The Modern Tools You Should Expect
in Your Home Inspection and Environmental Professional's Tool Bag
Picture 50 years ago when Dick Tracey was in the Sunday Comic section. If you are about my age, you will remember when his communication equipment was upgraded from a wrist radio to a wrist TV. That was science fiction then, and old news now. If you don't remember back that far, take yourself back to the Star Trek Communicator. The modern wrist TV ( Apple Watch ) does everything Dick Tracy's wrist TV did and a whole lot more. Tools to understand our buildings have come every bit as far.
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The leap in testing and inspection technology is nothing short of amazing. The good news is that we can check, test and know so much more about health and safety issues than ever before. The bad news is that these new "magic of modern science" tools require much more training and education to use properly. The other real problem is the misuse of these instruments. Every tool has its use and limitations. A chisel can be used to carve an angel in a wooden casket. In the wrong hands, it can also gouge and ruin a beautiful piece of wood. Owning a tool is not enough.
When talking tools for inspection today, the flashlight, screwdrivers, level and ladder are still basic essentials. Additional entry level tools for today are digital cameras, combustible gas detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, and radon monitors.
Not all inspectors have these tools, and you should consider finding another inspector if the one you contact doesn't even have the basics.
Now for the really neat and very important tools that you want your environmental and home inspector to have in their tool box. If they don't have these tools and the proper training in their use, consider finding another inspector.
Infrared (IR) Cameras
This is an amazing tool. It is important enough to carry on all inspections. A few years ago this tool was so large that it came with an "over the shoulder" harness to hold the weight of the camera. Those cameras made the old VHS Camcorders look small. They had a grainy picture resolution to boot.
Now I carry a high quality infrared camera in my pocket. The only thing that is bigger on my modern Infrared camera than the old cameras is the screen. The screen on my latest IR camera is about double the screen size on the heavy old infrared beast of days gone by.
The IR camera differentiates temperature differences. It does not directly detect moisture, air leaks or mold, which is often the consumer's misinformed interpretation. It simply tells surface temperature differences. It is the understanding of how each of the possible factors that can result in temperature differences are occurring that makes it a useful tool. As an parallel example, a medical x-ray measures density variations. It is understanding "why" there are density variations that makes it a useful tool in the hands of an expert.
Having a Infrared camera in my hand at an inspection provides another layer of information that can get to the root of problems. It can show problems from moisture issues to electrical systems overheating. In dishonest or unqualified hands, it has been pulled out to convince customers of serious problems that are not really there.
Fiber Optic Cameras
These can look in small openings to see hidden areas. It is really a tool similar to (forgive the image that this analogy may bring you ) the scope used for a colonoscopy. It is easy to use this tool to see inside of a heat exchanger on a mid efficiency furnace. Another example of a good use for this tool is after drilling a 1/2" hole, the fiber-optic tube to be used to look into hidden wall and ceiling areas.
This is essential in many cases when the level or source of moisture is uncertain. This is great for levels of moisture that are elevated, but too low to tell by using our senses. There are pin, surface and air testing moisture meters. They each have their use and at times are essential tools.
This is the amazing tool you have seen on TV news segments to prove that a cell phone has more germs than a toilet seat. Yep, that disgusting observation is often true. I should know, I have used my Luminometer in one of those TV news segments.
The Luminometer is in essence a DNA reader. It tells us the relative amount of material in the tested area that is living cells. The cells can be mold, skin cells, dust mites, pollen or dog drool. If it is organic, it registers on the screen.
Its original use was in the food industry. It was an economical and accurate way to determine if a food preparation area is clean. If there isn't any organic material on a surface, there is not E.cloli, Coliform, MRSA, Legionella or any other contaminants. If there is organic material on the samples area, It could be any of the contaminants mentioned above. The conclusion would be that the surface still needed to be sanitized. Other uses of the instrument are to confirm a clean operating room, ice maker, medical device or a host of other areas that must be clean of any and all organic material.
In the hands of a unscrupulous mold salesman, the Luminometer is brought out and a spot where any organic material would settle is tested. This is done with the specialized swab being rubbed across the surface and then placed into the device. A number of Relative Light Units (RLU) appears on the screen and they give you a sales pitch to do a mold cleanup. A reading on a Luminometer is not a mold test. You could rub the swab on your refrigerator handle or a light switch and get sky high readings from the oil on your skin. Modern science has brought us new tools to help us know and understand health and safety risks and exposures in our homes and businesses. The old tools and knowledge are also critical for understanding building science. When the full range of tools and education are put into the right hands, they are an important part of understanding our buildings.