The Home Inspector

Reuben Saltzman is a second-generation home inspector with a passion for his work. Naturally, this blog is all about home inspections and home-related topics in the Twin Cities metro area. In addition to working at Structure Tech, he is also a licensed Truth-In-Sale of Housing Evaluator in Minneapolis, Saint Paul and several other cities.

Posts about Tools

A Home Inspector's Review of the Flir One Infrared Camera for the iPhone

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: September 1, 2014 - 8:04 AM

About a year ago, I heard about an Indiegogo funding campaign to develop an infrared camera that would attach to a smartphone; it was called the Mu Thermal Camera .  This project was delayed so many times that I began to think that it might never happen.  At the very beginning of this year, Flir announced they were developing essentially the same thing, calling it the Flir One and selling it for under $350; far less than any other infrared camera available today.

My biggest question was whether this camera would be a viable alternative to a traditional infrared camera for home inspectors.  As soon as the camera became available for order, I ordered one.  It showed up on Wednesday, 8/20.

The Basics

The Flir One camera attaches to the iPhone 5 and 5s models.  It has its own built-in battery, which charges with a standard micro-usb cable.  That's nice.  Unfortunately, the iPhone can't be charged at the same time, which is quite annoying.

Getting started was easy, even though I've never owned an iPhone.  I went to iPhone app store, downloaded and ran the required app, and the software guided me through the rest.  Piece of cake.

Size

The Flir One comes with a little black case that the iPhone pops into, which then slides into the camera assembly.  It makes the whole package about twice as thick as an iPhone, and a little taller; approximately the height of a Galaxy 4S phone.  It's small enough to slip into a pocket, but it's a big lump.  That's a lot better than any other IR camera, but the size of my infrared camera has never been a problem for me.  When I inspect houses, I bring a big bag of tools into the house with me every time; I have my infrared camera with me whether I plan to use it or not.  Making the camera smaller won't change that.

Shape

I tried using the Flir One at my last two home inspections, and it felt clumsy.  The Flir One is the opposite of ergonomic.   You really need two hands to hold the camera and take photos; trying to do it one handed seemed like a sure-fire way to drop the phone and break it.  Just like taking photos with a smartphone, you need to touch the screen to capture an image while you're still holding the phone.  See below; I have my pointer finger hovering over the "capture" button while I'm holding the phone with my middle finger and thumb.

Holding Flir One

While the volume button works to capture photos with the iPhone, not so with the Flir One software.

I'm sure that I would drop and break this phone within a month of using it if I started using it for home inspections, and my understanding is that it doesn't take a much of fall to break the screen on an iPhone.  Aftermarket phone cases help to protect the iPhone from falls, but that's not an option when the phone is connected to the Flir One.

Every other infrared camera I've owned has had a pistol-grip with a trigger for taking photos, making them perfect for one-handed operation.  The image below shows my current infrared camera, the Flir E6.

Holding a Flir E6

Even if I drop my E6 camera, it won't break.  Before buying this camera, one of the Flir reps tossed the camera up into the air and let it fall onto the concrete floor, just to show how durable and rugged they are. I'm sure the Flir One wouldn't tolerate any kind of abuse like that.

Software Options

The Flir One app has very few options.  There are the standard color palates like "iron" and "rainbow", as well as a bunch of fairly useless ones like "hottest", "coldest", and "arctic".   Emmissivity settings can be changed, the save location of images can be changed, the temperature units can be set to Celsius or Fahrenheit.  There's also an option to turn on a spot meter, which displays the temperature of whatever is shown in the middle of the screen.  That's about it for options.

Resolution

The infrared camera has a resolution of 80x60.  Infrared images are combined with optical images, which gives a much clearer image on the screen than you'd get with just an infrared image.  Flir calls this Multi-Spectral Dynamic imaging, or "MSX" technology.  I have the same technology on my E6 camera, and I absolutely love it.  It seems to highlight the edges of objects, which gives you a much better understanding of what you're looking at with the camera.  My Flir E6 has an infrared resolution of 160x120, which is about four times the resolution of the Flir One (19,200 pixels vs  4,700).  To show the power of MSX technology, take at look at the two images below. No-MSX vs Flir One

The image on the right looks a heck of a lot better, doesn't it?  The funny thing is that the image on the left is from the much higher resolution E6 camera with the MSX technology turned off, while the image on the right is the far lower resolution image of the Flir One.  The MSX technology makes the much lower resolution image of the Flir One look far better.

Side note: this makes me contemplate the difference between real value and perceived value.

When using the Flir One in well-lit environments like the images above, everything looks great.  In the dark... not so much.   The two images below show the same room with the lights turned off.  All of the benefit provided by the MSX technology disappears, leaving you with a few indiscernible orange blobs. Using the Flir One in a poorly lit attic would probably be quite frustrating.

No-MSX vs Flir One Lights Out

I think this test is the most telling, because it shows you what information the Flir One is really giving you. The perceived value is far higher than the actual value when the lights are on.

Usefulness

To me, the biggest question is whether this camera could be used to do the same stuff that other infrared cameras can do.  Sometimes I use my infrared camera as a time-saving device; I'll quickly scan all of the radiators or supply registers in a house to make sure they're all working properly.  It does a fine job of that. The images below again show a side-by-side comparison between an E6 and the Flir One.

Radiator Register

Sometimes infrared cameras can be used to find wet spots.  I poured a little bit of water into a cardboard box and recorded the images, showing how the cold spots compared.  The Flir One wasn't great at this, but if you were to really take your time and scan things slowly and up close, you could probably identify the same stuff.  It's just not nearly as obvious.

Wet box 3

The Flir One also seems to do a fine job of identifying hot spots at electric panels, although this test revealed that the infrared image isn't perfectly blended with the optical image on the Flir One.  If you look carefully at the image below, you'll see that the cold tips of the circuit breakers don't match up quite right with the image.  That's annoying.

Breaker panel 2

While I don't find that the exact temperature reading is all that important, it was reassuring to see that the spot temperature readings of the E6 and Flir One were basically identical.  In the images above, you'll notice that both cameras identified the temperature of the circuit breaker at 114 degrees F.

Range

The temperature range of the Flir One is 32° F to 212° F.

32° F to 212° F.  Huh.

That makes this camera pretty much useless in Minnesota attics during the winter, which is one of the most useful places to take an infrared camera during a home inspection.

Another important thing to note is the operating temperature range of this camera: 32° F to 95° F.  Ouch. That almost relegates this camera to the class of "cool toy".

Conclusion

All in all, this is a neat device.  If you've always wanted an infrared camera but just haven't wanted to fork out over a thousand dollars for it, this is the camera for you, assuming you already own an iPhone 5.

If you're a home inspector and you've been looking to add an infrared camera to your tool bag, don't buy this camera.  The resolution is low, it's clumsy to use, you'll surely break it, and the temperature range is unacceptable.  Go with a dedicated infrared camera.  I've tested many different infrared cameras, and I've been happy with a resolution of at least 120x120.  My advice is to go with the E6, which currently retails for about $2,500.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

This Home Inspectors Update on Flashlights

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: January 24, 2014 - 5:09 AM

Two years ago I wrote a blog post titled "This Home Inspector's Love Affair With Flashlights", wherein I gushed about my new Fenix TK35 flashlight.  Over the past two years I've tried a number of other flashlights, and I'm happy to say that the Fenix TK35 is still my go-to flashlight, but if my dream flashlight ever gets made, I'll kick the TK35 to the curb.  I'll come back to that.  Today, I'll give my two cents on a few other LED flashlights that I've tried.  The flashlights below all use the same 18650 lithium ion batteries.

By the way, this is a home inspectors perspective; if you're looking for technical flashlight reviews, check out CandlePowerForums.

Armytek Barracuda XM-L2 (Warm)

Barracuda Flashlight This is an extremely impressive looking flashlight that feels great in your hand and could easily double as a club.  With a stated max light output of 1240 lumens, it's the brightest of all the flashlights mentioned here.  It also had a very warm light output, which means the light looked yellow-ish, not white or blue.  The flashlight comes in a padded case along with batteries, a belt holster, two 18650 batteries, an AC battery charger, and a DC battery charger.  Not all of that stuff is listed on the web site, so I'm not sure why they were included.

My problem with this flashlight is that it's unwieldy.  To carry this flashlight around, I had to use the holster.  Once the flashlight is in the holster it's secure and won't fall out, but it's not easy to put the flashlight into the holster or take it out.  This is also a flashlight that requires two-handed operation; it takes two hands to get the flashlight out of the holster, and then takes two hands to turn it on, because the on/off switch is located on the bottom of the flashlight.

As a home inspector, I probably take my flashlight out of my pouch, turn it on, turn it off, then put it back into my pouch about 50 - 100 times during each inspection.  With the amount of time and effort it takes to get this flashlight out of it's holster and turn it on, the flashlight is unusable.  It's marketed as a "Search and Rescue" flashlight; maybe it would do a great job at that, but I wouldn't know.

http://www.armytek.com/products/flashlights/search-and-rescue/armytek-barracuda-xm-l2-warm-black.html

Fenix TK35

TK35This flashlight is my workhorse.  I've been using this flashlight for over two years now, and it has served me well.  It has a stated max output of 820 to 900 lumens, it feels great in your hand, and has separate buttons for on/off and brightness.

I keep this flashlight in my tool pouch, so it's easy to grab and put away with one hand.  Because of it's compact shape, operating this flashlight with one hand feels natural.  You can't go wrong with this flashlight.

Fenix also has great warranty service; I wore out the rubber button at the bottom of the flashlight this fall and had to send the flashlight in for repair.  Instead of replacing the piece of rubber, they just sent me a brand new flashlight.  It seemed a bit excessive, but I sure didn't complain.

http://www.fenixlighting.com/products/fenix-flashlights-tk35-led-flashlight.aspx

TK35 Knock-Off

TK35 KnockoffSearch Ebay for TK35 and you'll find a TK35 knock-off flashlight selling for under $50, which includes batteries and a charger.  I ordered one of these to use as a backup flashlight while my TK35 was out for repair, and found that I pretty much got what I paid for.

  • While the light output on the TK35 is white, the light output on the knockoff is blue.
  • The TK35 remembers the last brightness setting, but the knockoff resets every time the flashlight is turned off.  This is extremely annoying.
  • The buttons on the knockoff are recessed just a little more than the buttons on the TK35, making them more difficult to operate with one hand.  It's much more annoying than you might think.
  • The light seems to flicker, much like a fluorescent light flickers when you see it out of the corner of your eye.  Maybe that has something to do with the cool spectrum of light?

A couple of other guys in my company bought this knockoff flashlight before I did, and I'm pretty sure none of their flashlights are working any more.  Of course, this light doesn't come with any kind of warranty.  Don't buy this POS.

UltraFire C8

UltraFire C8I recommend this flashlight as an inexpensive backup to anyone that already has the 18650 batteries and charger.  This flashlight can be purchased on Amazon for under $10, and the light output is very similar to that of the TK35.  It has a stated output of 1000 lumens.

My main complaint with this flashlight is that it's difficult to toggle brightness modes; you need to give the on/off button a half push to cycle through modes, and it takes a while to get the feel of what a half-click is.  Also, if the batteries don't have a full charge this flashlight refuses to stay on the brightest setting.

Fenix TK22

Fenix TK22 This isn't a bad flashlight, but as far as I can tell the main thing that differentiates this flashlight is that it's waterproof.  For a home inspector, that's not a selling feature.  With a $95 price tag on Amazon and a max light output of 650 lumens, I see no reason to purchase this flashlight.

http://www.fenixlighting.com/products/fenix-tk22-led-flashlight.aspx

Fenix PD35

Fenix PD35This flashlight is cute as a button, looking like an oversized pen light.  If you need to carry a club around, forget this flashlight.   The surprising thing about this flashlight is the brightness; it has an impressive 850 lumen output.  In a head-to-head comparison, I couldn't tell which flashlight was brighter; my TK35 or this one.  If I had to buy a new flashlight, I'd get this one and I'd probably start using it in place of my TK35.   Amazon sells this flashlight for $75.

With a flashlight this small, I can even use my retractable tool tether.

See the flashlight details here: http://www.fenixlighting.com/products/fenix-pd35-led-flashlight.aspx

The flashlights discussed above are shown below for size comparison.  Click the image for a high-res version.

LED Flashlight Lineup

My Dream Flashlight

Ultra Stinger FlashlightThe first flashlight I used as a home inspector was an Ultra Stinger, and I still miss the design.  The shaft was long and skinny, so I marked it at one-inch increments to use it as a ruler.  I would frequently include it in home inspection photos showing things like balusters spaced too far apart at guardrails, or auto-reverse sensors installed too high at garage door openers.  Because the shaft was skinny and didn't have a flared base, it was nice to use my flashlight to measure insulation in attics as well. Reuben ultrastinger

I used a belt loop holster to keep the flashlight on my left hip, and I could easily pull the flashlight out and put it back with either hand.  When walking around in attics, I could turn the light on and leave it attached to my hip when I needed to climb around with two hands, which was great.

Finally, this flashlight had very easy one-handed operation, because the switch was ergonomically located near the head of the flashlight.

I would still use this flashlight today if not for the miserable battery life and sub-par light output.  The bulbs used to burn out constantly, so I installed an aftermarket TerraLux LED light bulb, which increased the light output and battery life, but it was too little too late.  The Ni-Cad batteries just don't compare to lithium ion.

The perfect flashlight for a home inspector would be something the same size and shape as the Stinger Ultra, would have a powerful LED light bulb with a wide spill and minimal spot focus, would take two 18650 lithium ion batteries, and would come with some kind of high visibility etching in the shaft showing 1" measurements. I still have my belt holster.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Author: Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

          

Quick Tip: Make A Better Allen Wrench

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: December 19, 2012 - 5:06 AM

Allen wrenches, aka 'hex' wrenches, are those "L" shaped wrenches that come included with just about anything you buy from IKEA.  I save these wrenches every time I get one, and I've accumulated a nice little hodge-podge collection of wrenches over the years.

Allen wrenches

To make sure you always have the size you need, it's a good idea to get a folding wrench set with all of the sizes built in - both metric and standard.  I consider this a must-have for any basic tool set.  I have two wrenches, one for metric and one for standard.

Allen wrenches

One day, my wife and I were putting something together that needed a lot of allen wrench turning, and I started telling her about how I should buy a set of allen wrenches that have socket wrench ends on 'em, like the set pictured below.

Allen wrench socket set

My wife then suggested I just cut the end off one of the "L" shaped allen wrenches and stick it in my drill.

Harumph.

I could have thought of that.

I just didn't want to.

It took me about 30 seconds to cut the end off and file it down, turning the L shaped allen wrench in to a hexagonal stick that I could put in my cordless drill.

A better allen wrench

The assembly project we were working on went much faster after that.  I was so happy with this 'invention' that I made a full set out of my spare wrenches.  I drilled a bunch of holes in a block of wood to store my wrenches in.  It's probably not the best way to store them, but it was the first thing I thought of and it's worked fine for me ever since.

A better allen wrench set

Now go forth and make your own set.  Just for fun, here's a video of me demonstrating how to make your own set, along with some questionable relationship advice.

Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

        

      

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