Termite Protection: What You Should Know
Dr. Roger Gold, Endowed Chair in Urban Entomology, Texas A&M University
Subterranean termites, those that live in nests or colonies in the soil, are among the most destructive insect pests in the United States, causing more property damage than fire and windstorms combined. In Texas, termites cause an estimated $200 million worth of damage every year. To make matters worse, termite damage is not covered by homeowner’s insurance.
While it’s no secret that subterranean termites have long been a problem, several recent developments indicate that the threat caused by these wood-destroying insects may be increasing, requiring Texas homebuilders to think twice about protecting their work against serious termite infestation.
Two major species of termites reside in Texas. The Reticulitermes termite (the genus name of the “native subterranean termites” of which there are four or five) is found throughout the state, decreasing in frequency from the Gulf Coast to the central regions. The Formosan subterranean termite is generally found in the Houston Ship Channel area down to, and including, Galveston and Texas City, and the Beaumont-Port Arthur-Orange area.
Formosans are by far the most voracious of all termites and, therefore, the most economically devastating. Both subterranean termites and Formosans feed on materials that contain cellulose, but also have been know to eat through such materials as stucco, heater lines, plastic and soft metals. They have an enormous reproductive capacity and a typical colony will exceed one million insects. Currently, their distribution throughout Texas appears to be widening.
Termites on the Move
Formosans were first discovered in Texas in 1956 in a floating dry dock on the Houston Ship Channel in the city of Pasadena in Harris County. Since then, Formosan termites have been detected in 14 other Texas counties: Angelina, Arkansas, Bexar, Dallas, Denton, Galveston, Hidalgo, Jefferson, Liberty, Nueces, Orange, Smith, Tarrant and Travis.
It is believed that Formosan termites were transported to the Houston Ship Channel in wooden cargo from the Far East. In many cargo holds, large timbers are used to hold crates and containers to prevent their shifting during passage. At the port of destination, these timbers are unloaded so the cargo can be removed. The timbers are often taken from the dock and used by landscaping companies for construction of terraces or planting beds. If these infested timbers are not properly fumigated, the termites can travel with the timbers and infest the soil at a building or landscaping site. In addition, termites can travel in pine mulch, sod from infested areas and cargo pallets that have rested on infested soil.
An initial termite infestation in a city can become a seed colony for subsequent infestations in that neighborhood or in distant locations. For example, in 1994, a neighborhood in the northern part of Austin discovered an infestation of Formosan termites. Within six years, 10 more infestations were discovered in the same neighborhood.
Changes Affecting Builders
For many years, residential homebuilders traditionally worked with pest control operators (PCOs). PCOs would treat the soil with strong liquid chemicals prior to the pouring of the foundation and provide the builder with written certification that the treatment was completed.
In the late 1980’s, however, the use of the most common termite soil treatment chemicals was suspended nationally, due to environmental and human health concerns. Today’s newer treatments, while safer, are not as effective or long lasting as the earlier ones.
Changing construction techniques also have played a role in the fight against termites. The rise in the use of monolithic and supported slab construction, as well as the extension of siding materials below grade, are making homes harder to protect against termite infestation.
Seven Preventative Steps for Builders
Many termite problems can be prevented through sound initial building designs, proper sanitation and mechanical alterations:
- Deny termites' access to moisture.
Position or modify the building site so that the soil grade slopes away from the structure in all directions.
- Deny termites' access to food (wood).
Remove extraneous cellulose material, such as wood scraps or stumps, from underneath and around foundations.
- Apply a protective pre-treatment.
In addition to the newer liquid chemicals, other treatments are in development, such as physical barriers and plastic sheets similar to vapor barriers, with termiticide sandwiched in between the polymer layers.
- Work with a licensed pest control operator (PCO).
Discuss what treatment options exist with your PCO and incorporate them into the construction process. Do a thorough cost-benefit analysis, and resist the temptation to make your choices based solely on price.
- Seal all penetrations.
Termites can fit through openings as small as 1/64th of an inch. Foundation penetrations can serve as key entry points so be sure to seal all openings, such as for plumbing wraps and service utilities. Again, new barrier-type termite treatments are being developed specifically for this purpose.
- Eliminate wood-to-soil contacts.
Any material in direct contact with the soil serves as an avenue of infestation, including attached fence posts, stair casings, trellises and door facings. Remove these structures from the soil and set them on masonry blocks or replace them with pressure-treated wood.
- Allow for easy inspection.
Avoid placing siding or insulation in contact with the soil or below grade. Leave a four- to six-inch gap on the foundation between the soil grade and the lower edge of any siding material. This makes it easier for the PCO to visually inspect for termite tunneling activity.
Be Proactive About Prevention
Termites have been around for over 200 million years, and it doesn’t look like they’ll be eradicated any time soon. Their long lifespan and the fact that their colonies are self-perpetuating -a queen can live up to 25 years and produce up to 2,000 eggs a day -are just some of the reasons these “eating machines” cause such massive destruction.
Unfortunately, residential termite damage frequently leads to lawsuits involving both builders and PCOs. As termites spread deeper into Texas, builders should realize that this is truly a situation where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound if cure. Proper planning, design, sanitation, pre-treatment, and building techniques, allow builders to take a major step in constructing homes that serve as long-lasting tributes to their skill and commitment to quality.
Homebuyer and homeowner research reveals various levels of knowledge about potential termite damage and treatment options. You can help in the consumer education process - and add value to your home offering - by being well versed about termite protection innovations.
From Texas Builder Magazine, June 2002
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