On The Road

Cameras that measure heat helpful in finding electrical shorts

Although we may not be driving long distances these days, it’s still a really good practice to make sure your vehicle is in proper working order.


One thing that some of you may have been dealing with for the past years is dead batteries. I have written several columns about batteries and how to repair shorts, but I have never mentioned thermal imaging cameras and how they help us solve such problems. Thermal imaging cameras measure heat, and an electrical short can produce heat.

When we perform a vehicle inspection, I can see worn belts, cracked hoses, leaking fluid and many other problems. Yet it is nearly impossible to see electricity – unless there’s a major problem like an arcing wire. After a car is turned off, it will go to sleep just like a computer does when it sits idle.

As long as all of the car’s electrical relays, wires, connections, components and control modules are OK, the car should be able to sit undriven for several months. If a car sits for an extended period of time and any electrical components have a problem, it can abnormally drain the battery. The challenge with trying to find electrical problems is that they are intermittent most of the time.

Here’s where thermal imaging cameras come in handy: They allow us to see the heat coming off electrical components that we wouldn’t notice otherwise.

Last year we had a 2011 Mini Cooper with an intermittent battery drain. We had finally traced the problem back to a component in the dash. Disassembling the entire dash is time consuming and expensive for the customer.
Before we started to take the dash apart, we used the thermal imaging camera but were una-ble to pick up any heat signatures. There are several reasons why this could have happened, including that the electrical short could be intermittent or the dash coverings are blocking the thermal camera.

After disassembling the dash halfway, we used the thermal imaging camera again. We dis-covered a small heat signature on the left upper side of the dash. We then started to disconnect the components in that area and found that the instrument cluster was the culprit.

Thermal imaging cameras do not always find the problem, but they are just one more tool in our box. During this repair, the imaging camera did save us time and we were able to use it after the repair to confirm the fix. As cars keep making leaps and bounds with technology, so will the tools that we will need to repair them.

Matt Pataky owns Sunnyvale Foreign Car Service, 15 Pioneer Way, Mountain View. For more information, call 960-6988, email [email protected] or visit
sunnyvaleforeigncar.com.

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