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Heat-Mapping Company Finds Thermal Gaps In Homes

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Heat loss can be seen in the yellow and orange parts of this infrared image, indicating insulation gaps between floors and around windows. Image via Sagewell.

It’s 10 p.m.—do you know where your insulation gaps are? As the winter months descend and much of the country braces for icy weather, a startup company in the Boston area called Sagewell is taking it to the streets to let homeowners know exactly where their heating dollars are escaping, and provides suggestions about how to make their homes more energy efficient.

Using special SUV-mounted infrared cameras, Sagewell crews have been cruising the streets of several northern cities at night to take pictures of people’s homes—up to 20,000 on a good night, the company says. The photos captured give a quick assessment of each structure’s thermal envelope and highlight areas where heat is escaping into the outside air. In blobs of color ranging from black (coldest) to purple, orange and yellow (hottest), the images can be used as a thermal map to prioritize areas that need extra insulation, usually around windows, eaves and crawl spaces between floors. (See related quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Home Heating“)

Sagewell, based in Woburn, Mass., takes a page from the Google StreetView playbook by driving around as many streets as possible in its camera-equipped hybrid SUV, heat-mapping whatever homes are visible on both sides of the street. The images are then processed on the company’s software and stored on a secure server. Homeowners can then type in their addresses to see if their homes have been covered and get a free assessment. Sagewell can then recommend local insulation companies, window installers and community organizations that can provide retrofits to  help plug the gaps.

This service brings up obvious and sensitive privacy concerns, but Sagewell insists that its cameras cannot see through walls, trees or even windows. According to Brad Harkavy, chief operating officer of Sagewell, the only wavelength the cameras see is infrared that is emitted directly from the surface of the structures, so it is impossible to see people or objects inside the buildings. Also, the images are stored on a secure server and can only be accessed by the homeowners, if they choose to do so. Homeowners can also opt out of the program and have the photos deleted at their request. (See related story: “Who’s Watching? Privacy Concerns Persist as Smart Meters Roll Out“)

Citing U.S. Department of Energy figures, Sagewell says that 36 to 51 percent of household energy waste results from breaches in a home’s heat envelope. The company estimates that 20 percent of residential buildings can save $750 to $1,500 per year and eliminate 14,000 to 28,000 pounds of CO2 annually with a simple building envelope retrofit.

The company also reminds customers that many states and utilities offer significant discounts and rebates for adding extra insulation and storm windows on homes. In Massachusetts, for example, utilities will pick up 75 percent of the cost of home insulation upgrades and retrofits.

So far, Sagewell has managed to cover nearly 500,000 homes in a 10-state swath from New England through parts of the Midwest. By the end of the winter, Harkavy told Co.Design, he hopes to double that figure, focusing mostly in the colder northern states and coastal cities that tend to have progressive homeowner incentives for beefing up home insulation.

—Randy Woods

This post originally appeared at EarthTechling and has been republished with permission.