By Elizabeth Bush
Jun 23, 2010 - 11:31:34 AM
Daniel Island residents Dick and Susan Pruet weren’t sure what to think when they spotted a little ripple in their hardwood floors last January. Initially, water damage seemed the likely culprit, so they contacted a local home inspector to help them find the source.
"He was looking for water leaks, but couldn’t find any," recalled Dick. "So we moved a table and (accidentally) popped one of the floor boards. And there they were."
The Pruets starred down in disbelief at an active Formosan Termite colony enjoying a hardwood buffet inside their dining room floor. Unfortunately, the Pruets are just two of many residents on Daniel Island, and in the greater Charleston area, who have discovered hidden termites inside the walls and floors of their homes in recent months and years, and the problem is getting worse.
"We’re gonna be seeing a whole lot more of this," said Bert Snyder, vice president of Palmetto Exterminators, a pest control company that works with homeowners to keep pesky insects at bay. "It’s dramatically on the increase…and more and more people are having massive damage claims."
It’s easy to bug-out a little when you spend time with Snyder. The Clemson-educated graduate entomologist, who owns and operates Palmetto Exterminators with his brother, Lance, is fascinated by all things creepy and crawly. And his office in West Ashley is quite literally living proof.
Visitors to Snyder’s corporate abode will find it looks more like a biology lab complete with microscopes, petri dishes, jars of larvae (his Formosan queen is quite impressive), and colorful framed butterfly displays. Like a child proudly showing off a class project, Snyder is happy to pluck one of his squirming Madagascar Cockroaches from inside a glass container and place it in his hand. He’s also got a scorpion, snake, and a couple hundred live Palmetto Bugs to take a gander at as well. But when talk shifts to Formosan Termites, brought to the Charleston area from the Orient via port terminals in the 1950’s, Snyder is all business.
"Up until the mid 1980’s, we knew pretty much by street where we had activity," he said. "Downtown, Hampton Park area, the port, Charlestowne Landing, Orange Grove Road…(Now), there’s just massive activity going on all over the place."
Daniel Island termites right at home
On Daniel Island, Snyder said termite activity is particularly troublesome. In fact, he theorizes that there could be some 10 to 20 termite colonies per acre on the island. It’s a problem Snyder traces back to the island’s pre-development days, when termite populations could feast unchecked on downed trees in the wake of tropical storm damage caused by events like Hurricane Hugo.
"We started building houses right up on top of all these colonies," he said. "And with active Formosan Termites in the live oak trees, these nice beautiful trees with carton nests right inside of them, with those root systems under ground that termites like to follow, now you just set yourself up for a tremendous amount of termite activity popping up in houses."
Snyder recalls spotting early termite activity on the island when Palmetto Exterminator crews began conducting pre-treatments of wood and soil on new homes under construction.
"Even before we could get to the treatments on the houses, we were finding (termite) tubing up the foundation walls during the construction process. Termites were infesting construction materials sitting out in the yard, sitting on the ground! So we immediately knew we were going to have to change our way of thinking with the Formosan, particularly on Daniel Island."
While another species, the Eastern Subterranean Termite can also be found in the Charleston area, the Formosans are known for being the most aggressive and most damaging to structures. A trained exterminator will look for small tubes extending from the ground up towards the structure on foundation walls, as well as conditions conducive to termite activity such as moisture and wood rot.
"When we train our guys, we tell them you’ve got to think like a termite," said Snyder. "You’ve got to be analytical in looking at these properties. Sometimes you just think ‘something is just not right here’ and you’ve got to have a little intuition."
How will homeowners know if termites are near?
"A lot of times, all people see is a tiny hole in the wall where termites are coming out, where swarmers are coming out right through the sheetrock," added Snyder, of the tiny honey-colored Formosan ‘scouts’ that swarm in May looking for food or places to begin new colonies. "…If you’ve got (Formosan) termites coming out of the wall, you’ve got to cut the sheetrock off, because you’ve probably got a nest right behind the wall or in close proximity, and you’ll never control them until you pull that out."
But Snyder also pointed out that the presence of swarmers inside the home is not necessarily cause for alarm.
"Most of the calls we get are people finding these inside their houses crawling around. You may see 10, 20 or 100, but if you’ve got several hundred of them inside your house with wings, there is a potential of a problem somewhere in that house. Sometimes it’s like finding a needle in a haystack."
About a year ago, Daniel Island resident Susan Orick and her family noticed some cracks in the sheetrock in the room over their detached garage.
"We also noticed that our floor had started to sag, and we could see the floor separating from the shoe molding," said Susan.
When their contractor indicated that normal "settling" may not be the cause, they had part of the wall and ceiling torn out to get an inside look.
"As soon as they pulled it out you could see the amount of damage," she recalled of the termite colony found in her walls and floor. "It was unbelievable that these little guys could do so much damage."
Termite warranties offer protection for homeowners
Fortunately, both the Oricks and the Pruets had complete termite warranties issued by Palmetto Exterminators, who took care of all repairs at no cost to either family. A number of area exterminator companies offer similar coverage for homeowners, but Snyder said you must be careful to read the fine print in their policies.
"You better make sure you verify what the limitations and terms of those agreements and warranties are before you purchase it."
In some cases, companies do not cover Formosan damage.
"The Formosan is the dominant species of termite in the tri-county area," he said. "About 90 percent of all termite infestations we are seeing are from the Formosan…If you are not controlling the Formosan in your warranty program, or you have an exclusion, you really shouldn’t be in the termite business."
Snyder also points out that it’s not a question of "if" a home will be impacted by termites, it’s "when." Protecting your home must be a long-term commitment, he said. Exterminator companies should come back each year to do a full inspection on the property and treat as needed, including a "booster" treatment every seven years.
"It’s not an exact science," he added. "It’s more of an art. It’s a process. It’s not a one-time event. It’s maintenance. And it’s a relationship we build with a homeowner."
A yearly renewal for a termite warranty is typically between $200 and $300. When you consider the cost of home insurance, which doesn’t cover termite damage, it’s money well spent, Snyder added.
"You are several times more likely to have termite damage to your structure than you are to have damage from hurricanes, fires, or storms of some sort. And people don’t realize that."
"Keep your termite bond in place, up to date, and current," said Dick Pruet, whose Center Park home was treated and repaired for termite damage within a few weeks. "If you’re without a termite bond, you’re not being smart…You’ve got too much of an investment in these houses not to have it…If you see something that’s not quite right, it’s probably not right. With termites, you have to assume the worst."