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For plant engineers, finding new ways to avert costly failures in their faciliti

es is practically second nature. Particularly when it comes to industrial mainte


nance, thermography testing is one approach that's become much more popular over
the last five years or so. Used as a condition-monitoring technique, thermal im
aging enables users to identify potential areas of equipment failure and limit d
owntime.
As part of a comprehensive preventive or predictive maintenance program, it's a
good idea to create a regular inspection route that includes scanning systems as
sociated with critical assets
those whose failure would threaten people, propert
y, or product. That way, you'll have baseline images for comparison, which will
help you determine whether or not a hot spot is unusual and requires repair as w
ell as verify that repairs are successful.
Consider using key safety, maintenance, and operations personnel to quantify warn
ing and alarm levels for critical assets. In addition, the InterNational Electrical
Testing Association (NETA) provides guidelines to determine when immediate repa
ir is required by comparing the difference in temperature (?T) between similar c
omponents under similar loading. NETA recommends making immediate repairs when t
he difference in temperature exceeds 15C (27F).
Whenever you use a thermal imager and find a problem, document your findings in
a report that includes a digital photograph as well as a thermal image. That's t
he best way to communicate problems you find and to suggest repairs. With the ai
d of a handheld thermal imager, you can check all electrical panels for loose an
d corroded connections, and scan critical electrical systems including motor con
trol centers, motor/drive combinations, pumps, fans, compressors, electrical con
nections, industrial gearboxes, and transformers. Let's take a look at how you c
an boost your predictive maintenance strategy in each of these areas.
Motor control centers. Thermal imaging can be used to evaluate the operating con
dition of the components within motor control centers (MCCs) by comparing their
relative temperatures under load. A typical MCC is a standalone arrangement with
one or more combination motor control units for controlling an AC motor in a sp
ecific application. Each unit has an external disconnect, branch circuit and mot
or overcurrent protection, and a magnetic motor starter along with pilot devices
located on the panel door.
Underwriters Laboratory (UL) allows panelboards and switchboards for branch-circ
uit protection within an MCC, provided they do not constitute a major portion of
the center. That means a complex MCC can contain bus bars, controllers, starter
s, contactors, relays, fuses, breakers, disconnects, feeders, and transformers.
Use your thermal imager to scan all components and connections within MCCs with
the enclosures open and the equipment running. Measure the load at the time of e
ach scan so that you can properly evaluate your measurements against normal oper
ating conditions.
In general, look for components that are hotter or cooler than similar component
s under similar loads, which can identify broken or undersized wires, defective
insulation, faulty (corroded, too loose, or over tightened) connections and elec
trical unbalance among phases.
Be aware that connection-related hot spots usually (but not always) appear warme
st at the spot of high resistance, cooling with distance from that spot. Unbalan
ce, whether normal or out of specification, will appear equally warm throughout
the phase or part of the circuit that is overloaded. Harmonic unbalance creates
a similar pattern. Note: A cooler-than-normal circuit or leg might signal a fail
ed component.

Since all electrical currents produce some heat, temperature alone is not an ind
icator of problems. Equally, warm conductors in all three phases represent a good
pattern. Differentiation between phases should be investigated.
Motors. Thermal images of electric motors reveal their operating conditions as r
eflected by their surface temperature, capturing infrared temperature measuremen
ts of a motor's temperature profile as a two-dimensional image. Unlike an infrar
ed thermometer that only captures temperature at a single point, a thermal image
r can capture temperatures at thousands of points at once, for all of the critic
al components: the motor, shaft coupling, motor and shaft bearings, and the gear
box.
Ideally, you should check motors when they are running under normal operating co
nditions. All motors should list the normal operating temperature on the namepla
te. And while the infrared camera cannot see the inside of the motor, the exteri
or surface temperature is an indicator of the internal temperature. As the motor
gets hotter inside, it also gets hotter on the outside surface.