Fall Real Estate 2000

Publication Date: Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2000 & Friday, Sept. 22, 2000

Eating one out of house and home

Subterranean termites can make a meal of your house in a month

By David Weaver

Beautiful homes, large or small, are a valued part of many people's livelihood and happiness. But there's a hidden menace to their well-being and structural stability--termites.

Often portrayed in television advertising as witty but hapless creatures, termites are anything but in real life. They can move faster and cause more damage than most people assume, and much of the damage remains hidden from the unsuspecting eyes of residents.

"Skip" C.L. Gurney of A & R Termite Control, based in Palo Alto and Redwood City, said inspection is usually conducted when a home is newly purchased. But, inspections should be conducted every three to five years afterward, something easily overlooked but important to a home's long-term health.

"(The damage) depends on how long they've been there," Gurney said. "The longer they've been there the more damage that's been done." How much damage is also dependent on which type of termite has been dining on your wood.

While drywood and damp termites can do damage to a home, subterranean termites are the most destructive and quickly moving type. Gurney said that left undeterred, these termites can take over the wall of an average-sized home in one month. Subterraneans use soil and mud to create tubes that transport them throughout a home and are visible on walls, sheetrock and other home structural material.

Still, there's hope for those battling the little critters. Drywood termites are usually dealt with via the familiar fumigation method, resulting in a tented house for about two-and-a-half days. They can be detected by their sand-like feces that can be seen on window sills, ledges and other surfaces near the area infested.

The process works by flooding the home with a chemical agent called Vikane, a sulfur and fluoride mix that essentially suffocates living organisms in the home. Any living creatures, including all pets, are removed from the home. Open foods such as cereal boxes either must be removed or put into specially sealed bags stored in refrigerators.

For the more destructive subterranean breed, attack usually comes in the form of drilling holes about 18 inches deep into concrete or soil surrounding a home and installing poison that kills termites who come in contact with it. This process is also safe for pets due to the depth of the poison's placement.

However, killing a colony is usually not possible; some colonies are 10-30 feet into the ground and can cover an area as extensive as a football field. Termites with the ability to travel into the soil surrounding a structure are considered the more advanced breed of termites over the primitive wood-based termites. "Any company that claims they can kill a colony, won't," said Gurney with a laugh.

On Fulton Street near downtown Palo Alto, Gurney inspects the home of a concerned resident who's found evidence of a renewed termite presence.

"Oh, yeah," Gurney remarked as he inspected the bookcases of a basement office space. "They came up over the top of the ratproofing." Subterraneans have begun invading this home, with their classic mud tubes visible on the wall of the bookcase.

The homeowner had noticed something seriously amiss the year before when she reached for a computer manual and found a golf ball-sized hole eaten into the bottom. Termites had demolished two linear feet of books, had munched through cardboard cartons, and left evidence on disks as well.

A single treatment dealt with the problem--until nearly a year later, when more evidence appeared.

What can one do? Gurney said in addition to detection and treatment, papers and other wooden valuables can be protected by placing them on cement blocks to lift them off the floor.

But the best defense is to keep your eyes open: At the first sign of mud tubes or sandy piles, call for help.