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Ready. Aim. Fire.

March 28, 2011 - 4:27pm


I wrote in a previous blog posting about using digital electric meters to locate "leaking" electricity—often referred to as phantom loads and vampire loads—and high electrical power consumption. In another posting I described what I'm doing to reach out in my community to get my neighbors to use these meters to locate wasteful electricity usage in their homes.

Now my community will have another tool in its arsenal to combat energy waste: a thermal leak detector. Whereas the digital electric meter helps locate electricity leaks, the thermal leak detector helps locate—well, you guessed it—thermal (heat) leaks.

Heating and cooling your home account for close to half of the energy use in a typical U.S. home, making it the largest energy expense for most homes. Locating, and "plugging up," those thermal leaks can add up to significant savings for the homeowner.

This inexpensive thermal leak detector I bought is easy to use. As they say, it's "Point and click." A close cousin to the smaller thermal leak thermometer and the much more expensive thermal leak detectors used by professional home energy auditors, it shoots out infrared rays to determine the temperature of the spot it's aimed at. Point it at different locations around your home's building envelope—the "skin" of your house that's exposed to the cold outdoors in the winter (and to the outdoor heat in the summer).

I'll talk here about winter usage, since it's frigid here as I'm writing this, though the leak detector is also useful for spotting hot spots in the summer. You'll likely spot cold spots around your windows and doors, molding, recessed light fixtures, and electric outlets, letting in cold air. Cold spots on the ceiling or outside walls are a sign of missing insulation. Once you've identified the leaks, you can take action like adding insulation and weatherstripping to stop those drafts 'cold' in their tracks.

You might even identify leaky ductwork in your heating and air conditioning system. Some homeowners have found that the ductwork was never properly installed, and sections are not properly attached (or not connected at all!). Reattach the ductwork properly, and you may find that those frigid rooms at the far end of the duct distribution system suddenly become comfortable.

I ordered a box of eight thermal leak detectors and had them delivered to my work address. They cost $50 apiece. I used the second place prize I had won in last year's Green Transportation Rally to pay for one and a half of the detectors. One I'm keeping for my personal use. I'm donating the others, some to our city's Public Works Department, and the rest to our city's large cooperative housing organization, to lend out to residents, along with digital electric meters.

Pallavi demonstrates her thermal leak detector. Credit: Pallavi Gupta

When the units arrived at the office, some of my co-workers were interested in how they work. One co-worker started asking technical questions, like what the "normal" temperature should be for the walls and ceiling. I couldn't address this question, since I don't have the experience of using the detector yet. I was surprised, however, when another colleague, Pallavi, explained what her experience was. Pallavi and her husband bought a similar thermal leak detector made by another manufacturer and they have been using it all around their house. They found drafty windows and caulked them, eliminating the drafts.

I call the unit a "gun." Just point and "shoot." With supervision, your older kids (including the one you're married to) could have a lot of fun helping to locate the leaks. You could make a fun project out of this. One word of caution, however. Like any gun, be careful. No shooting at people, especially no pointing at their eyes.

Have any of you used a thermal leak detector? You have? Say, what are the wall and ceiling temperature readings you're getting in your house, and what remedies have you taken to fix those leaks?