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Deter Pests and Use Less Pesticide With Good Home Maintenance

by Erik Bliss

For decades we have relied on chemical barriers to keep pests out of our homes, rather than trying to physically exclude them. As more people become concerned with the health and environmental risks associated with chemical pesticides, the focus of pest control has shifted towards a more “integrated” approach. Officially called Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, this approach is a balanced, tactical approach that controls pests with the least risk to human health and the environment. Good home maintenance practices are fundamental to a successful IPM program.

Most people probably own homes that were not designed or built with IPM in mind. So, most homeowners must “retrofit” for pest control. Every home has identifiable weak points where pests are likely to enter or reside. Identifying and fixing these is an effective way to control pests.

The following list of common problem areas associated with pests can be used to do a quick inspection of your home’s exterior. Many pests are attracted to water or water-damaged areas. Pay close attention to any area of your home that may come in contact with water. It may not be feasible to fix all the problems you find but identifying them will make it easier to monitor for pest activity. Making a few minor repairs now can save you money in the future by avoiding costly damage done by termites, carpenter ants and other pests.

The Foundation

Problems are often caused by poor drainage. After a rain, check the drainage patterns in your yard. Water should not be collecting near or running under your foundation.

  • Downspouts Gutters often dump water only inches away from your foundation. Modify the downspouts to channel water farther away from the foundation (several feet if possible). You can purchase concrete blocks that will accomplish this or you can extend the gutter piping.
  • Flower Beds Raised beds sometimes act as dams that pool water near your foundation. Channel this water away from your home. It will not only discourages termites, but will also help irrigate your lawn.
  • Window AC units Check the soil beneath these units for dampness. Condensation can sometimes be the source of unwanted moisture near your foundation.
  • Leaking Sprinkler Systems and Faucets Make sure even small drips are fixed promptly.

Exposed Wood

Wood is subject to pest attack where it is exposed to soil or weather. Subterranean termites tunnel through the soil in search of wood to eat. When encountering an obstacle in the soil, your concrete foundation for example, they will build mud tubes upwards to continue scouting for wood. Tubing is hard and dangerous work for termites so they usually abandon the tube fairly quickly if they don’t find wood to infest. As a deterrent, keep any wood or cellulose building material at least 8 inches away from the soil.

  • Siding and trim Soil or mulch closer than 8 inches from your siding or trim can encourage termites. Brick and stucco veneer houses are at particular risk. If the seal between the frame and the veneer is broken, termites can tunnel undetected in the space, often doing expensive damage before they are discovered. Remove the soil or mulch and create an 8 inch space. Keep your home’s paint, stucco, or brick in good condition to avoid carpenter bee and carpenter ant attack.
  • Wooden beams or steps If these contact the soil, termites can tunnel right up into your home. You could monitor them closely, or replace them with metal or concrete. If you use concrete for steps, you must use a water proof spacer (such as metal or plastic) between the concrete and wood siding, since concrete will draw water to the siding.
  • Earth-fill porches Some concrete porches are filled with dirt and are often the source of termite access to homes. Have your pest control technician check wood near the porch carefully every year.

Roofs and Gutters

Roofs and gutters are designed to protect your home from the rain. When not functioning properly they can cause water damage and pest problems.

  • Tree limbs Limbs must be pruned away from the roof. The movement of the branches across the roof can damage the shingles and allow water to damage the wood supports. Insects, especially carpenter ants, use limbs as bridges to enter your home.
  • Clogged gutters Gutters that hold water are mosquito breeding sites. Clearing them of leaves periodically will reduce this risk.

Attics and Crawl Spaces

Attics and crawl spaces are built with vents to reduce moisture build-up. It is important to keep these vents to the outside open and operating, especially in humid areas like Austin. Remove newspaper or cardboard that you have placed in your crawl space. These materials are made from wood pulp and will attract termites.

  • Blocked vents Keep plants and shrubs pruned away from foundation vents.
  • Painted-over vents Many homes have vents under the roof eaves. These vents can be small and are frequently painted over by mistake. Remove any paint that may be clogging the vents. Do not plug the vent if wasps or other insects are using the vents to get into your attic. Instead, use window screening as a barrier.

Kitchens and Bathrooms

Kitchens and bathrooms are common sites of pest problems because of the presence of plumbing and associated water.

  • Unsealed entry points for pipes Many times the areas where pipes enter the house are not properly sealed. Insects like roaches and termites are attracted to the dampness and can crawl right up the pipes. Make sure the entry points are closed with an appropriate sealant.
  • Leaks Fix leaks, even small drips, promptly. Toilets may have hidden leaks at the base caused by a failure of the wax seal between the toilet and the floor. This will cause the floor in a pier and beam house to rot out and attract termites.

Wood Piles
Wood is frequently piled next to homes or garages. These piles attract ants, roaches, termites, and rodents. Wood should be piled away from any building and preferably off the ground on pallets or concrete. Cover the wood with a plastic tarp for even more protection.

By taking care of these maintenance concerns you will lessen pest problems around your home, and more importantly, you won’t have to use as many chemicals. That’s better for your health and the health of the environment.

If you are planning to build a new home, there are many tactics that you can take during construction that will deter pest problems. Call your city’s building department for more information on building practices that deter pests.

This article first appeared in the Austin American Statesman. At the time of publication, Mr Bliss was with the City of Austin Drainage Utility.

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