What’s new in video pipe inspection systems.

Drain-cleaning cameras have become physically smaller. Maneuverable models less than 1 inch in diameter now let professionals troubleshoot very narrow conduits. (Photo courtesy of General Pipe Cleaners.)

Remember when small camera systems were a novelty - and only the biggest contractors in town had one?

No more.

Just check the phone book. Nearly every drain-cleaning specialist boasts a camera system. And more and more plumbing contractors possess video inspection capabilities, too.

As with computers and other consumer electronics, technical progress has enhanced the value, reliability and performance of video inspection systems. Steady advances only have made equipment cheaper, better and more convenient.

Here’s the latest scoop.

Camera Advances

The latest inspection cameras include self-leveling technology that automatically keeps the pictures “right side up,” letting professionals and customers clearly follow camera action through the line.

Not surprisingly, cameras - like digital cameras and laptops - have become physically smaller, too. Maneuverable models less than 1 inch in diameter now let professionals troubleshoot very narrow conduits, augmenting their value and versatility.

Increased camera sensitivity combined with more powerful LED lighting technologies also ensure clear images in the darkest areas for greater accuracy in diagnosing and correcting problems.

Finally, camera casings and attachment mechanisms have dramatically improved. Durable stainless-steel housings and scratch-resistant lenses withstand the toughest punishment from abrasion and moisture, preserving delicate electronics.

Seeing Things Differently

A quick pass through any TV store confirms the virtual disappearance of televisions with cathode ray tubes, also known as CRTs or “picture tubes,” the last vestiges of vacuum-tube technologies. The same applies to video inspection systems.

When initially introduced, most command modules sported CRT monitors, some quite bulky. While companies eventually offered more compact designs, these still retained CRT equipment, which required extra case padding and cooling fans.

Thin-screen LCD monitors on recent video inspection systems provide greater resolution, clarity and reliability. And they are lighter and more compact than CRTs. LCDs now have nearly displaced CRTs.

The screen size can vary widely as well. In the days of CRTs, most systems offered only a 9-inch monitor. Now you can get everything from a 2 1/2-inch screen in a compact, handheld unit to a 15-inch high-resolution LCD screen in bigger systems. Pick a screen that’s big enough to clearly see the line being inspected but not so large it becomes bulky.

More than 60 percent of U.S. households now have DVD players. And like most consumers, manufacturers of video pipe inspection systems have switched to DVD recording technology. (Photo courtesy of General Pipe Cleaners.)

Recording And Storing Videos

Unless customers are present when professionals actually spot hidden problems, video inspection systems require some kind of recording mechanism. And for years, VHS tape remained the only option to archive jobs.

But no more. More than 80 percent of U.S. households now have DVD players. And like most consumers, manufacturers of video pipe inspection systems have switched to DVD recording technology.

Unlike VHS technology, DVD recorders provide crisp pictures with a jitter-free freeze-frame, which permit more precise problem analysis. Disks themselves last longer, too.

Still, recording on VHS decks was easier: Just insert any blank tape and press the “record” button. DVD recorders are trickier. You must know which type of DVD disk your system requires: DVD +R, -R, -RW, etc. Consult your camera system’s instruction manual.

And you can’t view a disk on another DVD player without first finalizing the recording. This requires extra steps and time at the jobsite before the customer can watch the disk on his DVD player. And unlike VHS tapes, you can’t record over finalized DVDs. On the other hand, blank DVDs are far cheaper than blank VHS tapes.

Computer Hard Drives

In addition to DVD recorders, many newer systems include hard drives. For instance, 160 GB of memory can record nearly 300 hours of work; this allows professionals to archive jobs after providing DVDs to customers. But hard drives can be fragile and somewhat bulky. They don’t like bouncing around in trucks, and their mechanisms can require special casings.

Digital technologies such as SD card readers, flash drives, memory sticks and CF cards to save recordings provide the answer. Like your digital camera, they resist damage from vibration. They also weigh much less. Depending on LCD monitor size, the camera control unit can weigh as little as 10 lb. External card readers weigh just ounces - and might even be compatible with your existing camera system.

Compact digital recording media give you the best of both worlds. VHS or DVD systems let you easily make a recording and hand it to your customer on the spot, but you must give up your only copy. Hard drive systems let you keep the original recording and make copies for your customers, but are big, bulky and can be sensitive to bouncing in a truck.

SD card readers, flash drives, etc., are compact, lightweight, durable and as easy to use as your personal digital camera. This technology lets you keep the original recording for your records and either make copies for your customers, print a still photo or even e-mail a photo directly to your customer.

Amenities Make Life Easier

The best systems offer extras that enhance productivity and customer service. Look for features like these:

  • On-screen distance counter;

  • AC/DC power options;

  • Date and time stamp;

  • Voice-over unit; and

  • Built-in titler.

The bottom line? Camera inspection systems offer drain-cleaning and plumbing experts enhanced versatility, productivity and - most importantly - a return on investment.

Savvy professionals promote them for greater profitability.

Sidebar: Why Get A Camera System?

Today’s versatile, easy-to-use camera systems eliminate the guesswork of inspecting sewer and drain lines, septic tanks, heating and cooling ducts, chimneys, wells and other concealed conduits.

They show customers exactly where and what their problems are - without needlessly damaging walls, concrete driveways or expensive landscaping trying to find breaks or blockages.

This kind of precision boosts a professional’s image. Customers avoid unnecessary collateral property damage. Greater accuracy also means that drain-cleaning and plumbing specialists fix problems faster - for enhanced profitability.

Sidebar: What To Look For

Competitive pricing and user-friendly technology make today’s video inspection systems sound investments for many professionals.

Baseline packages for trouble-shooting 2-inch through 10-inch lines usually include several core components:

  • Camera. Look for a rugged unit with scratch-resistant lens and integral lighting on specially designed springs to negotiate multiple bends. Most manufacturers offer color or black-and-white options.

  • Command module. This includes a monitor, recording device and AC/DC power options. The best systems feature compact, padded case designs with telescoping handles and wheels for easy transport.

  • Locator. Insist on digital equipment that easily and accurately locates the camera with precise, instant depth-finding capability. Avoid obsolete products that rely on tedious triangulation.

  • Push rod. Reinforced so it’s strong enough to push down long runs, but flexible enough to get around bends when needed.

  • Reel. Look for a sturdy, lightweight, compact design with optional capacity configurations.