Sight, for the unseen

Contractors face the unknown when they tackle problems hidden inside closed structures. Stud sensors and electronic scanners — two still-evolving technologies that use radar to locate objects behind or embedded in materials — can help, but their ability to identify wood and metal framing, electrical wiring, broken or lost parts, misplaced tools, and other critically important objects is limited.

Fortunately, there's another category of electronic tools that can actually see into closed cavities.

Variously known as videoscopes, fiberscopes or borescopes, these instruments typically have a miniature closed-circuit camera mounted at the tip of a flexible transmission cable. This camera sends real-time images to a hand-held viewing screen or to the user's laptop computer. Some models record video or capture still images for later examination, while others use wireless technology to transmit images to a remote computer.

Terry Buckner, owner of Watermark Restoration in Houston, owns and uses two videoscopes — one he's had for 11 years and a second unit he bought recently. "It's an invaluable tool," he said. "It helps when we have to go in behind the wall, especially if there's cabinetry we don't want to tear out. And our customers like it because we don't have to do a lot of damage to fix something."

Videoscopes have evolved from highly sophisticated (and often prohibitively expensive) equipment developed for scientific, medical and security applications. Buyers today can find basic units for less than $100. Specialized or full-featured videoscopes are costlier, but their value when compared with the expense of tearing open a wall or destroying ductwork to see into the interior is inestimable.

General Tools & Instruments recently introduced the iBorescope video inspection system that generates its own Wi-Fi hotspot, which allows the instrument to communicate wirelessly to Apple devices such as iPhones and iPads (compatibility with other operating systems will soon be available). This enables users to view and save high-definition images and video on their own devices, eliminating the need for an attached monitor and allowing the information to be easily shared.

With more than a dozen borescope models in its catalog, General offers the widest product range of any manufacturer. According to VP brand development Peter Harper, the scopes have soared in popularity in just the past year or two because "the prices have come down so much," and a greater variety of products is available. "We're selling to home renovators, home inspection companies, plumbers, auto mechanics — anyone who has to look inside something or behind a wall," he said.

Snap-On, a tool distributor that caters to automotive and building trades, offers a wireless digital video scope (model BK8000) that allows users to record and play back still images and video clips on an attached 4.3-in. LCD display monitor. Images can be stored in the unit's internal memory or on removable SD memory cards; a USB port is also provided for downloading to a computer.

Milwaukee Electric Tool produces several versions of its M-Spector electronic camera and inspection scopes, including wireless and console models. Hand-held models have 2.7-in. high-resolution color LED screens; rotating screens on some models add versatility when used in space-restricted locations. Hook, magnet and mirror attachments are available to enable users to retrieve as well as view objects in otherwise inaccessible cavities.

Ridgid, a manufacturer of hand tools and equipment for the plumbing trade, makes a SeeSnake video system designed for drain and sewer inspection. Units include waterproof, reel-mounted video cables up to 325-ft. in length, and monitors with LCD screens up to 10.4 ins. for hands-free viewing or recording to a built-in DVD player.

For those with a limited budget, Triplett Test Equipment & Tools offers the budget-minded CobraCam USB2 (model 8105) portable video inspection camera that has no monitor of its own but performs many of the same functions as higher-priced units. A USB connection powers the unit and lets users view and save color images on their own PC or Mac computer.

When it comes to determining which type of videoscope to buy, Harper of General Tools says selection is usually based on what your needs are.

"If you just need to look, that's one thing; if you need to record what you see, that's something else," he said. "You can choose how much you have to spend on a unit." And because prices continue to fall even as features and functions increase, it's a good bet that videoscopes will ultimately find a place in almost every toolbox.