Cockroaches are yucky. Spiders are scary. But termites are just plain sneaky. These critters can steal their way into a house, eat away your walls and then get you where it really hurts: your wallet.
Treating an average freestanding house for termites using the leading chemical or baiting systems can cost between $2500 and $4500, not including the cost of replacing damaged timbers. Even double-brick and steel-framed houses are susceptible to attack, says CSIRO termite specialist Laurie Cookson, who helped create Australia’s termite hazard map and develop insect-proof timbers.
“They just get in and start eating the architraves or the paper on plasterboard, that sort of thing. Just because your house doesn’t have timber framing doesn’t mean they won’t get you,” he says.
DeTOX Pest Control’s Phil Hyndman says there is a cheaper way to deal with termites: regular inspections. Most people don’t want to pay between $150 and $500 for a licensed pest inspector to check their houses each year. So they don’t.
“Termites don’t eat a house as quickly as everyone thinks and an inspection will avert trouble before there needs to be major expense,” Hyndman says.
The other way to avoid termite problems is to make sure structural timber, such as the roof trusses and the sub-floor joists, can be easily inspected.
“I’ve seen people pay a fortune for baiting systems when they could have spent $50 on a carpenter to make parts of the house accessible for an inspection,” Hyndman says.
Cookson says the cost of pest control and termite damage in Australia is estimated at $780 million a year, with areas in the north copping most of the expense. Tasmania is the place to go if you want to avoid termites altogether; there are no destructive termites on the island state.
There are plenty of horror stories about the damage termites can do, such as the clawfoot bathtub that crashed from its second-storey position to the ground floor, thanks to termites damaging the supporting joists. Or the woman who heard termites eating her walls at night then came home at sunset to find her house a haze of flying termites as the breeding season began.
“Some people notice the termite mud in the corner – the termites build mud tubes around them to survive – but don’t realise they need to do something about it until it’s too late,” says Sam Yehia of Sydney’s Best Pest Control.
Cookson insists that prevention is better than cure; so build a new house or extension with physical termite barriers in place.
With renovations, it’s important to join the old part of the house to the new part using barriers such as Termimesh or Granitguard, as well as allowing for good access for future inspection.
“I’ve seen a renovation that was completely eaten out by termites within six months of being built. It was radiata pine framing on a concrete slab with absolutely no access for visual inspection and no barriers,” Hyndman says.
Yehia agrees that most termite problems could be avoided if builders understood prevention before they began construction. “I’m finding huge problems in Kellyville and Castle Hill where builders just took shortcuts and didn’t install barriers properly,” he says.
Hyndman and Yehia agree that Sydney’s inner-west is susceptible to termite problems because the houses are built close together and have poor access for inspection.
Two methods are in use to treat termite infestations: baiting with systems such as Exterra or Sentricon or installing a chemical barrier with growth regulator chemicals such as Termidor or Premise.
Different pest controllers will suggest different approaches, with varying costs, to eradicate termites. The most expensive isn’t always the best.
Cookson suggests people worried about chemicals can engage a pest controller who is a member of the Environmental Pest Managers’ Association.
“Baiting is definitely the most green method for getting rid of termites. The problem is it can take some time and a lot of people aren’t happy with that,” he says. Hyndman says baiting can take up to 18 months to work, which frightens people who want an instant result.
Yehia says Termidor barrier treatments are the most effective, as it’s a one-off solution. But Hyndman warns that injecting chemicals into the soil or paths around a house can sometimes create a barrier that is easily broken.
“When people find out they have termites, they want an answer straight away: should I spray or bait? Possibly neither,” Hyndman says.
“Sometimes termites can be managed by physical control such as using a termiticide at the source and treating the timber. A pest controller can determine the best treatment for the situation.”
Meet the latest weapon in termite detection. A two-year-old beagle called Barney, whose sniff is louder than most dogs’ barks.
“These are like the dogs on that TV show Border Security,” explains Barney’s owner, Sam Yehia of Sydney’s Best Pest Control. “Instead of finding drugs, he’s trained to find termites.”
Barney was chosen for his specialist job because he is “highly food motivated”. Before Barney undertook six months of training to become a termite sniffer he weighed 32kg. Now, he is a svelte 16kg and is always eager to perform another task in the pursuit of food.
Yehia takes Barney inside the house he is about to inspect and tells him: “Let’s find.” Barney puts his nose to the ground and wags his tail while he works. Yehia has put two jars of live termites in the house, to make sure Barney always finds what he is trained to.
“It can be hard to explain to people that I’m taking live termites into their house. But Barney needs to be satisfied. He has to find the termites and get a reward,” he says.
When Yehia calls “show”, the excited beagle sits down and uses his nose to point to the termites. It’s impressive. On this occasion, Barney has found only the two jars of planted termites and nothing else. This house is clear.
Yehia says he only gets Barney to inspect a house after he has done a standard physical inspection with a screwdriver and moisture meter.
“I use the dog last, rather than first.” Yehia also uses machinery such as thermal cameras, which can cost up to $25,000, and the Termatrac microwave detection unit which costs about $6000.
“Barney has cost about $20,000. It’s a lot of work in the background to look after one of these dogs. He’s a working dog. I can’t just let him play with the kids and treat him like a pet,” he says.
DeTOX Pest Control’s Phil Hyndman says the idea that people need a dog to detect termites in their house is “ludicrous”. “It’s always better to get a human to inspect the house first. The dogs are useful if you can’t figure out where the termites are coming in,” Hyndman says.
“People just like to know that a dog goes ‘woof’ and is very clever, but if I go up to a wall and go ‘woof’ when I find a termite, it’s not as clever.”
Even Yehia admits that the dog is a comfort to his clients. “No one likes the half-answers of termites. When I give clients a report, they usually don’t understand a lot of what’s in there. They like to know: have I or haven’t I got termites. The dog gives them the most accurate answer.”