Home-insulation firm touring neighborhoods for thermal imaging

Images on the vans laptop.
Images on the vans laptop. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 27, 2011

You may, perhaps, spot a garishly decorated Ford Escape cruising down your block in the coming months with a camera mounted on its roof.

Yes, that SUV is snapping an image of your house.

Mark Group, a home-weatherization firm, is launching a mobile thermal-imaging effort Thursday to identify buildings in the region that leak the most energy. The company calls its high-tech vehicle the HeatSeeker.

One might think this is a gimmick to generate business for Mark Group, a British home-insulation giant that last year established its American beachhead at Philadelphia's Navy Yard.

One would be correct.

But officials also see it as a means to draw public attention to the great environmental benefits derived from energy conservation. Mayor Nutter, who is promoting Philadelphia as a green city, will be on hand Thursday to put his imprimatur on the project.

Jeff Bartos, president and chief executive of Mark Group Inc., the company's U.S. affiliate, said the colorful thermal images bring the abstract concept of heat loss into focus.

"When I talk to customers about the technology and about their homes, it demystifies or simplifies home energy efficiency," Bartos said.

Mark Group has operated similar vehicles in Britain for three years and identified one million leaky houses out of 2.2 million scanned. About 42,000 homeowners signed up for upgrades, said Bill Rumble, the company's group commercial director.

"It's a proven technology," said Rumble, who dreamed up the mobile device as a way to "introduce scale" to a process that would usually be done one house at a time.

Mark Group's program raised some initial privacy objections in Britain similar to European fears expressed about Google's Street View, the popular online database of streetscapes. In response, Google obscured details that might identify too much personal information.

Mark Group says its thermal images, which are blurry depictions of a building's heat signature rendered in bright Warholesque colors, don't clearly identify a specific dwelling.

Besides, said Bartos, the company won't share the images or post them online, so homeowners need not fear that the energy police will come knocking on the door.

"This really isn't intrusive," he said. "You can go to Google Earth and see a lot more than these images will show."

Some imaginative Brits have expressed dirtier fears, according to a recent article in the Cambridge News that ran under the headline: "Will thermal images catch love cheats?"

The answer is no, according to Rumble. Thermal images can't see inside a house, and the only way the camera could capture humans would be if they were outside, generating British Thermal Units. (And even then they would be an indistinguishable red blob, assuming they were alive.)

"I really don't see it as a major concern," said Mark McDonald, the mayor's spokesman.

Though much of the nation's energy-policy debate concerns the supply side - renewables vs. fossil fuels - energy efficiency is a more cost-effective alternative.

Rumble, who is based at Mark Group's headquarters in Leicester, U.K., said that British policy for decades has directed enormous public resources into conservation and insulation efforts.

But in the United States, there are 80 million homes over 30 years old that are insufficiently insulated. Typically, Mark Group says, 43 percent of a residential utility bill goes to heating and cooling.

The HeatSeeker vehicle will operate during the fall and winter, when heating systems are operating. And the images are taken at night, so that solar heat does not interfere with the imagery.

In addition to the infrared camera mounted on its roof rack, the HeatSeeker contains a computer the size of a file cabinet, for taking guidance from global-positioning-system satellites to accurately link to an address to its images. The device is capable of taking 1,000 images an hour.

Rumble said the company invested $160,000 in the technology for its first vehicle, much of it to develop its patented system linking the camera to the GPS mapping system.

Mark Group actually drove the vehicle through Chestnut Hill, East Falls, and Overbrook Farms in March to capture some test images.

Bartos said areas such as Havertown, Narberth, West Chester, Wilmington, and Haddonfield would be targeted first because residents there "have a demonstrated interest in energy-consumption reduction."

The vehicle won't be sent to individual homes, he said.

But most weatherization companies, including Mark Group, use thermal-imaging equipment as part of a traditional energy audit.

For More Details

Find weatherization information at:

The regional EnergyWorks program: http://energyworksnow.com.

The city's GreenWorks program: http://www.phila.gov/green/greenworks/.

Mark Group: http://markgroupusa.com/ or call 215-334-5273.

Find out more about the Mark Group's method of detecting heat loss at www.philly.com/heatseek

Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947, amaykuth@phillynews.com, or @Maykuth on Twitter.

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