• Brenton Ward
    September 3, 2018 at 11:08 pm #380

    Flir has long been seen as a ground breaker in Infrared Technology, and they have proven again their ability to offer break through pricing and technology with the release of the Flir i3 infrared camera.

    The release of the Flir i3 has generated a lot of interest and talk in the industry. Never before have we seen an infrared camera at sub $1500 price point. (see pricing)

    From the outset let me be clear in saying that I am reviewing this camera in the context of an entry level plant maintenance camera to be used by in-house personnel. It would be ill-advised for any professional or contractor to use this camera for commericial purposes. Developing a standards compliant end user report with credible evidence of electrical , mechanical or building performance assessment is well outside the scope of this instrument.

    Flir have hit the proverbial nail on the head when they describe the i3 as being a better alternative to using a single point temperature gun (spot radiometer). The price is only marginally more expensive than a quality industrial spot radiometer and yet it provides 3,600 temperature points from the 60×60 detector. For most predictive maintenance applications it will be much more effective than the single spot alternative, and should provide sufficient data to identify a thermal anomaly and to prompt follow up action. Beyond that, the Flir i3 will certainly add an element of “fun” and “interest” to a traditionally tedious role.

    Comparisons to a professional unit would be inappropriate for this review, since in my opinion the Flir i3 does not fall into that category. However I feel compelled to broach this subject because since the release of the Flir i3 I have received a plethora of phone calls and emails from people expecting their camera to perform in a professional capacity. There has also been a proliferation of websites with contractors and professionals alike spruiking the Flir i3 as their tool of choice. I am not sure what has given so many people a false sense of competency, but a professional unit it is not. Those expecting that the Flir i3 is a viable option for a professional service will find themselves on the steep part of the learning curve.

    Now that’s out of the way, let’s look at the i3 for what it is… and that’s a good value for money, entry level thermal imager for basic condition assessment.

    When I learned that the image was being generated by a 60×60 detector I had expected the visual equivalent of an amorphous “blob”, but as it turns out the image exceeded my expectations. That’s still not to say it is great, as 3600 pixels is not much when you consider that top end models produce in the order of 307,200 pixels of resolution. The Flir i3 however has compensated for this with a very narrow field of view of just 12.5° which delivers a spatial resolution of 3.71 mrad. Now while this is indicative of a geometric pixel size and not an actual spot measurement size (MFOV is not disclosed), it does provide recognizable imagery of larger plant assets like pumps, motors, gearboxes, bearing housings etc. For smaller electrical components, especially those associated with LV distribution systems things get a lot more difficult to identify and you can return to the amorphous blob analogy. Given the geometric resolution, I would be cautious with any quantitative (temperature measurement) results.

    With our Flir i3 we were unable to replicate the clarity or resolution of those images that featured in the brochure. Upon closer investigation of the brochure, down the bottom in tiny print reads the following: “Disclaimer: Images herein are for illustrative purposes only” as did the website “Images/content are for illustration purposes only.”

    Image of a Circuit Breaker in our LV distribution board in our office.

    Flir i3 (0.5 meters) FLIR i3 (1 meter)

     

    Below is a comparison to a “professional” 320×240 (76,800 pixels) to give a relative comparison of resolution. For this example we used a Testo 882, however most 320×240 instruments would return a similar result.

     

    Flir i7 (0.5 meters) FLIR i7 (1 meter)

    Testo 882 (0.5 meters) Testo 882 (1 meter)

    Visual

    to see the camera for yourself in action, or obtain actual images from the camera before making any decisions on the suitability of it’s image quality and resolution.

    The stated thermal sensitivity at this time of writing was 0.15°C and this is perfectly adequate for mechanical and electrical applications. However this would not meet the minimum requirements specified in some of the available thermography standards , especially for building performance inspections where I am seeing a lot of these models being used.

    For those who doubt the effectiveness in a building inspection we took some test shots with the Flir i3 and i7, as well as the Testo units which are purpose built for building thermography. With a minimum of a 10°C inside to outside temperature differential we captured the following images in our office. This is a wood framed wall and the thermal image shows cold rectangular shapes which is typical of missing insulation (excess heat loss). The main purpose of these images is to show/compare the relative resolution, thermal sensitivity and field of view (before you post questions about specific diagnostic information).

    Flir i7 FLIR i3

    Testo 875 Testo 882

    As you can see from the above image, the Flir i3 has a very narrow field of view. This is not a significant limitation for electrical and mechanical inspections, but is quite the handicap for indoor building inspections. When imaging a domestic structure from inside, space is generally limited and it is difficult to obtain a perspective with such a narrow FOV. The scene “availability” also affects the cameras ability to automatically range the level and span for the scene.

    The objective specifications of the Flir i3 does not make it well suited for building diagnostic inspections, and I would seek an alternative measurement solution for this kind of application.

    What does focus free mean?

    Having spoken to a lot of people in the industry, there is a common misconception that “focus free” means auto focus. The Flir i3 lacks the ability to adjust the focus point to a specific distance from the target. Consequently, at anything other than the fixed focal point, the image will be slightly blurred. Given the Flir i3 has relatively low resolution, the lack of sharpness is not so obvious. I found that between approx 1 and 2 meters the camera was at it’s sharpest. Anything outside this, became increasingly blurry.

    Without the ability to have fine focus control, quantitative measurement on smaller targets will never be a strong point of the i Series, but then i would suggest this is primarily a qualitative device. Disappointingly you will never get a really sharp image and I would suspect a better result could be achieved if there were some focus adjustment.

    So, what’s it like to use?

    There is no doubt the Flir i3 is a fabulously easy tool to use. The start-up time is absolutely brilliant, taking just seconds to fire up. The screen is bright and easy to read, albeit a little cluttered for my liking. Of the available 2.8 inch colour LCD screen, I would say 1/3rd of it is taken up with graphics, menus, etc. All the important information is readily available such as the centre point temperature measurement, battery indicator, temperature scale, date and time and the ALL important emissivity setting. The large circular reticle/crosshair analysis is more than sufficient for this resolution instrument, and gives a large, bold readout in the top left of screen.

    The onscreen menu prompts correspond with 2 buttons beneath the screen, and the obvious Up/Down, Left/Right keypad provide intuitive navigation through the menu. A dedicated “play sign” > button gives immediate access to stored images which is a very handy feature and the illuminated on/off button can’t be missed.

    The Flir i3 does not allow for manual level and span adjustment, and I would suggest that this is not something that entry level users would necessarily need or want to contend with. Cleverly, the FLIR i3 has a “locked” span feature which enables rapid comparison of targets across a fixed temperature range. I really like the simplicity of this adaptation and it’s a function that greatly enhances the usefulness of this device. Well done!

    All importantly when saving an image to the micro SD card, the Flir i3 displays the image number temporarily so it can be transcribed to your running sheet. This 2GB card will store a whopping 5000 radiometric images, in a convenient JPG format. The JPG format is extraordinarily convenient on this style camera, as most users will share images and information outside of the formal report generation format. That is to say, most will just email or share on network drives images of interest. In JPG format the image can be easily viewed by any standard image viewing software (standard with all OS’s) without requiring proprietary software to be installed. This is particularly handy in large organisations where IT departments are reluctant (or slow) to install proprietary software.

    The battery time is absolutely amazing. The brochure claims up to 5 hours, and I lose count after 3… it just seems to keep going and going. Even better, recharge time seems to be less than the in-use time.

    Relative to the price of the Flir i3 I would say the build quality is fair to good. The i3 utilises the same body as the i5 and i7 and at the price of the later two, I would be a little disappointed. There is a decent amount of soft rubber around the screen and lens which is great for impact resistance. However where the rubber mates to the harder plastics there is a defined ridge all the way around the unit that makes it feel very ordinary. The lens shutter also feels a bit cheap and toy like.

    At just 340 grams, the Flir i3 is ergonomically quite petite, and those with bigger hands and/or fingers might find it a little compact. While I applaud the single handed operation, my thumb struggles to navigate the closeness of the keypad. I do find that “rocking” my thumb on the keypad, as opposed to pressing the individual buttons was a better technique that resulted in fewer “miss hits”. One advantage of the small and slim design is that it does easily fit into the average trouser pocket, which is brilliant when scaling ladders, plant equipment, or carrying a multitude of other test equipment.

    Amazingly for the price tag of the Flir i3 you also get Quickreport PC Software. This is a very basic reporting and analysis function, but has everything that at entry level user would require. Flying spot meter, area analysis, palette selection and image level and span adjustment is all very easy to find and adjust. The layout is very user friendly and intuitive to use. Reporting is a simple drag and drop affair to generate a multi page document. A minor level of customisation is available, such as changing logo images etc, but otherwise the layout is relatively fixed.

    Overall, i think this is a good value for money tool. I see this being of most value to organisations who are trying to shift from reactive maintenance to a proactive maintenance regime. This can be a hard sell when people are so entrenched in doing things a certain way, and changing a culture overnight is not easy. I believe the greatest value that can be realised from the FLIR i3 is aiding to shift this paradigm and getting people to adopt a predictive maintenance philosophy without investing thousands of dollars.

    Realistically, a plant that has an experienced and established predictive maintenance program is likely to invest a lot more in equipment and staff to get and even greater return.

    I think that if you are a contractor or professional trying to use this instrument to grow aspects of your business you will be selling yourself short and doing yourself a disservice. A lot can be missed and your reputation sullied by using equipment that does not meet the expectations or standards of your industry. If you were properly trained you would also realise this, and my recommendation is to obtain further professional advice.

    I think the product tag line sums it up perfectly “Budget is no longer an excuse: the robust FLIR i3 is affordable enough to be standard-issue in every tool box.”

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