Finding hot spots in the barn

Using thermal imaging to screen everything from power outlets to motors to animal joints can help farm safety and decision making

Agriculture groups, government, and insurance companies are encouraging farmers to use thermal imaging to help prevent combustive disasters.

Farmers trying to reduce their fire risk can access the technology in two ways — by using handheld cameras or contacting mutual insurance companies for more in-depth assessments.

Why it matters: Thermal imaging can help proactively address potential fire hazards, saving barns, livestock and potentially, human life.

Jim Zyat, risk assessment specialist and vice-president of loss prevention for Heartland Farm Mutual in Waterloo, says farmers looking for a thorough analysis of their businesses’ electrical system can, if they are a client of a mutual insurance company, access free thermal imaging services. These services can look at all aspects of a farm’s electrical systems, as well as other potential equipment-based hazards from pumps, exhaust systems, refrigeration units and other equipment.

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Zyat says the work is conducted by licensed thermographers (people certified to use and interpret high-resolution thermal imaging technologies) working in tandem with electricians. Most Ontario mutual insurers offer this service.

Gerda Bakker, a farmer from the Listowel area, says she and her family make use of Heartland Mutual’s thermal imaging service every year on their rotary parlour dairy farm as part of an overall annual fire prevention plan.

“Every year, we find something that definitely should get fixed that we would have not recognized ourselves,” says Bakker. “It’s because you don’t open every electrical outlet. With thermal imaging (the insurance company) can see something is wrong.”

Zyat says assessments are done at a time when the system in question is under high load pressure, like during morning milking at a dairy farm.

Comparisons are also drawn to ensure any thermal anomalies are genuine.

“Just because something is showing up with heat on it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with it,” he says. “It’s to stop catastrophic events, but it’s also to provide preventive maintenance.”

Zyat encourages interested farmers to contact their insurance companies and inquire.

Private options

Mike McLauchlan, chief human resource officer at Sargent Farms — a poultry processing company based near the Greater Toronto Area — says thermal imaging is a standard part of his company’s annual service schedule. Rather than going through an insurance provider, though, they work with third-party thermographers.

Like Bakker, McLauchlan says this continues to prove effective at eliminating problems before they arise in both electrical systems and machinery. The detailed and time-stamped imagery records gathered throughout the process, says McLauchlan, are valuable in themselves.

“It helps as well with our commercial insurance. It’s not cheap, but in the long run what’s seven or eight hundred dollars?” he asks.

FLIR cameras for quick scans

For quick scans, farmers can use handheld FLIR thermal imaging cameras. These can be bought from Canadian Tire and similar stores. In partnership with the province’s agriculture ministry, Farm & Food Care Ontario — a Guelph-based nonprofit focused on public outreach and farmer-program delivery — also operates a free FLIR camera-lending program.

According to Bruce Kelly, program manager with Farm & Food Care Ontario, there are three main things producers can check to gauge the state of their electrical infrastructure — extension cords and cables, moving machinery parts and electrical panels.

Extension cords

Old and overloaded extension cords can pose fire risks, but are also commonly found in barns. FLIR cameras, says Kelly, can detect overheated wires. This is particularly useful for those connecting high-load tools such as block heaters used to warm tractor engines.

Kelly says block heater fires are often the result of problems with the cord rather than the heater itself. The significant drawing capacity of the heater can strain ill-suited (lower-gauge) cords, causing them to heat up. This problem is compounded as the heater gets further away from the power source and thus draws more energy. Neatly wrapped or wound cords are also more likely to heat and eventually melt.

“If you have extension cords that came with the farm, get rid of them,” says Kelly. “Better extension cords with heavier gauge wire are more available than ever before.”

Moving machinery parts

FLIR cameras can also be used to identify heat generated from worn or otherwise insufficiently lubricated machinery. This includes things like bearings within combines, feed mills, balers, or anything with multiple moving parts. Using heat-sensing technology in this way can help prevent fires in the field and in the barn, particularly in equipment used to handle kindling-dry materials.

However, Kelly cautions against relying on FLIR cameras for hay and grain storage. While the cameras could detect some heat, he says, they do not penetrate far enough to reveal fire hazards until it’s too late.

FLIR imaging likely won’t detect anything until the product in question is already ablaze, he says.

Panels and electrical boxes

FLIR cameras can be used to check for loose or corroded connections within main electrical panels similar to how they are used with wall outlets.

In commercial (non-household) electrical panels, Kelly says the frequent on-off oscillation of high energy loads can loosen the lug screws holding wires to the panel over time. Thermal imaging can reveal these issues and others, such as corrosion, the presence of mouse nests, or excessive cobwebbing.

However, checking main panels means removing the cover. This can be dangerous, so he adds farmers should ensure a qualified person does the job.

A thermal imaging view of an in-barn refrigeration unit.
photo: Courtesy of Jim Zyat, Hartland Farm Mutual

“Use (FLIR cameras) as a tool to do a little poking around but call your electrician if you’re actually going to inspect panels… If anybody has their electrician out to do anything, pay them an extra hour and have them do a little inspection,” says Kelly.

“Farm electrical panels should be inspected every three years by an electrician.”

Sensing animal health

Because FLIR cameras detect differences in temperature within a quarter of one degree, Kelly adds they can also be used to monitor animal health.

“It can be used as a tool for inspecting animals both to tell their temperature and some abnormalities like swollen joints or hoofs. Those with inflammation are going to be warmer than those that don’t,” says Kelly.

About the author

Contributor

Matt is a freelance writer based between Essex County and Chatham-Kent. He is interested in all things scientific, as well as rock n' roll, hunting and history. He also works with his parents on their sixth-generation family farm.

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