Thermal imaging with drones helps building improvements take off

Also: Automating public building benchmarking with custom software

Warren knows more about the building infrastructure of its community than any other city in the state.

Located in northwestern Minnesota, the town of 1,600 used drones to capture thermal imaging to benchmark their community’s buildings. For Warren city officials the focus will now be on how to improve energy efficiency using the state-of-the-art images.

Inspiration from Abroad

The inspiration for the building benchmarking came from Warren’s participation in the Climate Smart Municipalities Program sponsored the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. Warren was one of five communities in 2016 chosen to participate in the program, which offers civic leaders in both countries an opportunity to visit and learn from one another’s approach to climate change, clean energy policy and efficiency.

Climate Smart Municipalities visit Germany

How we approach everything has changed with the different information we’ve been exposed to.

Shannon Mortenson, Warren City Administrator

Paired with the much larger German city Arnsberg in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Warren still shares many characteristics with its brethren, among them a location in a largely agricultural area and next to a river prone to flooding, according to city administrator Shannon Mortenson. What Mortenson and other city officials learned in Germany continues to have a large impact. 

  • Staff Support: Arnsberg had a building benchmarking program in place and the three Warren staff members who participated in the Smart Climate Municipalities program believed they could conduct a similar initiative. A then Minnesota GreenCorps member, Andrew Boucher, assisted in moving the project forward.
  • Technical Support: Warren has the built-in advantage having a municipally owned utility providing electricity, natural gas, water, sewer and sanitation services. The city enlisted Northland Community & Technical College’s aerospace program to operate drones carrying high definition thermal cameras capable of photographing every city block.

A Picture is Worth 10,000,000 Btus

The drones captured thermal imaging that showed where government buildings and schools had potential energy loss. The photos were overlaid with colors to show gradations of energy loss. “You can see that a roof might be causing your greatest heat loss, or maybe a door, or certain windows,” Mortenson said. “Maybe you don’t have something sealed up in your sidewalls that’s creating a leak you don’t even know about.”

A Marshall County courthouse showed a great energy loss around a bank of windows, leading officials to consider replacing them. Areas of city buildings revealed where insulation will be needed, Mortenson said, but no action has been taken yet.

Example of thermal imaging showing heat loss in buildings

Homeowners and businesses can view their own thermal images at the city’s office but not any other structures, Mortenson said. “We’d don’t allow Realtors to see that data,” she said. “Only the building owner can view the imaging because of privacy concerns.”

Arnsburg is the first city in Germany to take thermal images of all of their buildings, Mortenson said. She hopes in the future to image the city again to show how the government and homeowners have improved their structures.

Investing in Data & Benchmarking

Warren received a $3,500 Northwest CERT Seed Grant to create an automated software program to work in conjunction with the state’s B3 Benchmarking program. The import software allows for updates, changing the end date each month, and adding consumption and costs.

Mortenson hopes B3 will be refined to allow for more commercial and residential properties. For now, the software fix will assist the city’s utility manager in uploading data to B3. “We’ll see the benefit in future years,” she said.

  • Technology: Low-Cost / No-Cost Upgrades, Behavior Change
  • Northwest CERT Seed Grant: $3,500
  • Project Team: Andrew Boucher, Minnesota GreenCorps; Shannon Mortenson, City of Warren City Administrator/Clerk-Treasurer; Brent McMillan, City of Warren Electric Operations Manager; Jeff Wohlers, City of Warren Public Works Supervisor; Cheri Schneider, The Weidt Group
  • People Involved and Reached: 2,000
  • Prospective Energy Savings: Usage of the benchmarking software can lead to anywhere from 35-50% reduction in energy use
  • Award: City of Warren received a 2018 Clean Energy Community Award from the Minnesota Department of Commerce

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