David Welch is a roofing contractor who also happens to be a pilot. His vocation of roofing and his hobby of flying have come together in the form of a new service being offered by his company: roof inspections via infrared (IR) thermography.
The Roofing Contractor
Owner of Ben Hill Roofing and Siding Company Inc. (BHR) of Douglasville, Ga., Welch has been in the roofing business, as he describes it, “All my life.” That is a reality for many second-generation roofing contractors who started working as soon as they could hike it up a ladder with their fathers. Welch took over the family business at a relatively young age and has built a very respectable commercial and residential roofing and exterior remodeling business doing business all over Metro Atlanta.
Coming up in a tough and competitive market, Welch has built his business on a reputation for performing great work and paying a great deal of attention to detail. BHR basically operates from two divisions: commercial roofing and residential roofing and siding.
Welch learned to fly in the middle 1980s and found he had a real passion for it. His initial training and experience was in flying fixed-wing aircraft. Over the years he has owned several aircraft and just a few short years ago sold his last plane to make room for his new adventure: flying a helicopter.
Following a trip back to flight school, Welch has qualified as a helicopter pilot and has acquired a Robinson R44 Raven II helicopter that is the centerpiece of the new enterprise working side-by-side with BHR.
There are a number of advantages to a roofing contractor who pilots his own helicopter. It happens the Welch family lives out in the country some miles from the shop. A couple of times a week Welch is able to fly into work, avoiding all the traffic that Atlanta commuters love to curse. This suits him well since he is still logging hours that go toward the next upgrade to his pilot’s license.
When you live in the country, having a spot to park your helicopter is not so much of a problem, but the main office and warehouse facility of BHR are located adjacent to downtown Douglasville. No problem - Welch built a helipad on top of the metal building with access to his second-floor office via a roof hatch and inside stairway.
The helipad is topped by a 60-mil fully adhered Firestone TPO. After construction Welch added a series of black walkpads - not for foot traffic or membrane protection, but to distinguish the helipad from the rest of the roof (metal with a reflective white coating) for night landings.
A New Service Is Born
Welch has converted a dream to offer thermographic roof scans to commercial roofing customers of BHR as well as other roofing companies or even roof consultants.
He offers scans under the BHR banner as well as Aerial Infrared Scan Services, the operating company set up for the service. The investment was considerable in terms of money (nearly $500,000) and time (2½ years), but Welch feels like it is going to pay off in the long run. In spite of the fact that the original idea was to have a way to mix his love of flying and his passion for the roofing industry, he says, “I do think this will be a profit venture, not an expense.”
The investment consisted of the purchase of one helicopter, one Model P640 FLIR Systems IR camera, and a considerable amount of training. The helicopter specs show a top speed of 135 mph with a range of 400 miles without reserve and a rate of climb of 1,000 feet per minute. At today’s prices, a basic model will list out just under $400,000.
The particular model of camera, listing at just under $50,000 was chosen after extensive research involving a couple of test missions trying a variety of thermal imaging cameras (some much, much less expensive). What it boiled down to for Welch was the images created by the lower-end models were fine for a foot scan (you don’t have to fly to perform termographic scans), but from 500 feet the resolution was much, much better with the upgrade model. With the overall investment being so great, it did not make sense to compromise on the quality of the finished product.
The training involved several layers. His sales folks took a three-day class on thermographic imaging, and Welch and BHR lead estimator Roger Gray took the course to become certified as Level I Thermographers. There are three courses offered, being Levels I, II, and III. Level I is not what would be considered “entry level,” but fully qualifies individuals to perform roof scans and reports.
In order to move from the red into the black, Welch figures that his firm will have to sell six scans per month. It does not seem like so much until you consider everything from preparing to fly the mission, capturing the images, then tuning the images and preparing a report to the building owner.
Preparing a roof scan does not require flying over a building at 10 knots in the early evening. It may be done while on the roof. Best practice being to point the camera down, so the best way to scan from the rooftop is to work from a penthouse or other building. At a minimum, a stepladder should be used. Of course, since you are taking thermal images, the best results will come after the sun goes down, so it is recommended that three people be on the roof, with one being assigned the job of safety monitor. For smaller roofs, taking the images on the roof would typically be less expensive than flying.
If there is sufficient scale (large buildings or multiple buildings), flying can have some advantages. It still requires two individuals, one to fly and one to operate the camera. It is, however, less invasive for the owner, who must often pay overtime to have a facilities person join the party on the roof or otherwise remain on site while the work ensues. There is never a problem finding “height” or having the ability to fly directly over the building.
One advantage of capturing the images on the roof is that problem areas on the roof may be marked with spray paint on the spot. This may not be an option in some cases such as hospitals or hotels. With one known measurement, Welch can put the images into a digitizer, set the scale, and digitally “mark” trouble spots on the roof for further testing later.
The biggest difference is in production. Working directly on the roof, most any roof may be completed in one night. Very large roofs may take more. Welch says he and Gray can capture images from six buildings within a 50-mile radius of their shop in two and a half to three hours of flying. This is after substantial preparation and locating on GPS maps that are prepared and marked in advance of flying the mission.
Welch tells us that capturing the images may be the exciting part with all the flying and everything, but it really is the least complicated. Turning the images into useful information for a building owner is what the hours and hours of training were all about.
Here are a few examples of why a thermographic roof scan might be ordered. A building owner may order a scan to help in determining the overall condition of his roof. The scan does not come up with definitive “black and white” answers to roofing problems, but rather gives clues as to areas of the roof that should be more closely investigated for problems. A scan performed annually or on some schedule of regular intervals, followed by remediation of problems found, can save an owner thousands by keeping a problem from growing and causing further damage. A contractor or consultant may want a scan at the post-construction phase to clearly show that the roofing system installed is watertight as built. A roofing contractor might use a scan to help an owner plan their budget or stretch the life of a roof by focusing only on the trouble spots.
Armed with good images, a Level I thermographer is trained to analyze and read the images much as a technician would read an X-ray. The image features “thermal markers” that distinguish hot spots in particular. Many of the “false” readings can be eliminated but not all of them. The report does not furnish conclusions, just opinions of what the images show. This allows the thermographer to include in the report recommendations for further testing on the roof. This can be conducted in a non-invasive way with moisture measuring devices on the roof, or by coring suspected areas to determine if there is a problem.
The very fact that BHR offers thermographic imaging services sets them apart from most roofing contractors. Next up, Welch intends to move thermographic imaging over to the residential side of the business by offering residential energy audits. As energy prices continue to rise, home and building owners will want to know not just where their roof leaks are, but where their expensive heating and cooling leaks are as well. It will take having at least one more person trained as a Level I thermographer, but the same imaging equipment used for roof scans can be used in this application. And you do not have to crank the chopper to perform a scan on the exterior of a residential structure.
The tools of the roof-contracting trade have advanced to the point that we now include some very expensive cameras, helipad-equipped warehouses and an occasional commute that takes you above the traffic. What will they think of next? Whatever it is, keep an eye on David Welch because he is probably already considering it!