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Seeing Infrared: Wall Insulation Done Right

August 3, 2013 | Posted by Mitt Jones

We always brought an infrared camera when we visited homes to estimate wall insulation. As long as there was a reasonable temperature difference between indoors and out, the infrared camera helped us determine where there was insulation and were there wasn’t. It could also help us spot problems we might otherwise miss or that might otherwise cause the scope of work to change once work began.

Case in point: After a few minutes of discussion with one couple who had called us out for a wall-insulation estimate, I pulled our trusty infrared thermal camera from its case and made two key observations:

130331-040_Digi.jpgA)  As expected, there was no insulation in the walls of the house.

B)  As nobody expected, diagonal bracing ran in two directions at several places in the exterior walls, forming a shape something like a less-than symbol, "<”.

Diagonal bracing is great if you’re focusing on wall strength but is bad news if you want to dense-pack your walls with insulation: The bracing blocks the flow of insulation inside the wall cavities. Instead of drilling just one hole per wall cavity, with diagonal bracing you have to drill at least two, which means you have to remove and replace twice as much siding. In this case, because of the less-than bracing, we’d have to drill three locations per wall cavity in some areas.

As I showed the bracing to the homeowners with the infrared camera, they seemed impressed. Before I left, they said none of the other companies that had bid the job had used an infrared camera during the estimate, which means none could have known about the bracing or factored it into its pricing.

The homeowners asked me in so many words how these contractors would likely handle the pricing when the installation crew discovered the problem—whether they would eat the additional cost or attempt to charge them more. Not knowing the specific companies involved, I couldn't say, though I thought it was an excellent question.

I saw the writing on the wall as I worked on the bid: Knowing what I knew, I couldn’t price the work any lower, but I knew the homeowners would have a tough choice to make. They rejected our proposal graciously, saying ours was the most professional of the bunch but that they had to go with a lower bid. 

I don’t know how their wall insulation job turned out or how much they ended up paying for the work—it doesn't seem like good form to ask—but I have to wonder about the wisdom of hiring a wall insulation contractor who wasn’t well enough equipped to take a look at the walls with an infrared camera.

First of course is the issue of professionalism: Would you hire a mechanic that doesn't use engine diagnostics, or an orthopedist that doesn't use diagnostic imaging? I can’t think of a reasonable explanation for why the other contractors didn’t use an infrared camera unless they simply didn’t have access to one.

That leads to an even bigger concern—getting the job done right. It’s next to impossible to know whether or not you’ve successfully filled a wall cavity without leaving voids unless you inspect the work with an infrared camera as you go. If the contractor who won that bid didn’t use an infrared camera during his or her site visit, chances are the crew didn’t use it during the installation. And that means they almost certainly left voids—possibly quite a few.

As in most types of work, it costs more to do insulation right. In this case, investing in an infrared camera costs money. Moreover, doing the work takes longer if the crew is given the mandate to check the work with an infrared camera and then to fill any voids—and that means that the quality-conscious contractor has to charge more.

When choosing a contractor for your wall insulation project, we recommend asking whether or not the crew will use an infrared camera to quality check its work. If the company estimated the job without an infrared camera, ask why. Also ask what will happen if the crew discovers extensive blocking inside the walls once work begins. 

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