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PRACTICAL VIEW

Alternative Weapons in the War Against Termites : Pests: Battling the little buggers? Companies say they can freeze 'em, toast 'em or roast 'em. But do those methods work? No one knows for sure.

September 16, 1993|S.J. DIAMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The war against household pests is getting very weird. Exterminators promise to roast termites out of the walls. They freeze them out. They cook them with microwaves. Some shoot them with special guns.

Nobody knows if all this stuff works. Despite numerous inquiries and complaints to state authorities and trade associations over the past few years, these "alternative methods" of killing termites are only now getting any official scientific testing.

Media and consumers have nevertheless welcomed the new techniques. They sound persuasively high-tech. And they're attractive because of what they're not--a big, telltale canvas baggie filled with toxic gases enclosing the building.

"It's a sign of the times," says Harvey Logan, executive vice president of Sacramento-based Pest Control Operators of California. "You have people who, for real or perceived reasons, don't want to use a pesticide."

California is the home of alternative methods because of its particular pests--the indigenous drywood termites--and its commitment to termite control. The state has a long tradition of tenting homes with the attendant inconvenience--the removal of people, pets, plants and all food goods in cupboards, refrigerators and freezers.

Beyond inconvenience, there is some peril in fumigation. "Whole-house fumigations are highly effective and the most dangerous," says Phil Hutton, product manager in the Environmental Protection Agency's insecticide/rodenticide branch. Although methyl bromide and Vikane (sulfuryl fluoride) have replaced even more lethal chemicals, there are periodic cases of burglars, homeless people or suicides dying in the tented buildings.

No wonder alternative methods are welcome, stressing what marketers call a "natural" approach.

First came cold. "We Freeze Their Little Buns Off," says Long Beach-based Tallon Termite & Pest Control, offering its Blizzard System as an alternative to what Tallon calls "the chemical truck." The Tallon people drill half-inch holes along the wall boards and determine where the termites nest. Then they spray liquid nitrogen into the holes until the temperature inside the walls reaches 20 below zero.

Some termites survive frostbite, so Tallon may put "heat strips" on the wall instead. "Whatever we don't freeze dry, we stir fry," says Tallon sales manager Rhonda Bailey. Sometimes Tallon falls back on the chemical truck, "puffing" a boric acid compound into attics and crawl spaces.

Then there's heat, in several forms of "thermal" extermination, or "thermagation." Either the whole house or a single area may be heated to 150 degrees and more. Or hot pads--"thermal blankets"--may be applied to the walls where termites live.

As for the microwave method, "we cook 'em," say the ads for Valencia-based Termite Inspector. The weapon is a "magnetron," which beams microwaves through the walls. This kills the termites in their lairs, making "the inside hot without scorching the wood," says company inspector Dan Caballero.

The magnetron is fired at door and window frames, beams, and infestations behind walls. For more open areas, and for residual protection, the company uses a borate solution.

The most Flash Gordon method of all is the Etex Electro-Gun. It looks like a plug-in gun with a long cord, and sends a high-frequency, high-voltage pulse through wood without damaging it. It even signals a kill: When the gun is scanned across a wall and hits a nest of termites, the electrical emission changes in color and arc, and the operator hears some change in the sound.

"The water in the termite attracts the electricity," says Michael Boutte, service manager for Ecola Services, a company licensed to use the gun. "If the termites survive, it kills the protozoa in the digestive system so they can't digest cellulose, and they'll be dead in two to three weeks."

All of these treatments--heat, cold, microwave, the guns--are considered spot techniques: accurately locating the enemy is therefore critical to the whole maneuver. The search still depends heavily on obvious signs like holes in the wood, peppery sprinkles of termite fecal matter, dirt tunnels and "tubes" that termites build from the ground to wood. "Most of our members will use their eye," says Logan, of Pest Control Operators. "They're trained to do inspections, maybe with a probe."

Some of the new wave exterminators use a device like a stethoscope to hear the chewing behind the walls. There's also a fiber-optic scope for peering behind walls through holes drilled above the baseboard.

Spot techniques are for local battles, not full-scale war. War means fumigants, to both traditional and alternative exterminators. "If a house is so far gone that there's tons of evidence (of termites)," says Tallon's Bailey, "we recommend that somebody fumigate." Pest Control Operators recommends fumigating, says Logan, if a house has even "three infestations in different areas."

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