The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector
Dear Barry: : We have lived in our home for 27 years, and for much of that time have found termite frass on various windowsills and at some of the doors. My husband thinks that fumigation is a waste of money. He says termites can return as soon as the tent is removed from the house. He prefers to use insect spray whenever he sees the frass. I’m concerned that we might be neglecting a serious problem. Could you please explain how termites can affect the condition of a home and the best way to get rid of them? Nina
Dear Nina: Here are the seven basics about termites:
1) Termites continually reproduce. This means that old colonies have larger populations — with more mouths to feed — than young colonies. A colony that is 5 years old may contain several thousand termites. A colony that is 27 years old could number in the millions. Consider how much wood that many termites could eat in a day.
2) Termites live within the recesses of the wood members that they consume. The damage that they do is not visible on the surface. They eat tunnels in the wood members that they inhabit until the outer veneer of the stud, joist, or rafter is all that is left.
3) When termite tunnels become cluttered with frass (droppings), termites make small holes in the surface of the wood so that the frass particles can drop out. The frass that you see on your windowsills is a small sample, compared with the piles that might be found in the attic or behind the drywall.
4) Insect sprays cannot penetrate into the wall cavities, framing members, or the attic spaces where termites live, eat, and multiply. The best way to eliminate termites is to have your home thoroughly fumigated. Postponing this process ensures continued consumption of the wood members of your home.
5) A new crop of termites can invade your home soon after the fumigation is completed. But for several years, fledgling colonies remain small, and the amount of wood those termites can eat on a daily basis is trivial.
6) Small, start-up colonies can be managed by having termite inspections every few years. If new colonies are discovered, localized treatment by a professional termite company may be an effective approach.
7) Most homes are sold every 5-10 years. Upon sale, a termite inspection is usually a standard part of the transaction. Therefore, most termite colonies have little chance to become highly populated. Significant termite damage usually occurs in homes that remain under the same ownership for decades because most homeowners seldom give termites a thought until they sell the property. Meanwhile, the termite colonies in these homes silently reproduce.
Your husband needs to rethink his approach to the termites in your home. What matters now is to eliminate the large, old colonies that are eating the structure of your home today and each day that you postpone treatment. The longer you wait, the more damage will be done by those hungry tunnel makers.