Steady evolution brings a better picture, more recording options
By Simon Blake
Drain inspection cameras that are affordable for the average contractor have been around for about 25 years. They have become sophisticated electronic devices and, like anything to do with electronics, the pace of change is rapid.
“The technology in cameras is advancing rapidly, probably more so than any of our other product lines,” noted Marty Silverman, vice president, marketing, for General Pipe Cleaners, McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania.
In that short period of time, they have evolved from 50 lb. machines that recorded on VHS tape – if they recorded at all – to today’s compact three-pound machines that record via Wi-Fi to a smartphone or tablet.
A better picture
The primary purpose of a drain camera is to see what is blocking the drain. That sounds obvious, but manufacturers have gone to considerable lengths to improve the picture of not only what is ahead of the camera, but on some camera models improved peripheral vision helps the technician do a detailed inspection of the pipe walls and see clearly the type of pipe connections they are dealing with.
Pan and tilt – in which the camera lens rotates and tilts so the operator can inspect the walls of the pipe – is now available in smaller cameras, noted Frank D’Andrea, president of Ratech Electronics, Toronto. The company’s Pan n’ Tilt Push model is designed to inspect four to 12-inch lines, making it practical for residential and small commercial sewer inspection. “It allows you to see a lot closer and in a lot more detail.”
Ridgid, Elyria, Ohio, recently introduced its TruSense technology on standard and mini reels. It includes High Dynamic Range (HDR) and TiltSense technology. “The HDR balances out the light and the image in the pipe so you get a clearer overall image as well as being able to see much further down the line,” explained Amy Moneypenny, global product manager for underground technology, inspection and locating.
HDR balances the light and dark areas on the colour picture to avoid overly bright or dark areas. “You can see all the walls of the pipe in greater detail with HDR.” It can also be turned off for greater contrast. “On the monitor, they can toggle the HDR on and off depending on the job and situation,” she added.
Ridgid’s TiltSense technology is an onboard inclinometer that measures and displays the pitch of the camera, allowing the plumber to immediately see the slope of the pipe, plus or minus in degrees. “When you are in muck and water and you can’t see much of anything, you can quickly find bellies in the pipe that you would not normally be able to see,” said Jeff Albertini, Ridgid global product manager, underground technologies, hand-held tools.
Better recording options
One of the major changes in recent years is the addition of Wi-Fi to drain cameras, allowing the operator to transmit, live if needed, the inspection back to the shop or directly to the customer.
“The nice thing about Wi-Fi is it gives you instant information,” noted D’Andrea. The Wi-Fi on a drain camera is a short-range Wi-Fi, typically with a range of about 100 yards. But that allows the camera operator to transmit to a smartphone, tablet or laptop. This requires downloading an app from the manufacturer. From there it can be live streamed to the client or uploaded to one of the video sharing sites like YouTube, DropBox, etc.
In recent years recording on the camera itself has shifted from SD cards to flash/USB drives, noted Silverman. “Contractors like to put their logo on the flash drive that they hand to the customer,” he added.
Smaller and brighter
Ratech now offers a 5/8” diameter camera – about the size of a dime – that is designed to inspect lines as small as one inch.
All manufacturers offer self-levelling cameras. This may not be important for the contractor because they know what they are looking at, but it helps the customer, added Silverman.
New “super bright” LEDs help improve the field of vision. Ridgid’s True Sense cameras have 16 LEDs, up from six in earlier models.
Ridgid’s new Flexshaft drain cleaning machine allows the contractor to put a camera down the drain just behind the spinning “chain knocker” so they can watch its progress. The cable spins inside a sheath that protects the camera from damage.
“I’ve had people use our camera with a water jet in the same way; in fact, they may use the water jet to push the camera down the line,” noted Silverman.
Choosing a camera
There are many cameras on the market today at many different price points, so choosing the right one for your business can be difficult.
Step one is to figure the length and diameter of drains you may need to inspect, said Adam White, Ridgid, technical service. “Is all my work in residential areas where drains are typically 30 feet from the street or do I work in a semi-rural area where the drains can be over 100 feet long.”
They also need to decide on the monitor and its features. If they need the ability to watch the inspection on a laptop or tablet computer, a large monitor might not be needed.
Cameras operate in a harsh environment and do get damaged. One of the key factors is manufacturer support. Do they have local service centers so that the camera can be fixed quickly? Having to send the camera out of the country for repairs can be a hassle.
“It’s looking at the track record of the company as well as the price,” noted Silverman. “If the price is your biggest decision-making factor, you can get yourself in trouble.”
The range of cameras and accessories offered by the supplier is important too. You may start with a basic setup, but if the manufacturer offers a wide range of cameras and accessories, it will be easier to upgrade for particular jobs or as the business expands.
Operation and maintenance
Employees must use this equipment with care. Most cameras come with a guide or trap skid to keep the camera centred as it goes down the drain.
Spraying the camera lens with a windshield water repellant like Rain-X helps keep the lens clean, advises White.
Jetting the line prior to putting the camera down will make a big difference. “You’ll see if you’re going to get into trouble, so you don’t get the camera caught in a collapsed pipe or tangled in tree roots. You can stop if you can see the obstruction,” said Silverman.
Obviously, the camera must not be used to bash through an obstruction. “Cameras are durable, but they are not a drain cleaning machine,” said Silverman.
End of day cleanup is critical. “Don’t bring the job site home with you when you load it into your van or truck,” says Albertini. Things like Lysol wipes work well for wiping down the camera and pushrod.
It’s important to bring the camera inside at night, and not just for theft prevention. In the winter the cold temperatures can cause fogging of screens and freezing of electronics. “It can disrupt your entire day if the camera is not working properly,” noted D’Andrea.
Drain camera research and development never stops. Manufacturers are working on ever higher definition pictures. Camera heads will continue to shrink. More companies will incorporate pan and tilt – or variations on it.
Today the cameras from mainstream suppliers are very, very good. Contractors can tailor them very precisely to their needs. Ultimately the decision on what to purchase may in large part come down to parts and service backup in your region.