Areas of yellow and red show where an object is giving off heat, giving homeowners a good idea of where interior heating is being lost to the outdoors. Credit: Essess.

One of the well-worn tools of home energy auditors is thermal imaging cameras that show where buildings are poorly insulated. But how do you bring these pictures to thousands or even millions of homes? Two Boston-area startups think they have the answer.

Sagewell and Essess have effectively brought the idea of Google Street View, where a camera-equipped car drives through neighborhoods, to thermal imaging. Both companies have developed business models to provide consumers thermal images of their homes and to make money on referrals.

An infrared image displays warmer and cooler areas of an object. Energy auditors use them to spot where drafts or lack of insulation indicate a significant amount of heat is being lost to the outdoors. On their own, they won’t tell a homeowner exactly how to make a home more energy efficient, but they can quickly help locate problem areas.

“We provide a first look at the evidence of the thermal image and help locate anything of interest that warrants a closer look,” Sagewell CEO Pasi Miettinen told me from the Building Energy conference in Boston.

In many states, a surcharge on utility bills funds energy-efficiency programs that offer rebates or free home energy audits. Although they can save people money from lower energy bills, most consumers simply don’t go through the trouble of having an audit and following through with recommendations. Miettinen says the image serves as a “catalyst” to help motivate a consumer to take steps, such as sealing leaks and hiring a contractor to add insulation. In one town, fifteen percent of the homes that received a thermal image of their home followed up with the state’s energy-efficiency program, although that was unusually high.

With just an image taken at night during the winter to measure heat loss, Sagewell’s back-end software can generate a comparison of how one home compares to another in terms of efficiency. The data can also be valuable to utilities to gain insight into when consumers will follow through to make energy improvements, Miettinen says.

Sagewell also works directly with towns and home performance contractors in providing infrared images to consumers, Miettinen says. Consumers need a password to log into to see images of their homes. The company’s cameras can capture thousands of images a day and has captured half of a million images.

Another company, Essess, was founded with a similar idea of building a home thermal imaging system that could engage consumers and scale. Its system of gathering geospatial data and analyzing it to predict building efficiency was developed by MIT professor Jonathan Jesneck. Essess, which raised a $6 million series A round last year, works with both commercial and residential buildings and can generate reports estimated the amount of money lost to wasted energy.

Most energy contractors will tell you every building is different so they each need very tailored recommendations on how best to improve efficiency. Thermal images, just like blower door tests, can be a very useful diagnostic for building owners. For Essess and Sagewell, the challenge to scaling up may ultimately not be so much about their technology, but their ability to engage consumers and build a viable business around referral fees.

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