Nashua company makes cameras that see gas leaks

NASHUA, N.H. — It looks like a typical camcorder: dark in color, light in weight with a lens and a viewfinder. The kind of camera that sells for a few hundred dollars at BestBuy.

The difference is, this camera, the GFx320 by FLIR Systems Inc., costs almost $100,000 and has the ability to “visualize” active gas leaks.

"Gross, negligent leaks, it does provide a whole other set of eyes to determine where the source leak may be coming from,” Paul Czerepuszko said.

Czerepuszko is the director of Strategic Business Development at FLIR Systems in Nashua, New Hampshire. The company has been developing and manufacturing a line of optical gas imaging (OGI) cameras since 2005.

“The camera technology gives us the opportunity to stand off at a safe distance [from a gas leak],” Czerepuszko said. “The gas imaging is a fantastic tool that helps these operators find a leak, pinpoint a leak and of course, fix the leak."

But the tech is largely going unused in New England, even in the wake of the Merrimack Valley gas explosions and fires last month.

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The reason, Czerepuszko said, is cost. The cameras go for tens of thousands of dollars and require many hours of training. It’s an expense, Czerepuszko said, utility companies like Columbia Gas and National Grid have chosen not to invest in.

“I think one of the driving factors is it is cost-prohibitive,” he admits. "The technology is available. Could it have helped [in the Merrimack Valley]? I do believe it could help."

Czerepuszko demonstrated how the camera worked one afternoon inside the FLIR offices. Using a handheld propane torch, he was able to simulate a small gas leak. The vapors resembled black smoke when viewed through the viewfinder of the GFx320.

But the conditions have to be right. Temperature and lighting, two variables that aren’t always conducive in New England, can make it harder for the cameras to visualize a gas leak, Czerepuszko said.

"With the FLIR cameras, you see it. You actually see the vapors, which is huge,” said Dave Sawyer, owner of Sawyer Infrared in Medford.

Sawyer uses the FLIR camera to help natural gas companies detect leaks and meet regulations.

When it comes to using OGI technology, Sawyer has the market cornered. He said he’s the only one in New England using this technology.

"It's expensive and they don't train their people for it,” Sawyer said, referring to local utility companies like Columbia Gas. "They should be using this up there right now [in the Merrimack Valley] and they're not."

Czerepuszko said FLIR targets their products for larger oil and gas companies, like Exxon, Chevron and BP. He still believes the camera could be a valuable asset to first responders and crews during a major gas leak.

"Perhaps it would have been able to give first responders a [different] perspective,” Czerepuszko said. “Is there a very large leak that we might be able to pinpoint and send in a crew safely to understand?”

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Eversource spokesperson Mike Durand said the company may invest in the technology down the road.

“We use vehicle-mounted units known as Optical Methane Detection equipment for mobile leak surveys. The FLIR unit is a handheld device that we don’t currently use,” Durand said.

National Grid and Columbia Gas did not respond to our requests for comment.

"[With] the larger leaks, the gas company could [help] the residential customer who is wondering, 'Where is the leak coming from?'" Czerepuszko said. "Helping pinpoint that? This could help speed up that process."