that show students not only learning how to transfer images to a computer but to use special thermal imaging software to analyze images and create reports.
Consider the case of one self-employed electrical technician who was given a demo of a thermal imaging camera and thought it might be just the ticket for his business. "Having been in construction for many years, I know the benefits infrared technology can bring to finding electrical problems," he says. "I was definitely intrigued by it."
He decided thermal imaging might be a worthwhile service to offer his customers so decided to get up to speed on the technology and options. He signed up for an introductory infrared imaging course before making any purchasing decisions.
The road to learning infrared was a bit more challenging than he'd initially thought. “For the first couple of days, I wondered if I could do it because there was a lot more to learn than I expected,” he said. “But by the third day I really came to respect what the technology can do. It's definitely not something to be taken lightly."
The course instructor said initial trepidation is not unusual when people come for infrared training. “When people buy cameras or are thinking about them, they're not at all aware of the depth of knowledge needed to interpret the information they provide. They jump in and think it's a simple thing to run. Yes, they're easy cameras to operate,” the instructor said. “But they don't realize that it's all about the interpretation of the images. Once they get into it they learn pretty quickly it's not like simply turning on a video camera.”
By sticking with the training, however, the electrical technician started to become more engaged as he learned more about turning theory into practice. He started seeing how the camera could be a useful tool, and how he could apply it to his own work. “Once he could add his own knowledge and experience, he turned his thinking around completely. It was like a light switch had flipped on,” the instructor said.
When the course moved on to explore mechanical, building and roofing applications, the electrical technician became convinced this was the correct course for his business. "All of a sudden I realized I could justify the investment in an instrument that could enhance my business and make me more competitive.” By the end of the class, he was ready to buy a camera.
At first he considered a lower end camera but decided on a more professional product to provide more flexibility. “I knew I would have no problem justifying the extra investment,” he said.
Since buying the camera he has used it several times, mainly for checking electrical circuits. He was even asked to troubleshoot a valve problem in the piping. "With the camera, I was able to see from the heat transfer images, that the valve was not opening properly. Without thermal imaging, I don't think we would ever have been able to find the problem."
Even though he had a few doubts when he began his training course, the electrical technician said the rewards were well worth the effort. "I learned a lot more than I ever expected."
As the instructor emphasized, putting the time and effort into understanding thermal imaging can open the doors to all sorts of new opportunities. "Thermal imaging cameras are great problem solving tools. If you know what you're doing, they can become a very lucrative business opportunity,” the instructor said.
As demonstrated by this example formal training can provide you with the theoretical and practical tools to get the best results out of your thermal camera. By gaining theoretical knowledge and learning about the science of thermography, you will be able to understand both the capabilities and limitations of the technology. You will also learn practical aspects including best practices about how to perform various types of inspections and safe operation during an inspection.
Look for training from a reputable trainer that also includes qualification to national standards. That will ensure the best results and minimize liability.
The following table outlines the three levels of thermographer qualification.
Although thermographer qualification requires an investment in time and money, such an investment can pay large returns. Qualified thermographers produce higher quality, more technically consistent inspections. Unqualified thermographers are considered more likely to make costly and dangerous mistakes, such as minimizing or overstating the severity of identified issues or even missing problems altogether.
In the United States, thermography qualification is issued by an employer in compliance with the standards of the American Society for Nondestructive Testing. In other parts of the world, qualification is provided by a central qualifying body in each country that complies with the standards of the International Organization for Standardization—a nongovernmental, international organization comprised of national standards institutions from more than 90 countries. Under both models, qualification is based on appropriate training, hands on qualifying experience, and written and hands-on examinations.