Detecting Termite Damage in Your Home
Termites may be small, but their boundless appetite for wood costs Americans billions of dollars annually. Nests can harbor anywhere from thousands to millions of these insects, who work in conjunction to gnaw through the precious wood behind your walls and beneath your floors.
As a homeowner, how can you tell if you have termites in your walls? How can you prevent them? What are the early signs of termites, and how much does termite damage repair cost? In this article, we will address these questions in detail.
How Can Termites Damage Your Home?
Termites damage your home by infiltrating its framework and eating the wood that comprises its structure. Whether they are attacking wall studs or the timbers that form your home’s foundation, their activity puts the house’s structural integrity at risk. One termite nest can turn into several, and the resulting damage can be both devastating and expensive.
It can be difficult to tell if termites are present in your home, since they often do not leave an obvious trace. This presents another danger: They may work for years without being observed, allowing them to cause more extensive damage than you might suspect.
Common termite damage includes destruction of foundational supports, wall studs, floor boards, siding, drywall, paper, books, furniture and other fixtures in homes. They often bore tunnels through wood until it is significantly weakened and sounds hollow when tapped. You may also find signs of termites in drywall and in basements and crawl spaces.
How Long Does It Take Termites to Damage Your Home?
The answer to this question varies widely depending on what type of termite is present and the size and number of the colonies. In the United States, a very common species is the subterranean termite.
These pests have an average colony size of 300,000 and, as a group, can consume more than five grams of wood each day. Though that amount may not sound like much, keep in mind that is more than two feet of a 2×4 wall stud per year — more than enough to put an entire wall at risk. A single colony like this can cause significant damage within weeks or months of infestation, though it is quite common not to notice their presence until later.
A termite colony can also share a home with other colonies, meaning that damage can become widespread and occur more quickly. Termites reproduce quickly — the queen of a colony can lay between 5,000 and 10,000 eggs per year. Rapid reproduction gives the potential for a significant increase in colony size, even though a colony may take four to 10 years to reach maturity.
How Do Termites Spread?
Termites are constantly on the lookout for new sources of food. They are rather ambitious about this — once a colony has nested, winged reproducers go out to explore the surrounding area, scouting for a new source of cellulose in which to start a new colony.
Termites’ ability to colonize and spread to different sites is largely what’s responsible for their destructiveness. They may not be particularly fast eaters, but they are ambitious colonizers. Give a termite nest a few years and it will likely have spread to different locations, exponentially increasing the opportunity for damage.
How Do Termites Start Out?
Termites can spread rapidly, but how do they get into your house in the first place?
The likely answer is that a “swarmer” picked your house as a good spot to reproduce. In the springtime, when the cold, dry winter air has been replaced by warmth and moisture, termite colonies begin to swarm.
Winged members fly around in search of new home sites suitable for reproduction, and when they find one, they do exactly that. These swarmer termites enter homes through tiny cracks and then, in the event that they find plentiful wood, they start a new colony.
What Are Some Common Areas Termites Live?
Before we begin discussing where termites might live in your home, let’s first establish where they live in the United States. For the sake of simplicity, we will be discussing drywood termites here, as these are the more common species within homes.
Essentially, the risk of termites decreases with latitude. That is, the farther north you are, the less risk you have of harboring a termite infestation. If you live near the Canadian border or at very high elevations in states like Colorado, your risk is very low. However, the risk increases as you move south, with the highest risk being in the deep south and the warm California coast. Areas like the mid-Atlantic and Northeast are also at high risk.
Where might termites live inside your home? There are many possibilities, but let’s look at some of the usual suspects:
- Basements and crawl spaces — Termites often enter homes through basements and crawl spaces, as these areas provide a relatively inconspicuous passageway to the house’s wooden foundation. If termites have been here, there are typically clear signs of their activity. A common indicator is the presence of mud tubes running up and down walls, or dropping like stalactites from the roof of a low crawl space. Termites construct these tubes as a safe passage between the ground and the wood above. The presence of white, larva-like worker termites inside the tubes indicates a live colony — more on this later.
- Any type of wooden support beams or posts — Essentially, any wood that is low to the ground is vulnerable. This means wooden floor joists, subflooring, piers and even the frames of basement windows. If you have a porch or deck, inspect the wooden support beams underneath it.Any untreated wood that comes in contact with the ground provides an easy meal, as subterranean termites can access it directly from the earth. A good test is to rap on the wood with your knuckles. If it sounds hollow or dimples under your blows, you could have a termite problem.
- Anywhere concrete joins wood — While termites cannot eat concrete or mortar, they can exploit it as a passageway to the wood it supports. A crack no wider than the width of a postcard can provide an entry point for termites, which can then tunnel up to the wood of the house.Termites will also use these structures as a canvas for their mud tunnels. This is why it’s important to keep an eye not only on the wood of your home, but also concrete structures like steps, a slab, cinderblock supports or porches.
- Scrap wood — That pile of scrap wood outside the back door may be attracting termites, thereby incentivizing them to explore the surrounding area: namely, your house. Remember that any wood in contact with the ground provides a safe haven for termites to go about their business, and so it’s a good idea to keep those wood piles well away from your home. Occasionally sift through piles of scrap wood to make sure you’re not harboring a colony.Additionally, you should inspect the wood on playgrounds, sandboxes, sheds and doghouses from time to time.
How Do I Find Termites?
To go on the hunt for termites, it is wise to arm yourself with a few tools. You’ll want a flashlight for exploring basements, crawl spaces, and other dark areas like the space below porches. Then grab a flathead screwdriver for inspecting mud tubes, and don’t forget a set of coveralls, because crawling around on dirt floors is not a business casual type of affair.
First, what are the signs of termites in your home?
- Hollowed-out wood, or wood with holes in it: Termites tend to eat the soft cellulose between the rings of the trees that comprise wood, thereby eating along the wood’s grain. Hence, they will often eat through to the edge of a baseboard, leaving a small hole visible. Knocking on such wood can produce a hollow sound. For such an elusive insect, this is a fairly clear sign of their presence.
- Droppings: Occasionally termites will deposit their droppings near wooden structures. They use these droppings in the construction of their colonies. Their droppings are tiny pellets that can resemble a pile of small-grained quinoa. They typically take the color of whatever wood the termites are ingesting.
- Mud tubes: These are the tubes we have discussed previously, which typically run across foundational structures and provide a safe passage for the termites.
- Tapping sounds: Advanced termite colonies can tap on wood, using both their heads and mandibles. The sound is a signal to the rest of the colony that wood is available for consumption.
- A floor that sags: If the termites have gone to work on your floors or subflooring, it is common to find the floor sagging as its support is weakened.
You should periodically check your house for termites. Once you are armed with knowledge of how these creatures operate, this is a process that shouldn’t take very long and can save you thousands of dollars.
Here’s how to check your house for termites:
- Inspect any mud tubes: Mud tubes are an obvious sign of termite activity. To check if they are active, take your screwdriver and break a hole in a few of the tubes. If there are white, worker termites inside them, this is a live colony and needs to be treated immediately.
- Knock on wood: People often knock on wood to preserve their good luck — and you should do it to preserve yours, as well. Take the handle of your screwdriver and rap on wooden posts, beams, baseboards, and other wooden structures around your house. If a piece of wood sounds hollow, press on it with the tip of the screwdriver to see if it caves in.
- Get help from a professional: Termites are not always easy to spot, and there is real skill and experience involved in locating and treating them. Hire a professional to scout out your house for infestation.
How Do I Distinguish Termite Damage from Other Types of Damage?
There are many types of damage that can occur to a house.
Pests like to invade our homes because they provide an unnatural shelter that helps their prospects of survival immensely. What else in nature provides a year-round source of warmth, food, wood, shelter from the elements and protection from predators and competitors? Not much, really.
Yellowjackets, hornets, mold, rot and mice are but a few opportunists who take residence in our houses, and it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish one from the other. Here is how to tell termite damage from other types of damage:
- Nests: Whereas hornets and yellowjacks tend to build very distinct, flaky-looking nests, colonies of termites will typically build their nests from mud. These structures can be extremely complex and otherworldly in appearance.
- Lack of wood dust: Carpenter ants also hollow out wood inside homes, but they do not consume the wood for nutritional value — rather, they use it to build their nests. Termites will hollow out wood and leave very little trace of what they have eaten.
- Mud tubes: Dirt daubers and other flying insects also build tube-like nests out of mud, but termites build their tubes as a means of transport from one area to another. Typically, the tubes will run vertically as a means of getting from the ground to the wooden structures above.
- Study the insect’s shape: The worker termites inside mud tubes are milky yellow and have soft bodies. Other termites you may find inside wood have straight antennae, as opposed to the curved antennae of carpenter ants, and do not have the segmented bodies of ants. If you spot winged insects flying in the spring, study their shape — termites will have two pairs of wings of equal size.
What Do Termites Leave Behind?
Lastly, you may find yourself wondering exactly what termites leave behind, as this can be a reliable way to identify them.
- Droppings: As discussed earlier, termites often leave piles of droppings behind that they then use to construct their colonies. These usually collect near wooden surfaces.
- The appearance of water damage: When subterranean termites burrow through wood, they create galleries that are humid and warm. When these tunnels meet the edge of wood that is covered in paint, the paint can begin to bubble and peel as it would with water damage. This can result in brown, soggy wall patches.
- Piles of wings: Swarmers are extremely active for a short period of time each year, after which point they shed their wings. These wings collect in surprisingly voluminous piles — look for these when inspecting your house.
- Remnants of mud tubes: Even if mud tubes have fallen off of a wall, it is typical to still see a mud stain snaking up a wall where the tubes once were. These indicate where termites may have entered the house previously.
How Do I Prevent Termites from Entering my Home?
There are several measures you can take to prevent termites from getting into your home. Some are useful during construction, while others are more applicable if you’ve already built your home.
- Remove dead wood from the vicinity of your home: Are there dead trees or stumps lying near your house? How about the aforementioned scrap wood piles? It is a great idea to get rid of these pieces of termite-bait before they attract new colonies.
- Don’t mulch too close to your home: Mulch helps soil retain moisture, which allows subterranean termites the opportunity to burrow straight into your foundation. Keep mulch a short distance away from the walls of your house.
- Spray the foundation of your house with termite repellent: There are plenty of products out there designed to repel termites, and it is a good idea to spray the foundation of your house and porch with it every so often. Pay close attention to wooden beams in the ground, which are especially vulnerable to attack.
- Put 45º termite shields between concrete and wood in your foundation: A termite shield is simply a long, narrow strip of metal with a 45º crimp running down its center. This strip goes between the concrete foundation and any wood sitting atop it, so the outer half is angled downward and outward. This will help prevent termites from climbing up the wall and reaching the wooden foundation.
- Use pressure-treated lumber: Pressure-treated lumber is softwood that has been soaked in chemicals, making it resistant to both rot and insects. Although you should never use it indoors, it is an excellent choice in outdoor applications and is poisonous to termites.
How Do I Repair Termite Damage?
What do you do once the termites are gone? The answer is repairs. That soggy, porous wood is no longer safe, and probably needs to be replaced. There are two options: Use the DIY method, or hire a professional. Here are some basic tips for doing the repairs yourself:
- Study the affected area to determine the extent of the damage: Does it look like the termites made it very far into the wood? It is possible they had only just begun on it, in which case it may be safe to simply repair the piece using wood filler. You can apply filler with a putty knife to fill the holes in the wood and add to its structural rigidity. It is important to be generous in estimating termite damage, though. There may be more damage than is perceptible, in which case it will necessitate repairing the entire piece.
- Replace the entire piece of wood: A piece of wood isn’t terribly expensive, and replacing just one piece that’s in need of repair can save you massive amounts of money in the long run. Think of one post holding up the corner of a porch: Replacing that post is a lot less expensive than replacing the entire porch above it! A reciprocating saw, also known as a sawzall, is a great tool for this job. Not only does it cut through wood at tricky angles, but it can also saw straight through nails with the right kind of blade. This means you can detach a stud, post or beam right at the source and simply replace it with a new beam.
If you are not particularly handy or inclined to become so, contact a professional to do the job. This may be worth the extra cost for peace of mind, since a professional will have the tools and experience to ensure a job is done well.
The Cost of Repairing Termite Damage
The cost of termite repairs can vary widely, but you can expect between $400 and $1200 for a one-day job. If there are other areas that need to be repaired, or if the repairs are more demanding than normal, this number can multiply several times.
When debating whether to hire a professional exterminator, keep in mind that the costs of repairs will greatly exceed the cost of preventive treatment. If you can stop termites before they begin or catch them in their early phase, you will be far better off than if you’ve waited for the damage to become serious.
Why You Should Hire a Professional
As with many things in life, paying a bit more now will likely save you money in the long run. When it comes to termites, hiring a professional to prevent and treat termite infestations is certainly the right choice.
There are many DIY termite management options for homeowners, but this field is better left to professionals due to the subtle nature of termite activity and the magnitude of work needed to exterminate them. Spotting termites is a skill that comes with training, practice and lots of experience. Once found, advanced baits or many gallons of industry pesticides need to be strategically introduced to flush them out.
If you spend money on a DIY solution, chances are you will not completely eradicate the pest — which means you’ll have to spend money again in the very near future, immediately negating the savings you may have earned. It’s better to save your money and have a professional take care of the problem completely.
What Do Professionals Look for in a Termite Inspection?
Termite inspectors will certainly check for the items listed here: mud tubes, wings, droppings, weak wood, etc. But they will also check subtler symptoms like moisture levels, signs of termite activity in the soil, mulching issues and more. They may use drill holes to determine the presence of termites within concrete structures.
They will also look for more elusive activity that is harder for the untrained eye to spot. They search for evidence of mud in structural joints — often, termites will seal tiny cracks in mortar or concrete with mud to make the site more hospitable. A professional will also be able to perform a more rigorous check of wood to see if it has been damaged by termites.
At Cape Cod Pest Pros, we offer several service plans to keep your house pest-free. You can choose from:
- Quarterly visits: We come out every 90 days to prevent infestations.
- Semi-annual visits: These are popular in Cape Cod due to the high number of summer homes. We offer both preventive treatments and call-back service, in which you can call us back anytime to help fix more persistent issues.
- One-time treatments: For those not interested in routine service, we offer one-time visits to help keep your infestations down.
- Mosquito and tick treatments: These pests are making their way northward more and more, and we have solutions to keep your yard free of them.
- Commercial service: If your business is in need of treatments, call us to come take care of it!
- Termite baiting: We offer a system of baits that will remove termites without the use of pesticides.
Visit us at Cape Cod Pest Pros for more information, or call us at 508-938-1987.