Which is the Best, Cheap, Infrared Thermal Imager Around?
Our homes and businesses leak heat every day, it's an unavoidable fact of thermodynamics. Unfortunately, in many cases that heat loss can add up and cost the owner a bundle. In other cases, heat leaks are an ominous sign of underlying trouble. Whatever the reason, an inexpensive thermal imaging camera can help by giving a technical and visual representation of heat loss.
Human beings are very visual creatures, so it can often be helpful to not only get a readout of leaks and the temperatures, but also an optical display showing the leak in real terms. A camera with thermal imaging capability will show, in plain terms, where your leaks are coming from. It's a simple and ingenious idea that lets property owners and contractors alike make a quick diagnosis.
However, hand-held thermal imaging cameras aren't cheap! They can be really pricey, which is why I wanted to write this review. I will be showcasing three of the cheapest thermal imaging cameras on the market. I'll go over each one's features and capabilities, and let you decide if that suits your needs. I'll also do a Q&A on the capabilities, in case you're curious.
What to expect from an inexpensive thermal imager:
I want to be clear in my reviews of these thermal imaging cameras, this article is catered to those without an extravagant budget. I'm hoping to help homeowners and small business practitioners who can't afford something super expensive.
Here's what you should expect to find in this price range (less than $1500).
- A black and white camera is likely on most models in this range. That shouldn't be a big issues, do you really need color to diagnose an issue?
- These models won't have a super sensitive range of thermal detection. If a matter of several degrees is important in your application, you should look at a more expensive model. Cheap infrared thermal imaging cameras are not meant to be super precise. They're more useful for finding leaks and hot spots.
- Don't expect a super large or high definition display. All three products I'm reviewing have good resolutions and decent displays, they're just not as spiffy as higher end models.
- It's a huge step up from a thermal gun. It's so much easier to show a client where hot and cold spots are.
1) DeWalt Imager: An inexpensive imaging thermometer with great reviews
You're probably more familiar with DeWalt from their line of power tools and hand drills. They've made a foray into selling inexpensive thermal imaging cameras due to a high level of demand in a bunch of different industries (notably the auto mechanics field), and the response to this portable, versatile camera has been fantastic.
Technically speaking, this is an IR thermometer and camera which overlays a digital representation of the heat over the video image. Functionally, it outputs a virtually identical image to a full-fledged thermal imager, it's just less pricey. If you're certain that only a full-fledged thermal imaging camera will do, please skip to the final product reviewed in this article.
Back to the Dewalt. This is one of the best hand held thermal imaging thermometer cameras for under $1000 (well under). It also happens to be one of the only ones under that price range, but it does just about everything a person could ask for.
It's a great choice for anyone who needs to detect thermal leaks, air leaks or moisture, and it costs a fraction of what the big boys in this industry will charge.
Blended Image: If you look at the front, you'll notice two little circles: the wide array thermometer and a standard camera lens. The Dewalt it blends these two inputs into a single signal, giving you a handy visual representation on the screen of both the image and the thermal readings.
It has a range of between 14º F to 480º F, and it's accurate within 3º in either direction. Because it's not accurate down to the degree, it's best used for locating air leaks, moisture and hot or cold spots, rather than more precise technical applications.
Take Pictures: If you're a contractor, it's also handy because it lets you take pictures onto its microSD card for later documentation in quotes and invoices, and it comes with built-in PC software.
Another nice feature is the adjustable emissivity, which lets you get more accurate results on different surfaces.
Like most DeWalt devices, it runs on rechargeable batteries too, so it's super portable. It's definitely one of the best thermal imaging cameras, and for well under $1000 it's a bit of a steal. I'd encourage you to check out some customer reviews to see how it is gaining a fanbase.
2) Fluke: Visual hand-held infrared thermometer & imaging camera
I've always chuckled at the brand name, but their technology is solid and anything but a fluke. This is a great quality thermal imaging thermometer and camera; it's cheap, durable, versatile and easy to use, all things that most contractors and property owners will love.
Let's get into the technical aspects of this product first. It has a wide range of temperature detection, able to scan between 14˚ and 482˚ Fahrenheit. This is coupled with a degree of precision that's within several degrees in either direction. It's not the most bang on accurate reader, but for the purposes of leak detection and inspection it's a very capable device.
Adjustable Screen: The video screen itself is pretty impressive. It has a variable blend of real world imaging and the thermal detection unit. You can blend from full visual all the way to full thermal imaging, depending on your needs. The emissivity is adjustable too, so you can fine tune the detection based on the density and reflectivity of the object in question.
Like many others, this one includes SD card memory that lets you snap photographs of whatever you need, in order to document your findings.
Unlike the DeWalt camera, this one is not rechargeable, and it uses four AA style batteries to run. If you're planning to use it a lot I'd recommend investing in a handful of rechargeable AAs to save money.
The screen isn't huge, but it's big enough to provide a decent resolution image, more than enough to detect hot or cold spots in any space. It's a lot more accurate than a standard temperature gun, and it's a lot easier to show a customer what's going on with the saved images.
It's one of the cheapest thermal imaging thermometer camera combos, and it reviews very well too. I'd definitely recommend this one if your budget is limited, it's surprisingly full-featured.
3) FLIR E5: One of the best, inexpensive thermal imaging cameras around
If you've been hunting around for an IR imager already, chances are you've run across FLIR. They are a company that has made a name in this sector and their devices are typically associated with being industry standard. They're rugged, well-built and take advantage of the technological innovations FLIR has pioneered over the years.
The FLIR E5 is one of the cheapest thermal leak detector cameras they have on offer, but that doesn't mean it's 'cheap' by any stretch. It's the priciest model I'm reviewing today. This imager is a fantastic and affordable choice for insulators, HVAC specialists and electrical contractors, as well as automotive experts.
The Real Deal: This is a true imager, meaning that the visual you'll see is the authentic heat signature being picked up, not just a digital representation of a thermometer's readout. Complex technology. That's the main reason it's pricier than the others listed here.
The feel of the E5 is one of the selling points. It's very solid and dependable in your hand. It's built to last with dust and water resistant construction, and it's built to withstand a drop of 2 meters.
It also has a user friendly interface with large buttons that are easy to use even with gloves on. The nearly 3 inch LCD display is large enough to get the job done, and it's nice and clear. FLIR knows the practical side of the business, so they've engineered it to work for a contractor without being a nuisance.
High Precision & Sensitivity: One thing that makes the FLIR E5 stand apart from the others I've listed here is the temperature sensitivity. It's accurate to within a fraction of a degree, making it a lot easier to pinpoint hot and cold spots with precision. It automatically focuses for you and it's really as simple as point and shoot.
It comes with a rechargeable battery that runs for four hours, and you can take up to 5000 still images with it using the included microSD card, so it's perfect for explaining the process and leaks to clients, as well as invoicing. The warranty is great too.
It's a solid, reliable and user friendly thermal imaging camera for leak detection, one of the best on the market and well worth your time to check out.
What can I use a thermal leak detector camera for?
There are a hundred reasons why a cheap thermal imager camera can be a real boon to your business, here are a few of the things you can take advantage of, off the top of my head.
Air Leaks: You can detect air leaks in pressurized systems or on vehicle tires. You'll need a fairly sensitive camera to do it, but the FLIR i5 should be able to pinpoint leaks in tires and whatnot.
Moisture: A moisture leak will create a slight difference in temperature, so using one of these devices is a great way to pinpoint moist areas in the home. I do recommend you use a moisture detector in conjunction before tearing into a wall or something.
Detecting Insulation Leaks: You can use the camera to detect weaknesses in insulation. Most cameras will be able to detect right through drywall, depending on the emissivity.
Track Down Heating Conduits: An infrared detection camera is a great way to locate radiant heating pipes and wires through the floor surface.
Detecting Overloaded Circuits: Fairly self-explanatory, it's useful for electrical inspections of all kinds.
If I were to list all potential uses, this page would become long and tedious. There are literally hundreds of ways that a good, cheap thermal detection camera can make your life easier, whether you're a plumber, electrician, automotive mechanic, general contractor, or just a concerned property owner trying to cut down on energy costs.
Infrared Thermal Imager Camera Poll:
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions? Did I miss any good cameras I should've included?
jackson siegel on July 15, 2019:
all thermal cameras give low resolution images, so we had to convert low resolution images to high resolution images, most image editing softwares just resize the image and details not preserved,
so this was a big problem for my company,
there was one software from http://aiphotolabs.com which preserved details and even enhanced details which we needed, it was better than photoshop as we also tried photoshop, I hope this helps for people who are struggling with low resolution thermal images like we did
if you can add more thermal cameras for comparison it will be good
Anonymous on June 06, 2017:
1500$ is NOT inexpensive.
Dan on April 02, 2017:
1. Google for cheap thermal cameras
4. The profit was for the sponsors of the article (1000+ usd camera)
COGRA on April 26, 2016:
Would you be interested in reviewing other thermal cameras?
MightyTiki on October 30, 2014:
The Seek Thermal is only $199 and works with your Android or iPhone.
Will Henry (author) from British Columbia on December 29, 2013:
Hi Dan, that's correct, though I disagree with your statement that they're very different. Technologically, yes, but functionally, no. A thermal imager is a visual of the actual heat signature, while an IR thermometer takes the temperature reading, and digitally overlays a visual representation on top of the video image.
The Fluke is an IR thermometer, and so is the DeWalt for that matter. Modern IR thermometers are crisp, precise and are functionally identical to thermal imagers for tasks such as the ones I've outlined. But if we get down to brass tacks, yes, the tech is different.
Dan on December 24, 2013:
The Fluke you list is not a thermal imaging camera, it is 'visual IR themometer', basically it blends a digital camera with an IR thermometer to give you a visual representation of the temperature that may be useful, but is very different than an actual IR camera.