4 Dec 2013

Mapping Whole Communities and Homes with Thermal Images to Reduce Heat Loss

Written by Jim Pierobon

What if you could determine how much heat your home is losing, how much it’s costing you in higher energy bills and what insulation and other improvements would fix it? Oh, and you could accomplish without an energy audit, free-of-charge and from a mobile device no less?

That’s the vision of Geoffrey Hay, an Associate Professor of Geo-Information Science at University of Calgary, and a team of seven students. Together they earned top honors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Climate CoLab annual Crowds & Climate conference Nov. 6-8 for an app they’re calling Heat Energy Assessment Technologies, or HEAT.

HEAT JPG screen capture with score

Here’s part of the screen f ////// CREDIT: University of Calgary

Their mission is to show “what urban energy efficiency looks like, where it is located, what it costs and what to do about it.” From its initial development, HEAT’s vision has been to “empower the ‘urban energy efficiency movement’ by providing free, accurate and regularly updated waste heat solutions for the world.”

Pretty heady stuff, yes. But it appears doable. And because it’s scalable and could be programmed for warm weather climes to identify cool air escaping homes, the sky just might the limit. (Sorry about the unintended pun.)

In their run-up to the MIT conference, Hay asserted, “We believe that if people could see the invisible waste heat they generate and if they know how much it cost (financially and to the environment), they would want to take action. We want to show them how.”

Now anybody can hire a fully-equipped home energy auditor with a thermal imaging camera to identify where a home is losing heat, or cooled air. But doing it on this scale and using the results to motivate thousands of individuals, community leaders and energy conscious policy makers?  That is a huge leap of faith.

“The biggest obstacle in the way is the lack of interest,” Hay is quick to acknowledge. “How do you engage in something you cannot see?”

“Individuals are motivated much more by their perceptions of what other people do and find acceptable than they are by other factors such as the opportunity to save money or conserve resources, contrary to even their own perceptions of motivation,” Hay said.

Hay began developing the software about four years ago after he and his partner moved into a new house only to find it was unexpectedly cold inside. This despite a smart thermostat, triple-pane, low-E windows, a very efficient furnace and R50+ attic insulation. So why so cold? Hay wanted to know where and how the heat was escaping.

Prof Geoffrey Hay, Univ of Calgary“Wouldn’t it be great,” Hay told a TEDx Calgary audience this past summer, “ if I could pull out my mobile device, click on Google Maps, tap on my house, and automatically bring up a thermal image” that would answer those questions, at no charge?

Hay assembled a team of seven principal student engineers and software developers. They launched into their research and secured about $1 million in funding. They started collaborating – aka crowd-sourcing — with six professors at American, Austrian and Canadian universities. That led to, among other things, invitations for, and the delivery of, numerous peer-reviewed papers and conference presentations.

Hay explained the abstract of one of the papers has been downloaded more than 1,500 times; the papers have drawn  3,400 reviews.

The HEAT team joined with a Calgary-based ITRES, a high-tech imaging company which developed a camera capable of taking thermal images of wide-swaths of real estate from the sky. Flying between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m., the “thermal airborne broadband imager,” or TABI for short, can capture thermal images within 5/100th of a degree Celsius.

ITRES in-flight imaging

Calgary-based ITRES fly-over imaging can capture the heat loss from homes within 5/100s of a degree Celsius. CREDIT: ITRES

“We can fly the city of Calgary in about four and one-half hours without having to stop for gas,” Hay said.

Back in the lab, the team overlays geographic information system building data available from the city, including the when homes and other structures were built, to create HEAT scores ranging from 0 to 100; the lower the more efficient the home is.

But for all the science, Hay and his colleagues are betting on human nature. Quoting an often-cited mantra credited to Alex Steffen and the behavioral demand response movement,  “nobody wants to be the outlying energy hog.”

There may be another catch: privacy. What right does any person have to know how much heat is escaping someone’s home?

Phase I of the HEAT project assessed 368 houses in Calgary neighborhood in 2011; Phase II expanded that to 33,000 homes in 2012; they scaled up application earlier this year in Phase III to evaluate up to 300,000 homes.

“Though we had already completed a significant amount of research,” Hay explained, the proposal to the Climate CoLab competition “pushed me and my team to think beyond our initial three-phase pilot project.” Now their research has been branded to include planned upgrades reflecting the geographical reach and time-spans to be covered:  “MyHEAT Calgary” by the end of this year, “MyHEAT  Multi-Year” in 2014 and MyHEAT Canada planned for 2015.

If all goes according to plan, Hay envisions implementing MyHEAT in many other cities around the globe focusing initially on those with populations in excess of 1 million.

Will enough forward-thinking municipal leaders cooperate? What have they got to lose?

True to the ever-expanding, crowd-sourcing possibilities, the MyHEAT team developed and built in a system allowing users to write in what their roofs are made of.  These and other ideas are fertilizing more extensions to the app.  One is a collaboration with commercial LEED application developers and certified home energy auditors to help ensure the integrity of the MyHEAT scores.

Among the logical next steps is work underway with the Alberta Real-Estate Board and the Calgary Real-Estate Board to develop and evaluate scores for their respective Multiple Listing Service (MLS). This would equip home owners and their agents with data on how well insulated their structures are. Home shoppers and their agents could soon have another means of measuring a home’s energy efficiency.

Think of other uses beyond REALTORs®  and energy-conscious home owners, especially in the coldest and hottest climates: service providers offering efficiency solutions, homebuilders wanting to verify the quality of their homes, leaders of similar communities challenging each other leading up to Earth Day.

Hay says several other innovations are in the works.  You can keep track of them at SaveHeat.co .

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