Thursday, April 15, 2010
Lice in the frizz, aphids on the houseplants, ants in the kitchen. With due respect for insects’ innumerable planetary services, even the most ecological humans get creeped out by six-leggeds in our personal space.
Few are more loathsome than drywood termites: the swarming cockroach cousins that feast on the very beams (and property values) of our homes.
The typical reaction is to have the house tented and pumped full of Vikane, a sulfuryl fluoride fumigant. But it’s a pretty nasty choice, by environmental standards. The Pesticide Action Network flags sulfuryl fluoride as an acutely toxic “bad actor chemical.” In several ghastly cases, people have died from re-entering homes that have been deemed safe after fumigation. Nearby households can be exposed to fumigant drift. And even months later, the sulfuryl fluoride continues to off-gas from the plastics in your home.
When the tent comes off, all that poisonous gas floats up into the atmosphere, where it stays for at least 30-40 years. In that horse’s lifespan, it acts as a greenhouse gas thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
California, with its charmed pairing of termites and people who can afford to treat them, uses 60 percent of the world’s sulfuryl fluoride. Monterey County accounted for almost 18,000 pounds of it in 2008, but that number is down significantly from 32,000 pounds in 2007.
The drop can be explained by the real estate market’s cold plunge – homes are often tented when they change hands. But there could be another factor at play: Some local homeowners are wising up to greener ways.Zap ’em
Saul Lopez could be mistaken for a Ghostbuster, with his electricity-generating backpack and a Bazooka electrogun that looks like a menacing super-sized syringe. He zigzags the electrified tip across the beams of an oceanfront estate in Carmel, sending 90,000 volts into the handsome wood.
When the buzzing sound drops in pitch, Lopez, who works for Castroville-based Casner Exterminating, knows he’s hit the moist bodies of his unsuspecting targets. “It’s penetrating their colonies,” he says. “Electricity is going inside their nests.”
The next step is to inject the zapped colonies with Termidor, active ingredient fipronil, the same pesticide in pet flea treatment Frontline. Any surviving termites that encounter it carry the fatal chemical to their kin.
Casner General Manager Marty Mancuso says his company’s been using the electrogun for 35 years. “We’re really good at it, and it works,” he says. “By using the gun with the chemical, we stop ’em, kill ’em and keep ’em from coming back.”
About two-thirds of his customers choose the electrogun, Mancuso says, and most of the rest go with conventional fumigation. But he uses the localized treatment at his own pad. “I’m married to a woman that would never, ever let me fumigate the house,” he says. “If I ever did, she’d make me sleep in the truck.”
Back in Carmel, the bespectacled homeowner, who asks to remain unnamed, says he’s had the house tented before. But when he noticed the telltale beige termite droppings in one sunny corner, he thought he’d give the electrogun a try. It wasn’t the only alternative that caught his attention. He pulls out a full-page newspaper ad for orange oil and quips: “It seems the termite control people are swarming.”Oil ’em
When it comes to termite control, one of the greenest options is orange.
San Jose-based Planet Orange treats drywood termites with XT-2000, an essential oil that’s 92 percent d-limonene, derived from orange rinds. The secret is concentrated citric acid, which melts termite exoskeletons and eggs on contact, and does the same to the stomachs of termites that eat recently treated wood.
The stuff is relatively safe for people, as long as you don’t drink it or rub it into your skin, and harmless if you don’t mind your house smelling like the inside of a tangerine for a few days.
“Most of the customers are like me,” Planet Orange President Nathan Cocozza says. “I don’t want sulfuryl fluoride, which is one of the most toxic gases known, anywhere near my two young children.”
XT-2000 isn’t exactly something you’d pour on a salad – it’s a flammable liquid you could clean a car engine with. And it doesn’t kill every last termite: Some critics cite a UC Berkeley study showing an 80 percent mortality rate in d-limonene-treated boards. But the makers of XT-2000 report a kill rate exceeding 97 percent.
To reassure its customers, Planet Orange offers an unconditional 2-year guarantee and free annual re-inspections. “When we treat more than 5,000 homes in the Bay Area each year, we see less than a 3 percent re-infestation rate for our customers,” Cocozza says.
And while orange oil won’t vanquish a home’s termites forever, the same goes for fumigation: Termites can come back the day after the tent comes off.
“You’ve got to find alternatives that blend with nature better,” Cocozza says. “We can’t continue to do what’s the most convenient for ourselves without thinking about the consequences.”Bake ’em
For a while there, the Salinas-based Green Team Environmental Group had a good thing going. Its building pasteurization method dried out flood-damaged buildings, liberated homes from mold, dissipated toxic carpet fumes, and killed termites – all in one hot punch.
“It’s certainly the most effective method for termites, there’s no question about it,” says KevinPhillips, the company’s former vice president of sales.
Pasteurization is like “the world’s biggest hair dryer,” he explains. Flexible ducting brings forced hot air through the windows into the building, then 500,000-BTU propane heaters blast 140-degree air circulated by high-pressure fans. Thermal probes in the core of wood beams ensure everything reaches at least 120 degrees, the temperature needed to kill termites and their eggs. “You turn the structure into a convection oven,” he says.
The Green Team shut its doors in June 2009, a victim of the economy and other stresses. But company founder Rich Gray still offers building pasteurization in Monterey County as a rep for Ventura-based Precision Environmental.Track ’em
Biovent Termite co-founder Gee Chow discovered the Termite Tracker while working as a termite researcher at UC Berkley. The acoustic device was developed to detect cracks in airplane fuselages, but could also be tuned to the frequency of chewing termites.
By verifying whether a damaged area has an active infestation, the Tracker allows Biovent to spot-treat only the beams being munched, minimizing the use of pesticides. “It’s one of the best technologies out there,” Chow says.
Areas that look infested might not actually contain termites, he warns: “This could be old evidence. There’s a possibility they got in but didn’t get established, and died off on their own.”
After a visual check of a client’s building, Biovent technicians use the Tracker to pinpoint the extent of the infestations, then inject them with Precise foam, active ingredient imidacloprid.
A perk, Chow says, is that Biovent can inspect and treat houses all in one day. And though the company is based in San Pablo, it services this area; Chow recently finished a job at a well-known Monterey hotel.Eat ’em
Other non-toxic ’mite-killing methods include irradiating them with microwaves, freezing them with liquid nitrogen and withering them with desiccating dusts. You can always go the old-fashioned route of removing and replacing infested beams. And if all else fails, the bold can draw from the culinary traditions of Indonesia and West Africa.
Termites apparently make for a tasty snack, with healthy stores of fat and protein, and a nutty pop. Wikipedia suggests draping a net around a lamp to trap them during swarming season, winnowing off the wings, and gently roasting or lightly frying them – no oil, or expensive termite services, needed.