Termites 101: A Primer for Homeowners

Want to protect your house? It’s as simple as following a few easy steps.
By Jim Morrison
Termites. Simply mentioning the word makes people cringe. Termites live in nearly every state in the union, they are very difficult to spot, and they want to eat your house.
So what is a homeowner to do? First of all relax. Once you know a little bit about termites, you can take some common sense steps to lower the likelihood that termites will start eating your home.
Approximately 1 in 3 houses in this area will be damaged to some degree by termites, so it’s fairly common. In fact, the total weight of all of the termites on Earth is estimated to be much greater that the total weight of all of the humans. Our ancient hominid ancestors are believed to have eaten them. (Note to all dieters: termites provide 560 calories per 100 grams, and are rich in protein and amino acids.)
The kind of termite found in New England lives in the soil and eats anything containing cellulose, the building blocks of wood. Only the blind workers actually eat your house. They bring the wood back to the nest to feed the ever-hungry colony, and they are constantly foraging for a new food source.
These beige colored bugs about the size of a grain of rice, are most often found anywhere wood is in close proximity to the ground. They live in the soil and only leave the soil to eat. If they have to travel a short distance between the soil and the wood, they build “shelter tubes” (also called mud tunnels) which will look like brown veins about 1 cm wide traveling up your foundation wall.
They live in colonies ranging in size from 60,000 to 1.5 million. A colony of 250,000 can eat about one cubic foot of wood in a year. To reduce the likelihood of termites eating your home, keep the area around the house as light and dry as possible and maintain as much distance between any wood members attached to your house and the soil. It’s as simple as that.
Over time they can do some expensive structural damage. The problem is, it usually takes a trained eye to find them in your home, so if you’re concerned, hire an exterminator to inspect your home for damage. If termites have damaged your home, you must:

  • Protect the structure. This means treating the house in one of a few different ways. The traditional soil treatment involves drilling ½ inch diameter holes in the basement floor slab every 12-18 inches or so and pumping a liquid termiticide into the ground. A trench is dug in the soil on the exterior of the foundation and the termiticide is applied there as well. In places where trenching is not possible, such as where a driveway abuts the house, or in the front masonry stairs, then ½” diameter holes are drilled and the chemicals are pumped in.Another, newer method of treatment is a type of bait system. Wooden stakes are placed inside dozens of plastic tubes on the perimeter of the property.  These stakes are checked by the exterminator regularly and when termites are found in a stake, the stake is replaced with a piece of wood that has been treated with a chemical that prevents termites from molting. The termites feed this wood to the rest of the colony and most of the colony dies at the end of the year.  This can be used instead of, or in conjunction with the traditional treatment. A good exterminator will offer both tools and help you decide what is best for your home.
  • Define the extent of the damage and have it repaired. Termites and their damage is very difficult to find, so you should hire a contractor who is not only licensed, but who is familiar with termite damage. The damage is usually the worst at their point of entry and they will follow the grain of the wood from there. The most common places to find termite damage are, the structural sill behind the front stairs, wooden window sills and frames, garage door frames, and basement stair stringers.

Generally, when a house is properly treated, termites will stop eating it, but about 10 percent of the time, they come back. Be sure to read and understand the exterminator’s guarantee. In addition, you must be sure to keep all untreated wood members at least 6” from the soil and keep the area around the house as light and dry as possible. Nothing brings termites faster than damp soil surrounding the house and untreated wood in contact with the soil.

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