Written By
Published Jan. 24, 2019

Automotive diagnostics are getting more and more complicated. Gone are the days when you could pinpoint a fault by listening to the engine and carrying out a few checks. Cars are packed with complicated electronics and without expensive diagnostic equipment, you can be at a loss to work out what is going on.

A thermal imaging camera is a useful device that can help you spot a huge number of problems with your vehicle. It can help you to pinpoint electrical issues such as current draw as well as mechanical issues like slipping drive belts and uneven braking. They are simple and safe to operate because you can carry out your assessment from a safe distance. A thermal imaging camera could save you hours of painstaking investigations. To help you choose the right device, here’s our pick of the best thermal imaging cameras.

The Best Thermal Imaging Camera

Ideal for spotting hot spots in your home to identify areas where your insulation has failed and other heating, ventilation and air conditioning applications. This Flir thermal camera is also useful for many electrical and building purposes. For automotive use, it will help you to assess the uniformity of brake rotor temperatures and allows you to troubleshoot tire and belt mechanical issues with your vehicle.

It contains a Class II laser and you don’t need to focus the device, the Lepton IR Imaging Engine will do this for you with a minimum measurement distance of 10 inches, a resolution of 60 x 80 and a 150mK sensitivity. The device can detect temperatures of between – 13 and + 760 degrees F. The refresh rate is 9hz.

Key Features
  • Class II laser thermal imaging camera
  • Detects temperatures from – 13 to + 760 degrees F
  • SD card and USB connectivity
  • 60 x 80 resolution
Specification
  • Brand Spray max
  • Model TG165
  • Weight 2.1 pounds

This very compact infrared thermal camera is essentially a cell phone accessory that is compatible with iOS systems on a range of Apple phones. It is very lightweight and easy to carry around with you and comes with a waterproof case.  It detects thermal energy using a Vanadium Oxide Microbolometer and converts it into an image that is displayed on the screen of your phone with a 12μ pixel pitch.

The camera is capable of detecting temperatures from –40 to 626 degrees F and infrared long waves with a wavelength of 7.2 – 13 micros. It has a chalcogenide lens which has a 20 degree field of view.

Key Features
  • Apple iPhone accessory
  • Detects temperatures from –40 to 626 degrees F
  • Chalcogenide lens
Specification
  • Brand Seek Thermal
  • Model LT-AAA
  • Weight 1 pounds

A lightweight, battery-operated thermal imaging camera that is simple to operate and durable. It’s easy to operate and can be used with just one hand even when you are wearing gloves. It features a 3.5 inch LCD screen with 160 x 120 resolution (19,200 pixels) but you can also share the images you have captured with others via a smartphone app or store them on an SD card. The images are displayed using the standard color palette of rainbow, blue-red, amber and grayscale.

The infrared thermal camera features a laser pointer to help you accurately pinpoint issues and provides a very detailed picture thanks to the 3.39 mRad spatial resolution. Subtle temperature differences are clearly indicated as the thermal sensitivity is an impressive ≤0.10°C at 30°C (100 mK).

Key Features
  • Lightweight and battery operated
  • LCD screen with 160 x 120 resolution
  • SD card or image sharing via app
  • 3.39 mRad spatial resolution
Specification
  • Brand Fluke
  • Model FLK-Ti100 9 Hz
  • Weight 6.35 pounds

This WiFi-enabled thermal imaging camera allows you to share images easily over the internet using a smartphone or tablet app. This particular model has an 80 x 60 IR pixel resolution but models with higher resolutions are available. The camera uses Multi-Spectral dynamic thermal imaging so the thermal image will clearly show details like numbers, letters and textures. This makes it easy to accurately pinpoint exactly where the hot spots are without the need for reference to standard digital images.

This thermal heat camera has a high-quality three-inch LED screen on which you can capture the image through the focus-free lens by pulling a trigger. It comes with a hard case for transport, a USB cable and a rechargeable battery with a charger.

Key Features
  • WiFi enabled for sharing images
  • 80 x 60 IR pixel resolution
  • Three inch LED screen
  • Multi-Spectral dynamic thermal imaging
Specification
  • Brand Dupli-Color
  • Model BSP300
  • Weight 2.3 pounds

A rugged and compact device that is durable enough to survive in a workshop but the delivers accurate and professional-grade thermal images. It’s easy to use with just one hand. The thermal imaging technology will work in the light and the dark and the camera features a powerful LED 300-lumen light. It is powered by a rechargeable battery that will last for up to 10 hours.

It has a 36 degree wide field-of-view and can measure temperatures ranging from – 40 degrees up to 626 degrees F. The 32,000 thermal pixel images can be displayed on the large LED screen or stored on the included SD card.

Key Features
  • Rugged, compact device
  • Rechargeable battery
  • 36 degree field-of-view
  • 32,000 thermal pixel images
Specification
  • Brand Seek Thermal
  • Model RW-AAA
  • Weight 0.16 ounces

A superbly compact pocket device that provides thermal images with impressive clarity to help you identify automotive issues as well as being suitable for domestic and construction applications. It can capture up to 500 radiometric images and delivers an image of 4800 pixels. It can detect temperatures ranging from 14 degrees F to 302 degrees F.

This Flir camera iPhone attachment has two measurement modes (center spot or area min/max) and has a focus-free operation that delivers an image onto the three-inch screen or through a WiFi connection to other mobile platforms. The image frequency is 9 Hz.

Key Features
  • Compact pocket device
  • Detects temperatures from 14 degrees to 302 degrees F
  • Focus free operation
  • 4800 pixels image
  • WiFi connectivity
Specification
  • Brand FLIR
  • Model 72003-0303
  • Weight 4.8 ounces

A fast and versatile tool that is very easy to use and delivers 160 x 120 pixel resolution thermal images onto the in-built 3.5 inch high resolution LED screen. Images can also be stored on the 2 GB SD card or exported via a USB cable. 

It will detect temperatures ranging from -10 degrees C to 350 degrees C and will spot problems with motors and machinery making it very useful for automotive applications. The camera has a trigger capture action and is powered by a rechargeable lithium battery.

Key Features
  • 3.5 inch high-resolution LED screen
  • SD card and USB cable
  • Temperature detection from -10 degrees C to 350 degrees C
Specification
  • Brand Milwaukee
  • Model 2260-21
  • Weight 11.56 pounds

A great choice for real-time thermal imaging, this camera gives you 220 x 160 resolution at 35,200 pixels. The camera is in a gun-style with an ergonomic handle. It will detect and display images of temperatures ranging from -4 degrees to 572 degrees F and displays with an image frequency of 9 Hz.

You can choose your color palette from rainbow, iron oxide red, cold color, black and white and it is displayed on a 3.2-inch full-color display screen. Alternatively, the images can be stored on an SD card or transferred to other devices via a USB cable. The results are highly accurate and are within 2.5 degrees F of the actual temperature. It is lightweight and comes with a handy travel pouch.

Key Features
  • Images are 220 x 160 resolution at 35200 pixel
  • Gun-style ergonomic handle
  • Images displayed at 9 Hz
  • Detects temperatures ranging from -4 degrees to 572 degrees F
Specification
  • Brand HTI@XT Instrument
  • Model Hti18
  • Weight 13.3 ounces

This thermal camera provides a reasonable resolution at 220 x 160 and 35,200 pixels. It has a built-in 3.2 inch display screen but the images can also be exported using a USB cable or stored on the built-in 4GB SD card. It captures images at a frequency of 9 Hz and the emissivity can be adjusted from 0.1 to 1.0.

You do not have to focus the camera and the field angle is 27 degrees x 35 degrees. It can detect temperatures of between -4 degrees and 572 degrees F with an accuracy of +/- 2.5 %. Thanks to the enhanced image overlay, you can position regular images over the thermal images so that you can locate hotspots with pinpoint accuracy making it ideal for automotive applications.

Key Features
  • 220 x 160 and 35,200 pixel resolution
  • Images displayed at 9 Hz frequency
  • Detects temperatures of between -4 degrees and 572 degrees F
  • Built-in SD card and USB export
Specification
  • Brand Perfect-Prime
  • Model IR0018
  • Weight 1.29 pounds

A useful and compact thermal imaging camera that works through your smartphone and that displays the results on your phone screen. It is compatible with the iOS system on your phone or tablet. The rugged case houses a sensitive 160 x 120 resolution sensor to give you a sharp image.

It will detect temperatures from -4 degrees to 752 degrees F and allows you to take an accurate measurement from a safe distance. Thanks to the MSX image enhancement you get the highest quality image. It connects seamlessly with the app on your smartphone and allows you to share images easily. It comes with a protective case and a charging cable.

Key Features
  • For use with a smartphone
  • Rugged case housing
  • 160 x 120 resolution sensor
  • Detects temperatures from -4 degrees to 752 degrees F
Specification
  • Brand FLIR
  • Model 435-0006-02
  • Weight 1.28 ounces

Best Thermal Imaging Camera Buying Guide

What to Look for in a Good Infrared Camera

If you have never bought a thermal imaging camera before, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the technical jargon. Here’s a simple guide to what you should look out for when making a purchase.

  • Resolution

The resolution of an infrared camera refers to how crisp and clear the image results will be. Images that are not so clear cannot show fine detail and it may be harder to spot exactly where the warmer areas are. However, the higher resolution cameras are more expensive and a cheap thermal imaging camera will have a lower resolution so it is a case of balancing your need for detailed images with your budget.

Thermal imaging cameras do not have very high resolution compared to screens for computers. Typically, you would see values of around 160 × 120 which is 19,200 pixels. Check that you are looking at the values for the detector and not for the LED screen on the device as this could be different. There is little point in paying for a high-resolution screen when the detector resolution is low.

  • Ease of use

Ideally, you want a device that can be set up in seconds and can be operated using one hand. You don’t want to spend hours putting it together. Many thermal imaging cameras are operated by a simple trigger and do not require you to focus them at all.

  • Range of temperature detection

The wider the range the better as you are more likely to pick up temperature anomalies. The more expensive cameras have a wider range so it is a case of getting the best you can for your budget. If subtle temperature differences are important to you, you need a device that has a high thermal sensitivity. A good value would be around  ≤0.10°C at 30°C (100 mK) and this would be sufficient for most automotive applications.

  • Image display

It is important that you have a clear view of the image so that you can analyze what is going on. Many thermal imaging cameras come with built-in LED screens that are around three inches wide to give you a clear view of the image.  Some cameras can overlay a standard light image with the thermal image to give you more detail.

  • Exporting images

Sometimes you need to store the image to look at later or to share with others. To do this you need an infrared camera with the facility to store the image on an SD card and many devices come with SD cards of around 4 GB. You may also be able to transfer the images via a USB cable to other devices such as laptops.

Some of the more expensive thermographic cameras have WiFi connectivity. You can share images via a smartphone app.

  • Smartphone compatibility

If you like the idea of a compact thermographic camera that will use the screen on your smartphone, there are several cameras available that will slot into your phone and provide a decent image. These tend to be cheaper than the stand-alone cameras but the resolution may not be so high. You can share the images easily via a smartphone app and the device is very easy to carry around.

  • Image frequency

The image frequency indicates how often the image is refreshed and this could be important when the engine is running and the temperature distribution is changing. Most cameras have a frequency of nine Hz which is nine cycles per second.

  • Durability

To survive in a workshop, the camera needs to be durable and robust. It needs to have a hard case so it can withstand being dropped or thrown into a toolbox!

man using thermal imaging camera

Why You Should Use an Infrared Camera

Vehicle diagnostics have changed dramatically over the last few decades. Some motor enthusiasts may remember the days when you could tell what was wrong with your car by how it sounded or how it smelt. These days, electronic equipment controls everything from how your car starts to how much fuel is delivered to the engine. It’s a lot harder to ‘see’ what is going on with your vehicle but thanks to thermal imaging cameras you can now have a clearer insight into what may be going wrong.

A thermal imaging camera gives you a visual image to work from and this makes the diagnosis quicker and more accurate.  Here are just a few of the faults that your thermal imaging camera could detect.

  • Excess current draw
  • Current draw when the ignition is turned off
  • Plugged catalytic converter
  • Stuck EGR valve
  • Identifying a misfiring cylinder (exhaust manifold)
  • Faulty seat heaters
  • Broken wires on window defoggers
  • Mass airflow sensor problems
  • Identifying dead battery cells
  • Spot a bad idler bearing
  • Identify a slipping drive belt
  • Find a clogged A/C condenser or evaporator
  • Find issues with the radiator or heater cores (cold spots)
  • Highlight a dragging brake caliper
  • Spot leaking hot engine oil
  • Identify uneven braking

In automotive diagnostics, a thermal imaging camera is of most use in the engine compartment, the brake system and the heating and cooling systems. However, they are also very useful in construction for spotting issues with insulation and for electrics and plumbing. Issues with domestic and commercial heating and air-conditioning systems can also be spotted quickly using this device.

The Best Thermal Imaging Camera Brands

You can spend hours researching infrared cameras, comparing resolutions, temperature ranges, reading reviews and scanning product specifications. Or, you can stick with a household name that thousands of customers trust. Flir is a highly respected brand in this field and leads the way with thermal imaging technology. Their products are regarded as the best out there when it comes to high image resolution and connectivity. Their products may not be the cheapest on the market but they do represent excellent value for money.

If you are looking for a more professional grade of product, an alternative is the Fluke range. They represent a considerable financial investment so they may not appeal to the average casual user but they do offer the highest levels of thermal imaging technology. The other advantage is that they integrate seamlessly with other Fluke devices including multimeters and vibration meters.

thermal imaging camera

Best Thermal Imaging Camera FAQ:

Q: What is a Thermal Imaging Camera?

Cameras are used to capture images. Normal cameras capture an image using light that humans can detect. However, our eyes can only see a very narrow band of light and this is referred to as visible light. Visible light is one type of electromagnetic radiation and it travels through space as waves.  All types of radiation are found on a spectrum of waves that all have different wavelengths including radio waves and microwaves. Infrared radiation is also found on the electromagnetic spectrum and thermal imaging cameras use this type of radiation to produce an image. The amount of infrared radiation that an object emits correlates with its temperature so the image is like a temperature map of the image.

Q: How does a thermal image camera work?

Infrared radiation is emitted by all objects. We can’t see it but we can feel it so if you put your hand in front of a flame or a heater you can sense the heat on your skin. Cooler objects also emit infrared radiation but you cannot feel it. Half of the energy emitted by the sun is a combination of ultraviolet and infrared radiation and this is why sunlight can feel warm on your skin. Hotter objects give off a higher level of infrared radiation. Therefore, if you had a device that could measure levels of infrared radiation it would tell you how hot things are without you getting near them. That is exactly what a thermal imaging camera is. It detects this radiation and converts it to an image using different shades of visible light that we can see on a screen. Thermal imaging cameras contain many tiny devices called microbolometers and there is one for each pixel. Every microbolometer captures infrared radiation and converts its pixel into a color to match the level of radiation. For example, a very high temperature would emit a lot of radiation and the microbolometer that picks this up would convert it to a bright yellow/orange color. Most thermal cameras have a low resolution which is seldom more than around 640×480.

Q: What temperature range can these cameras detect?

The temperature range is given in the specifications or the user manual for each camera. This is the range of temperatures that the camera is able to detect. Typical examples are – 13 degrees F to + 760 degrees F for the more sophisticated hand-held devices that cost more money. On the other hand, the cheaper devices that fit into your smartphone may have a narrower range of temperature detection such as +14 degrees F to +302 degrees F.

Our Top Pick

Out top pick of the best thermal imaging cameras is perfect for identifying hot spots in your home or in your motor vehicle. You can spot mechanical issues quickly and easily.

The device contains a Class II laser and a Lepton IR Imaging Engine and it has a resolution of 60 x 80 pixels. You can use it to detect temperatures of between – 13 and + 760 degrees F with an image refresh rate of 9hz.

This best infrared camera is compact, simple to operate and robust. The images can be seen immediately on the screen or stored on an SD card. They can also be exported to other devices using the USB cable.

Sources:

  1. How Thermal Imaging Works – howstuffworks
  2. How Night Vision Works – howstuffworks

MORE TO READ