Few things strike more fear into the hearts of homeowners than the word termites.
Times have changed considerably since the days when pest control meant dousing the property with powerful chemicals. Many of those chemicals have been shown to be extremely toxic, and are now either banned or stringently controlled. If you do have termites, chemicals properly applied will take care of the pests and are considered to be safe. However, if you have any question about the presence of the little beasties, you should consider carefully before ordering a remedy.
A reader in Baltimore isn't completely sure what to do about a diagnosis of termites on his property.
"During a mandatory termite inspection in the course of PPTC mortgage refinancing," he writes, "the bug inspector told us a tanbark-mulched flower bed adjoining one wall of our concrete slab house contained termites.
"He found found no evidence, he said, that the critters are in the house yet. But termites in the soil, he said, are apt to move when hot summer weather begins to cool -- possibly giving us a real problem.
"His company . . . could solve the problem for us for a mere $1,000, payable in easy monthly installments, he said.
"That's a bunch of bucks to treat dirt and not replace structure. Sounds to us like we're being hustled, although we're checking his story fast.
"Might he be steering us down a primrose path? On the other hand, if his diagnosis double-checks, is there a cheaper road to prevention -- like a do-it-yourself chemical that will keep both the termites and this guy from bugging us again?"
It's true that mulch (and firewood) that rests against a structure can harbor termites, and that termites do migrate when the temperatures cool, says William Fell of Fells Pest Control of Baltimore.
The first step toward a solution should be to keep the bugs out of the mulch. "Pull the mulch back and put a vapor barrier [such as sheet of plastic] between the dirt and the wood," Mr. Fell said.
A better idea might be to remove the mulch altogether, put down plastic and cover it with landscape gravel. Or plant a ground cover that will eliminate the need for mulch.
Even if the pests are found at the house, Mr. Fell says, a full termite-control treatment may not be necessary. That's one way to control costs. Then the homeowner can monitor for continuing presence of insects and escalate only if necessary.
However, the involvement of a financial institution changes the picture. "The bank wants certification that the property is free of termites," Mr. Fell says. If a pest-control firm finds termites that close to a structure, even if the insects are not in the structure, they're going to want to do a whole treatment -- just to make sure.
"We rarely kill a termite colony," Mr. Fells says, Instead, "we are putting a barrier up [between your property and the termites] and hoping it will stay in place."
Part of the problem is that the termite colony may be nowhere near the spot where isolated insects are popping up, Mr. Fell says. He explained that termites come up out of the ground through their tunnels to eat wood, then return for moisture and other needs. But if wood is wet, termites can comfortably munch much longer. "I've seen them stay up as long as a week," Mr. Fell says.
Pest control companies charge by the lineal foot, Mr. Fell says, and the chemicals that can be used legally are extremely expensive. If you're not happy with the first estimate, get more. Mr. Fell suggests getting three estimates, then comparing the prices and the warranties.
Maryland is one state that requires pest-control firms to provide homeowners with a Material Safety Data Sheet that explains the product used, and how much was applied.
Clearly these are chemicals that no homeowner needs to fool with, quite apart from the fact that no one would sell them to anyone who is not a certified pest control expert.
However, the trend in the industry is not to rush to apply chemicals, but to use "integrated pest management," a series of techniques to avoid infestation. Here are some of the things Mr. Fell suggested:
*Don't allow moisture to penetrate the structure. That means fixing everything from leaky roofs to leaky garden hoses. If your window air-conditioner condensate is dripping down the wall, reposition it so the drips fall away from the siding.
If your house has a dirt crawl space, install a plastic vapor barrier. Check to make sure that any wood over the crawl space remains dry. If there's still a moisture problem, the space may need some form of ventilation.
*Store all firewood at least five feet away from the house and raise it above the ground. Termites build mud tunnels to travel through; if the wood is raised, you'll be able to see the tunnels.
*When you are grading or mulching around the house, be sure to leave an "inspection strip" of foundation showing so you can see immediately if any mud tunnels are being formed. If you let the soil or mulch reach all the way to the siding, termites could come up under it, slip under the siding and be in the house before you realize it.
*If you have landscaping ties, be sure they're fully treated for earth contact. If not, they could be happy homes for termites.
Next: Researching your house's birthday.
Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is a home writer for The Sun.
If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.