“What kind of training do I need?” is the most frequently asked question of any potential thermographer.
Despite many forms of training being offered, the answer in my opinion is quite simple… start with a Level 1 Certified Infrared Thermographer course and work your way up from there. Level 1 will provide a budding thermographer with the most comprehensive overview of what they need to know to become proficient in the field, across virtually all applications. Level 1 provides comprehensive insight into the major thermography applications (electrical, mechanical, building sciences) as well as fundamental grounding in infrared theory, equipment selection, camera operation, industry standards and standard compliant reporting.
There are 3 levels of formally recognised training. ASNT SNT-TC-1A designates these as levels 1, 2 and 3 while ISO 18436-7 designates these as CAT 1, 2 and 3. These levels and the required curriculum are detailed in the respective standards.
The rate that each thermographer progresses will be up to the individual, but in general the more your learn the better you will become.
Human nature is to save time or money, and as a result we try and take shortcuts. Thermographers are no exception and many try to get away with minimal training… but it will cost them in the long run. Improper equipment, poor technique, missed exceptions, on-going unplanned failures or faults occurring, poor or incomplete documentation… all these elements provide evidence of inexperience or lack of training (or both) and will cost your reputation or even expose you to liability.
Performing a professional infrared inspection is much more than being able to simply use a thermal camera. Most modern thermal imagers are very easy to use and have user interfaces that are commonly found on modern electronic devices found in the home. If you can use a computer, mobile phone or digital home entertainment system, chances are you won’t be too challenged by the interface on a thermal imager. I have no doubt that anyone within a few moments would be capable of capturing and storing images, changing colour palettes and generally being able to navigate their way around the camera.
A professional infrared inspection is all about gathering accurate and reliable data, correctly interpreting that data and then being able to communicate your findings to your end user in such a way that they can make reliable and informed decisions around their maintenance practices, structures or operational processes. This requires a whole lot more knowledge and experience that pressing buttons on your camera.
Must I be certified to be a practicing thermographer?
No. There are no set regulations that specify any training requirements. There is however industry standards and guidelines pertaining to electrical and mechanical inspections, building performance, roof inspections, equine, solar panels (just to name a few). Most ends users are also well educated on thermography practices and will have an expectation as to the level of training and competency they require. In today’s industry, Level 1 is often considered the minimum requirement.
Why is it so challenging to perform a survey? Surely I would pick it up with practice, it looks so easy?
There are several reasons that aren’t so obvious to the novice thermographer.
Temperature Measurement vs Infrared Radiation
One of the most common misconceptions is that thermal imagers measure temperature. They don’t. They measure radiant power and that has several implications to the accuracy of observed temperatures (which we call apparent temperatures) and the thermal patterns created across the surface of the target. Radiant power can only be converted to a temperature measurement once we know the characteristics of the material we are observing. Due to the enormous variation of materials and their surfaces found in the real world, these characteristics are dynamic and can result in misleading thermal patterns as well as significant temperature measurement errors. Most novices report the apparent temperatures with little regard to the error sources. The result is often grossly misleading temperature information and misdiagnosis of fault conditions.
Emissivity, Reflectance and Transmittance are fundamental aspects of infrared theory that MUST be understood for a thermographer to properly interpret a thermal image.
Another less than obvious limitation is the equipment capabilities. Equipment varies enormously in price and specification and this can have a significant impact on the accuracy and quality of the data you can collect. It is important for every thermographer to understand the limitations of their equipment and work within those boundaries otherwise their data is erroneous. If you own a camera yourself right now can you answer the following question?
What is the smallest size target I can accurately measure at say 1 meter distance?
This is known as the spot measurement size and very few thermographers are aware of this fundamental performance characteristic (not to be confused with the IFOV). Having an incorrect spot size will yield massive errors in accurate temperature measurement, and a thermographer must be aware of the required distance to the target and the resulting spot size to obtain an accurate measurement on the target.
This is just one aspect of performance and there are many that need to be understood to avoid erroneous data collection.
Target, Object or System requirements
To obtain accurate information the target or system being inspected must be under the correct conditions which are favourable for gathering accurate infrared data. This may include physical or environmental conditions, load, time of day etc. Thermographers often fail this fundamental pre-requisite for gathering reliable and repeatable data.
Reporting & Industry Standards
One of the most important parts of any infrared inspection program is the written report. This serves as a critical communication tool to enable end users to make informed decisions about their structures or systems being inspected. Industry standards dictate specific reporting requirements as well as methods and procedures that ensure a minimum level of quality. Formal training will provide you with the necessary introduction to these standards and a means for complying with the relevant industry codes of practice.
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of standard compliance is that the standard will also reference the thermographer training requirements.
What about the free half day course?
Many manufacturers will offer free half day training with any camera purchased. Honestly, in 3 or 4 hours it’s impossible to teach you to any level of competency, other than to familiarise you with your hardware and the basics of operation. When you consider that a level 1 course is 36 hours, and level 2 is another 36 hours, and level 3 is 24 hours, you can appreciate that the learning pathway is significant. A camera manufacturer will rarely disclose the required learning as it is a disincentive for equipment sales. Often they will solely focus on the ease of camera operation rather than the science of performing an infrared inspection or the ability to provide accurate temperature measurement. More often that not, this training is delivered by sales representative without formal training themselves or infield experience in performing infrared inspections.
What about 1 and 2 day course?
This is a much better alternative to any half day course and these types of courses will usually cover a combination of practical camera operation as well as some of the fundamentals of infrared theory and will introduce you to concepts of resolution, sensitivity, lenses (angles), as well as the effects of emittance, reflectance and transmittance. Check the course curriculum to make sure it covers your area of interest. A 1 or 2 day course will not meet the minimum requirements for certification, which is 36 hours for ISO and 32 hours for ASNT requirements. It is however a good starting point for in-house personnel. The reason I say in-house (as opposed to external contractor) is because there are usually less demands placed upon employees to perform to the same level of an external provider. Companies (employers) are also largely responsible for the individuals training and subsequent performance. That said, in today’s world, many companies are well educated on the benefits and returns from adopting an effective infrared inspection program and will not risk the failure of their program by providing minimal training to employees. Quite simply, no matter which way you look at it, the risk and subsequent cost of an unplanned event or failure of a process or systems is always more expensive than investing in the appropriate equipment and training.
With only 1 or 2 days in the classroom, chances are you won’t cover: application specific techniques, industry standards, standard compliance and reporting. It is also unlikely that you will have a comprehensive understanding of infrared radiation and be able to accurately measure temperature by compensating for emittance, reflectance and transmittance.
Don’t risk failure!
Don’t risk the success of your business or infrared inspection program by undertaking minimal training. Make sure you seek a quality training organisation that has credible trainers with real world experience. If possible, seek independent training free of manufacturer bias. Manufacture based training tends to have a high content of sales based material, or focuses solely on the capabilities of the equipment they sell. This can often be limiting or insular.
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