Termite Horror Stories

By |  February 20, 2014

True tales of intimidating infestations and devastating structural damage

In most areas of the country, termite swarming is nowhere near the levels seen in the 1980s, 1990s, and even early 2000s. Most pest management professionals (PMPs) report their phones aren’t ringing off the hook anymore with homeowners frantically wondering how to protect their homes and families from clouds of termite swarmers. Nowadays, PMPs must be more proactive at identifying termite problems and selling related control, exclusion, damage repair and monitoring services.

Every year, termites’ around-the-clock eating takes an estimated $5 billion bite out of American home and building values. Here are just a few of the thousands of true tales of intimidating infestations and devastating damage. Sharing these scary realities with customers and prospects could help PMPs win business and help American homeowners avoid their own Termite Horror Stories.

Years ago, my on-the-job field training consisted of working with a guy named Bill on three termite jobs before I was able to go out on my own. Among the training tips I received, one was to drill a hole every 3 feet then pump in the chemical until it comes out the next hole. I suppose that was acceptable training at the time. However, the customers were fortunate I had attended Dr. Austin Frishman’s Pest Control Technology program, which provided an educational safety net. Years of education and termite application work underscore there’s much more to proper and successful termite work than some might think.

Recently, I’ve investigated a number of termite horror stories in relation to litigation. The following true stories contain valuable lessons for PMPs, our clients and prospects.

#1 Invisible Invaders from Within!

From the road, in its tranquil southeastern U.S. location, it was a great-looking home, which was to be one couple’s retirement

When arriving at a home such as this everything looks good from the street, but looks can be deceiving.

When arriving at a home such as this everything looks good from the street, but looks can be deceiving.

getaway. The Southern Living house plan featured a wraparound covered porch, porch swings, a two-car garage and a separate workshop barn that sat on 50 acres. Outside the den and kitchen windows, one could gaze out at a 10-acre pasture where a number of deer, including an eight-point buck still in velvet, gathered around a feeder.

But upon entering the house, one could see immediately there was a severe termite problem. The oak kitchen cabinets and granite countertops were removed to prevent damage because the kitchen floor settled. The floor, which sunk about 9 inches, was covered with 12-inch ceramic tiles, but many were cracked and beyond saving.

The house was constructed on a dirt crawlspace with a block foundation. At 36 inches, the crawlspace was relatively high and clean, which was surprising. But during inspection, an experienced PMP would be hard pressed to find a piece of structural lumber that didn’t already have signs of termite activity. In fact, some floor joists had fallen from their own weight.

The owners had yet to sleep one night in the 13-year-old house. Annual inspection reports indicated there were no visible signs of termite activity. However, the house was deemed a total loss. Estimates indicated it would have cost more to repair the house than to demolish and rebuild it. At the time, it was the worst termite-damaged house I’d ever seen — but now it’s just in my Top 5.

#2 Termite Time-Warping Terror!

Termite damage was so extensive a probe could easily be pushed through a 2 x 10 floor joist. Inset: Again, no visible signs of termite activity was reported for years. Even at a distance massive termite tubing could be seen. Note the presence of tubes in the background as well as the metal termite shields capping the concrete block wall.

Termite damage was so extensive a probe could easily be pushed through a 2 x 10 floor joist. Inset: Again, no visible signs of termite activity was reported for years. Even at a distance massive termite tubing could be seen. Note the presence of tubes in the background as well as the metal termite shields capping the concrete block wall.

One company had serviced a house since preconstruction treatment. The house was under warranty.  Through the time of the last reinspection, the customer owned the home. Damage in the crawlspace was so severe daylight could be seen through the box plate from within the crawlspace. Termite evidence was present along the sill plate and block foundation at numerous locations.

Each year, for almost 20 years, the annual termite inspection forms read the same. The box that appeared immediately adjacent to the phrase no visible signs of termite activity had been checked on each inspection report. The homeowner reported these annual termite inspections would last 15 minutes. The inspections also included a courtesy perimeter spray of the foundation for free.

Think about this: Would an experienced PMP be able to drag a perimeter treatment hose 200 feet around a home, conduct a perimeter foundation treatment application, enter the crawlspace, conduct a suitable annual termite reinspection and prepare the paperwork documentation in 15 minutes? This case was tried before a jury, and a undisclosed settlement was reached within a week.

#3 Guilt by the Gallon!

The view from the deck of this home was magnificent. Gaze in any direction and you might see beautiful horses or a few deer.

There was obvious damage to the sill plate, box plate and sub floor of this home.

There was obvious damage to the sill plate, box plate and sub floor of this home.

The pest management company had the house under warranty since the preconstruction treatment application. At the time of my on-site inspection, the home had been under service for 30 years. Every year, someone inspected and checked off a box (once again) indicating no visible signs of termite activity.

The preconstruction treatment had been so long ago, chlorinated hydrocarbon termiticide product had been applied. After measuring the structure and calculating the label-required volume, I determined more than 450 gallons of termiticide was needed to conduct a label-compliant treatment. However, according to the customer file documents, only 55 gallons had been applied.

It was obvious from the size of this home that 55 gallons wouldn’t be sufficient to properly treat and protect it from termites. It was a glaring point any experienced PMP would recognize. Still, it became a point of contention.

The defense expert witness testified the proper amount had been applied and the notations on the service documents were the result of a simple mistake by the technician. The defense asserted the PMP was used to withdrawing the chemical from a 55-gallon drum.

But documenting the termiticide product, concentration, quantity, application method and locations applied are the responsibility of the professional applicator.

Also, preconstruction treatment requires applications to be made at various phases of the construction. In this case, there was only one application date documented.

I liken writing “55 gallons” on the application record by mistake to being asked how many gallons of gas you put in your car and answering: “Shell Station.” Unfortunately, this house had such extensive damage it had to be razed and rebuilt.

#4 A Crime of Omission!

Thorough exterior and interior structural reinspections should help PMPs easily identify termite mud tubes such as this one emanating from a  living room ceiling.

Thorough exterior and interior structural reinspections should help PMPs easily identify termite mud tubes such as this one emanating from a living room ceiling.

This house is your average three-bedroom, one-story ranch built on a slab. It had been under warranty for termite protection service for more than 10 years. The pest management company installed 20 termite bait stations around the home to protect it from termite attack.

The historical case file was packed with service inspection reports that indicated no hits time after time — almost the entire period. Rare termite activity was occasionally noted for just a few stations. Reviewing the customer service file records, one might conclude this home didn’t even have a termite problem.

Wrong.

The number of termite bait stations documented at each service varied, indicating some stations likely were difficult to find and not inspected by
the PMP.

At the time of the on-site visit, evidence was present in the form of termite mud tubes emanating from the interior walls and ceilings. Damage to the structure was present in each room. Termite mud tubes were protruding from the bedroom ceilings like stalactites. Termite mud tubes and damage were present on structural lumber all the way up into the attic.

How did such obvious termite evidence get missed? At each service visit, the technician never inspected the inside of home; he only inspected the exterior stations for termite activity. Service visit after service visit, only the stations were being checked. Even though the stations remained termite-free, termites were devouring the house. The case was tried before a jury. At times, the court allows jurors to ask a question of the court. Reportedly, the main question these jurors asked was, “Can we award more than what they’re asking for?”

#5 Attack of the Killer Plan B!

Getting involved in termite cases, one accumulates stories both horrific and sad enough to make hardened PMPs shake their heads and cry. This is one of those stories.

Pictured is a close up of the extensive termite damage present to the ceiling joists and roof trusses across the width of this home necessitating the numerous 4 x 4 support columns.

Pictured is a close up of the extensive termite damage present to the ceiling joists and roof trusses across the width of this home necessitating the numerous 4 x 4 support columns.

From the street, the house looked good. There isn’t much that would visually reveals termite damage … except for small sections of tarps along the structure’s roof ridge. The entire rear of this home’s roof was covered with tarps to prevent water from leaking into the home. Even more revealing, inside the home were more than a dozen buckets arranged in various locations to catch rainwater.

The slab home was in a typical middle-class neighborhood. Termites were discovered in the interior walls, so the homeowner contracted with a local company to treat the home with a liquid pesticide to resolve the problem.

On the day of treatment, the technician arrived and began drilling the front porch. However, after attempting to drill about four holes, the technician told the homeowner the concrete was too thick to drill and treat, so he was going to go with Plan B, which, for him, was to install termite bait stations around the house. But whether the control plan is a liquid termiticide, bait station or both, if proper deployment of the solution(s) and follow-up inspections and monitoring fall short, termites could be free to feed 24/7.

Any concerns for the ongoing termite situation fell off the homeowner’s radar screen because of a serious illness suffered by the mother in the house.

A few years later, after the mom died, the homeowners’ younger children started sleeping in Dad’s bed. One evening, in the middle of the night, the entire family was awakened by a loud crashing sound. The ceiling in the boy’s room fell because of massive termite damage to the ceiling joists, which resulted in sheet rock and lumber falling on the boy’s bed. The boy was saved from serious injury, and perhaps worse, by sleeping in his father’s room.

The damage spans the length of the home and repair estimates indicated the roof must be replaced. Currently there are more than 60 pressure-treated posts supporting the roof.

Think about this: If termites already have established their routes of entry and feeding at a structure, is there a viable chance they’ll discover the in-ground stations and abandon feeding on the house? Obviously, this didn’t happen, and the ongoing termite activity resulted in wholesale damage to the structure, causing a need for extensive, costly repairs.

Hope and happy endings …

The most frustrating aspect of stories such as these is how avoidable many are — when proper, thorough inspections and treatments are conducted regularly.

When a termite technician inspects a house, he or she likely is protecting the customer’s largest investment. Managers should realize this, as well as the fact that they can’t run successful termite control businesses entirely from behind their desks. They need to get out in the field regularly and ensure all termite work is being done properly.

Hopefully, sharing these true tales of scary infestations and devastating structural damage can prevent future termite horror stories. pmp

Bello, a PMP and president of PJB Pest Management Consulting, can be reached at paul.bello@att.net or 770-500-0460.

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