The Garage Tools

Topdon TC004 Thermal Camera Hands-On Review: For When “How Close Can I Hold My Hand” Isn’t Scientific Enough

I wasn’t sure about the accuracy of this thermal camera, then I bumped into some actual scientists who use them in their labs.
Topdon TC004 Thermal Camera Hands-On Review
Michael Febbo

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Yes, sometimes a hot or not is more than enough information to tell you if something is working. If you have a dead cylinder, if one of your primaries is cold, that’s kind of a giveaway. But, what if you have a rich or lean burn coming up at the oxygen sensor at the collector? You know it’s there, but you don’t know which hole? Looking at individual primary temps can help find that vacuum leak, leaky injector, etc. A thermal imagery camera used to be way out of reach for most home mechanics. But in the last few years, tools like this Topdon TC004 thermal camera have dropped well below the $400 mark.

Topdon TC004 Thermal Camera Hands-On Review
In this photo, I have a DJI power bank that takes DC power from batteries and converts it to AC. A charger is plugged in, that converts the AC back to DC to charge the Battery of a Blaupunkt e-bike. The charger is 141°F, how efficient do you think that is? Michael Febbo

At the time of writing this, the TC004 you see here was $369 on Amazon. I can remember when a basic touchless infrared thermometer was around a thousand bucks. It was way out of reach for your average track rat who wanted an easy way to do tire temps. You’ll have to forgive me if I’m a bit blown away that we can now get temps from -20°C to 350°C(-4°F to 662°F) with less than 2% error, all while being able to shoot photos and video in a handheld device. I may not have a jetpack, but some of what the future promised is coming true.

Just a quick thing: This is a serious piece of scientific diagnostic equipment. But, if you have a science/tech nerd in your life and you’re looking for a gift, even if they aren’t into cars, a thermal imaging camera is a natural 20.

What is a thermal imaging camera used for?

I have been using this Topdon TC004 thermal camera for more things than I had imagined. Some extremely useful, and some for no other reason than nerdy curiosity. I suppose it all depends on perspective. Fortunately for me, I haven’t had an actual need to use it on my car. There are however a ton of uses. I already mentioned the exhaust header scenario but there’s a lot more.

Even if you aren’t racing, looking at the heat across the tread of your tire can give you an idea if your alignment is correct. You can check brake rotor temps between the inside and outside of the disk to see if you have a sliding caliper or a piston hanging up. You can find exhaust leaks. Some say you can compare shock/strut temps to see if one is more worn than the other. Find fluid leaks. Look for electrical connections that are generating a lot of resistance.

I took a photo and you can see that the insulating blanket around my battery seems to be working. You can check for air leaks in window and door seals. If you have one of these, you will probably figure out another two dozen things I haven’t thought about. 

Topdon TC004 Thermal Camera
Michael Febbo

Around the house, I checked my refrigerator temps. I used this when testing out a cooler, which you will see a review of shortly. It’s also been used to check the temps of the radio controlled cars I’ve been testing. I wanted to see if my oven’s thermostat is accurate, spoiler alert, it isn’t. I found out my blender’s motor is always hot—I probably shouldn’t keep it plugged in.

While checking my sliding glass door and how much heat that’s letting in, I saw a brightly glowing brick that’s my music server, which is turned off. All these things that are hot in my house, are using energy. Yes, saving a few Watts here and there will take a while to pay for one of these. But if you’re like me, you get a strong sense of satisfaction from optimizing things and that’s priceless.

How does a thermal imaging camera work anyway?

A thermal imaging system is basically a camera, but instead of capturing visible light it detects infrared energy. Both visible light and infrared are on the electromagnetic spectrum. Just like everything from Gamma to Radio waves.

Infrared has a longer wavelength than visible light, so it is said to be lower energy. An infrared imager uses a lens to focus emitted energy onto a sensor—the same way an optical camera works. Because of the larger wavelengths, a thermal image sensor the same size as an optical sensor will have a lower resolution; fewer data points per area. Objects at different temperatures will give off infrared radiation at slightly different wavelengths. It’s the same way our eyes and cameras separate different colors. In the same way slight color variations are perceptible, so are slight variations in heat. A thermal imaging camera takes that heat information and converts it into data in the visible spectrum. That’s done so we see it in either greyscale or as a color map.

Topdon Engine Reading
Michael Febbo

If your eyes didn’t glaze over and/or you didn’t skip ahead during my “science guy” moment, lets talk about some of the specifics of how the Topdon TC004 works. Its sensor measures 256 by 192 pixels and will measure objects between -20°C to 350°C(-4°F to 662°F). If you’re wondering, the hot side of a turbocharger can reach 2,000°F when pushed to its limits. Those of you dynoing Supras and 1.8t VWs may need to look somewhere else.

The TC004 is decent sized, I have included a side-by-side photo with a touchless thermometer for scale. It is 9.4 inches tall and weighs 18.3 ounces. All things considered, it is pretty compact. The dark grey material is all rubberized so it cushions your grip and whatever surface you set this on. On the bottom of the grip is a 1/4-20 threaded insert. This will screw onto any normal photo tripod or mount. The screen is a 2.8-inch color display. Topdon says the screen refreshes at 20 Hz. To me, it doesn’t look like the data is going to the screen anywhere near that. While I like having real-time data, I can’t imagine needing anything more than 1 Hz when I’m trying to figure out the heat spread inside my Traeger smoker.

Topdon Thermal Camera vs Infrared thermometer
Michael Febbo

How easy to use and how accurate is the Topdon TC004 Thermal Camera?

When you get the TC004, first take the imager out of the box, plug in the USB-C cord to charge it up. Once the battery is topped up, unplug it, put in the included 16 gig microSD card, hit the power button and you’re ready to go. It takes a few seconds to start up, it seems to vary a little in how long the time the start-up calibration takes. The longest I’ve seen is maybe 30 seconds, so we’re not talking about your toast being charred before you can monitor its progress. Yes, I may have tried to figure out what the hell the darkness wheel on my toaster does—it’s still a mystery.

I have yet to put a dent in the battery life. Topdon claims a 12-hour work time in between charges. I have no reason to doubt that. I have left it sitting turned on a few times, and I even have the auto-power-off set at 20 minutes.

Topdon TC004 Thermal Camera Hands-On Review
Michael Febbo

Settings are easy to change. In the middle of the controls, there’s typical set of five buttons, up/down, left/right, and select, that are easy to use with your thumb. You can change everything from units, Celsius, Fahrenheit, and Kelvin. You can set hi/low temperature warnings, date and time, screen brightness, color palette, format the memory card, all sorts of things. Besides the menu navigation buttons, you also have the power button, a button to control the LED flashlight on the front of the device, a back button(for navigation), and a Play button that takes you straight to stored photos and videos.

If you have a PC running Windows, you can run the Topdon TC004 thermal camera in USB mode that allows you to view and control it from that PC. don’t have a PC, so I was unable to test out that functionality. Apple OS/iOS and tablet devices running Andriod are kind of becoming a thing with the kids these days, that seems like something Topdon may want to look into.

Topdon Ports
Michael Febbo

In terms of accuracy. I tested this using the ole boiling water trick. I live at 2970 feet above sea level, so water should boil at 206° F. But, mineral content,  and variations in barometric pressure can change that. Thermal cameras don’t work well on water anyway, and you end up trying to get the temperature of the vessel holding the water and if it’s something like my stainless electric kettle, the low emissivity of the material means you can’t get a real reading. So, it turns out boiling for calibration is only ideal for touch thermometers. So I used a few other devices, none of which claim to be as accurate as this unit. In the interest of full transparency, I will admit, I have no scientific evidence that leads me to either confirm or doubt Topdon’s accuracy claims. 

I do however have anecdotal. During the testing period of the Topdon TC004 thermal camera, my family visited a science and technology festival. There were several local private and government science entities with booths telling people what they do, how they do it, and why kids should be more concerned with school than TikTok influencers. Two different organizations had these exact thermal imagers on display. I explained I was testing one, asked if they just brought the “cheap ones” for kids to play with and they said, “no, these are the ones we use daily in our labs and in the field.” Again, this is purely anecdotal, but endorsements from actual scientists using these for paid research is worth something.

Topdon engine reading
If you’ve wondered why people wrap their intakes in IR reflective foil, here’s your answer. Michael Febbo

The Verdict on The Topdon TC004 Thermal Camera

First, let me say that although $369 is a steal for what this is, it’s still a considerable amount of money when we compare it to other tools that you will probably use more often. But, if you’re like me, and instead of just the utility of the tool, you’re also looking at this as a toy, it is hard to put a price on it. When deciding on the Value Rating, I am comparing it to other devices that do the same thing.

A comparable FLIR camera, with lower sensor resolution and a smaller screen, is going to set you back at a minimum of $100 more. If we look at Fluke, Matco, or Snap-On, prices are in the thousands, not hundreds. Obviously, you can get touchless thermometers starting at about $25, but those are point-and-shoot, so they give a temperature reading where they are pointing with no picture, so not really comparable. Also, I am currently testing a $25 unit and it does not seem especially accurate.

Topdon TC004 Thermal Imager
Ease Of Use9/10

There are tons of options on Amazon that all hover right around this price. I have not tested any of those devices, so I can’t say how they perform. I have had this Topdon TC004 and a few other Topdon devices for a few months. All of them seem to be high-quality, rugged and perform as advertised.

I know there are some people that will continually look down their noses at any tool that came off an Amazon truck instead of a tool truck. And I get it. We all have brand preferences and tribalism is hardwired into our human DNA. So whether it’s tools, muscle cars, or sports teams, we hate the “other.” And I get it, I really do. I’ve only owned European cars, I accustomed to paying more for something others don’t see the value in. When it comes to tools, I am far less brand invested. I can easily recommend this thermal imager.