Infrared (IR) technology isn’t particularly new to pest management, but it’s gaining momentum quickly now that cameras have moved into a more affordable price range. Applications vary from rodent, wildlife, termite and general pest inspections to heat treatment protocols, as these tools present a world of new opportunities for improving efficiency and accuracy.

Eric Braun, bed bug technical services manager for Rentokil/ Steritech, has been using infrared thermometers for years to monitor temperatures during heat treatments. About six months ago, when the thermal imaging camera he’d been wanting hit the $700 mark (down from about $10,000), Rentokil jumped on the deal. They’re glad they did.

The gray-scale or color “hot spots” that show up on an IR camera screen are produced when thermographic sensors detect infrared radiation produced by heat. The heat anomalies showing up in this beam are evidence of an active Formosan termite infestation.

“This camera gives us a clearer and more comprehensive picture of the area we’re treating, and helps us achieve and maintain a more uniform temperature,” says Braun. “If we’re in a hotel room, for example, we heat the area and then monitor the thermal equilibrium by scanning the whole room. Temperature fluctuations are clearly visible, so we can move furniture or other objects around to eliminate any cold spots where bed bugs could survive.”

Christopher Casey, president of Monroe Infrared, explains, “Thermal imaging cameras provide much more accurate and sensitive temperature readings than traditional temperature guns, because, where a spot gun captures a single temperature measurement, an infrared camera is capturing from 5,000 to 77,000 measurements and presenting them in the form of an image or picture.”

Thermal imaging cameras work by detecting infrared energy (heat) and converting it into electronic signals that are translated as either color or gray-scale images on a monitor. In Braun’s hotel-room scenario, variations in the patterns of these images indicate areas falling below the requisite temperature. When used for inspection purposes, pattern variations can show PMPs what’s behind a wall, for example, or where potential entry points exist. By looking for heat-intensive areas, PMPs can locate rodent nests, monitor wildlife activity and uncover conducive conditions — moisture, wood damage, etc. — that indicate termites and other pests.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR. Jack Leonard of the New Orleans Mosquito, Termite and Rodent Control Board was a pioneer of infrared technology in pest management. After seeing a demonstration of an infrared camera by the late Bob Melia, a retired Coast Guard officer, at a tradeshow in the mid-’90s, Leonard asked, “Can that thing find termites?” Melia smiled. “Let’s see,” he said.

The pair began experimenting and found that certain thermal imaging cameras could detect the presence of moisture and damage to walls and wood structures. In 1998, Leonard shared his IR technology find with the organizations participating in Operation Full Stop, a government-funded USDA program aimed at controlling the spread of Formosan subterranean termites in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

Today, the New Orleans Mosquito, Termite and Rodent Control Board continues to use thermal imaging cameras for termite inspections and other applications. Research entomologist Ed Freytag points out, though, that the technology is only as good as the knowledge and skill of the operator using it. “You have to know what you’re looking for, and you have to make sure you’re using the camera under the right conditions,” he says.

What should you be looking for? Leonard shares, “Unless you’ve had training in how to use a thermal imager, you’re in for a frustrating experience. You need to be able to identify patterns and see anomalies within the patterns. If you’re looking for something large — rodents or other wildlife, for example — you might see them on your screen, but you’re almost never going to see something as small as a termite. To find termites, you need to know how to spot conducive conditions like moisture, and evidence of damage.”

Conditions must be right, too, says Freytag, when you’re using a thermal imaging camera inside a structure. “There needs to be at least a 10°F differential between the indoor and outdoor temperatures for the camera to work correctly indoors,” he says, adding, “I ask customers to turn on their air conditioner or heater before we arrive, because if the windows are open and the temperature is the same inside and out, we won’t be able to see much at all.”

Unfortunately, IR training is more often tailored to industries where its use has become more widespread than it is in pest management. Courses address the specific concerns of real estate inspectors, for example. Still, early adopter John Moore, entomologist and technical director at Royal Pest Solutions in Delaware, says that these courses do have value. “I became certified taking a course geared more toward electricians, engineers and maintenance workers,” he says. “I still got a lot of good out of it, though, because once you learn the basics, you naturally think of potential applications. We discovered quickly that we could diagnose problems that no one else had been able to diagnose.”

That’s not to say that formal training is a necessity. “If you know someone who is using this technology successfully, spend an afternoon with them looking at things and discussing how to interpret them,” Moore advises. “It’s not hard to learn, but you do have to be careful. Your customer isn’t going to be very happy if you tell them that they have a roof leak and then it turns out it’s just cold air moving through an air conditioning duct.”

YOU’RE GETTING WARMER… What kind of pests can a thermal imaging camera help you track down? Termites: You can find their nests, moisture sources and evidence of damage. Wildlife and rodents: Ditto — plus, you might spot their actual warm bodies, even if they’re hiding in total darkness. Wasps, bees and other social insects: The heat of a large, closely knit population, as well as their nests, will show up on your screen.

In fact, Moore says that identifying conducive conditions can lead you to all kinds of pests. “If you know you’re looking for a pest that requires high moisture conditions, then that’s what you look for. Thermal imagers also reveal possible entry points — holes in walls, voids in insulation and air leakages — that might have been difficult to spot through a visual inspection alone,” he says.

Some PMPs reserve IR equipment for situations where they can’t quite put their finger on the issue; others go in with it from the start, to save time on the inspection and minimize the possibility they might miss something. “Why would I spend five hours on something that could take two?” asks Leonard. “Our inspections are at least twice as fast, and much more thorough, using thermal imaging cameras.”

Timmy Madere, who uses IR technology to track rodent activity for the New Orleans Mosquito, Termite and Rodent Control Board, says that it helps him optimize trap placement. “In areas of high activity, like the riverfront, where rats are running in and out of the rocks, you can’t just drop pellets everywhere. Thermal imagers help us identify exactly where to treat. We can be much more precise — plus we conserve chemicals and limit exposure to non-target animals.”

WHICH CAMERA IS RIGHT? Like most technological tools, thermal imaging cameras come in a variety of styles and price ranges. You can choose from several priced under $1,000. In fact, the latest models are designed to plug into a smartphone or tablet, and cost only about $250. These mini cameras are pulling more PMPs on board every day.

But users caution that, as you evaluate the features and functions of various models, you need to give thoughtful consideration to how you’ll be using the camera.

Freytag, for example, recommends checking into the availability of a wide-angle lens. He explains, “A wide-angle lens is much better when you’re doing a termite inspection inside a building. Normal or telephoto lenses can be difficult to use, especially in close quarters like small rooms and closets. You need to be able to capture more of the surroundings so that the images you see make sense.”

Moore adds that your choice should depend on the type of work you’re doing. “If you’re not doing quantitative work — that is, if you don’t need exact temperature readings but just need to see variations in temperature — a lower-end model is fine,” he says. “I use a lower-end handheld as well as a smartphone model. The handheld has a better range and a little more sensitivity, plus it gives you the opportunity to fine-tune images, which the smartphone model doesn’t. Still, I carry the smartphone model with me everywhere I go because it’s so convenient. It’s also a good camera to start with when you’re just learning how to use the technology.”

Adds Casey, “The smartphone model can be useful if you understand its limitations and shorter life expectancy (the warranty is generally one year, while handheld models in the $700 range often have warranties extending up to 10 years). The image quality tends to be somewhat lower than more expensive models, too, and you have to be closer to your target than with a higher-end camera. This shorter range can present a challenge when you’re inspecting elevated ceilings, crawlspaces and attics.”

Limitations aside, many PMPs are, like Moore, carrying the smartphone model with them to every account. It’s a cost-effective addition to their toolkit that helps save them time and frustration. “I work with an $8,000 camera and a $250 smartphone camera,” says Freytag. “The pictures look different, but they work on the same principle. We’ve found them both to be very helpful.”

The author is a frequent contributor to PCT magazine. Email her at ddefranco@gie.net.