A quick guide to termites and timber pests
For residential and commercial property
A pest inspection will look for termites, borers and decay at your property. These are the timber pests.
Many areas of Australia are known to be at risk of termite attack. Where I live – in South East Queensland – the risk is high, while the risk in Tasmania is relatively very low. Termites like warmer climates, so the further north you go, the more termites you’ll find and the higher the risk of termite attack.
The pest inspection involves finding and reporting on timber pests and conditions conducive to timber pests. This inspection includes inspection of timber in all reasonably accessible areas of the property. The property is checked for subterranean and damp-wood termites, borers of seasoned timber and fungal decay. The location and severity of live pests and damage is commented upon in the report.
Conditions conducive to timber pest attack, such as poor surface drainage and poorly ventilated subfloor areas are also reported.
Some property owners think that a brick building is at low risk of termite attack. Often these buildings contain structural timber floor and roof framing even when the walls are brick. If in doubt, discuss this with your inspector when agreeing upon the scope of work. My advice is to always get the pest inspection done. For a few hundred dollars it’s worth the peace of mind.
The inspection is non-invasive and does not involve breaking open timber or walls, lifting carpet or insulation, moving heavy furniture, etc. It is essentially a visual inspection.
Standard tools used by inspectors are a torch, ladder and moisture meter (see later section on ‘Equipment’).
The inspection is done to check for three types of named timber pests only. Other timber pests like carpenter ants and drywood termites, although commonly found, are not included in the inspection. Pests such as snakes, possums, rats, mice, ants, cockroaches, spiders and other pests are also not included.
Drywood termites not included in a standard report
A real estate agent I have known for many years related this story to me. “I bought a house and had a building and pest inspection. When we moved in and started renovations our builder found extensive termite damage. We called the pest inspector for an explanation and he came over and told us that because the damage was caused by drywood termites it was not his problem. So we rang the building authorities and they confirmed that the inspector was not liable. We felt ripped off!”
While we are on the subject of pests and termites, here is some advice: please don’t call them white ants! They are termites, not ants. More closely related to cockroaches than ants, these insects are responsible for a lot of building damage because they eat timber.
CSIRO reports that in Australia over 130,000 houses are infested annually causing $910 million worth of damage. The average damage repair bill is $5,500 and the average treatment cost is $1,500. I think there is excessive fear surrounding termites, and that fear is perpetuated by the pest management industry. As we know, fear is also ‘False Evidence Appearing Real’. In my opinion, people get way too concerned about termites. Sure, they do damage properties and the damage can run into the thousands to rectify, but let’s get you educated on these critters to give you some perspective.
There are around 300 different species of termites in Australia. But unless you are an entymologist with years of termite identification experience you would be considered knowledgeable within the pest industry if you could correctly identify and name 10 different species. Where I live in Brisbane, I commonly see about five different types.
Some are destructive and can do significant structural damage, and others are quite lame and only do superficial damage. When the weather is humid and stormy, that is the time when thousands of winged termites (alates) will take flight and seek a mate to start their own colony. If they are successful in finding each other – and a cosy spot – they will start a new colony and hey presto, they become the king and queen. Termite colonies in the suburbs can grow to more than one million termites.
If you find termites and want to kill them, you can just take off a shoe and whack them or get professional pest control. I would advocate for the latter because chances are, if you find termites, you have only found a few hundred workers harvesting the timber and if you kill these guys the colony will not miss them. The queen pumps out 4,000 eggs per day, so if a few hundred go missing they will quickly be replaced. You need to use a poison that will find its way to the nest and get some poison into the queen. This will eradicate the colony.
Residential buildings that are built in a designated termite area require an approved termite management system be installed during construction. To find out if the property you are buying is in a termite risk area I suggest you contact the local council for advice.
What are the main types of termite management systems?
Most modern houses have physical barriers built into the external walls and collars placed around pipe penetrations (where pipes go through concrete floor slabs on the ground) to prevent termite entry. The building certifier has the job of ensuring that the system installed is approved for use. Most freestanding dwellings built after 1995 have a physical termite management system installed but some do not.
Another method of termite risk management is to build the ‘primary building elements’ (i.e. load bearing members) with termite resistant materials, for example metal, concrete, masonry, fibre cement, naturally resistant timber and preservative treated timber.
In Queensland, the primary building elements also include door jambs, window frames, reveals, architrave and skirting boards as the risk of termite damage is higher in this state.
Another type of termite management system is a chemical one. This system involves the installation of a treated zone of topsoil abutting the perimeter external walls, by drilling through concrete and digging through topsoil. If the building has a subfloor, then this area is treated also. These chemical systems are often referred to as ‘barriers’ but the more correct term is ‘treated zone’.
Old school chemicals based on organochlorines and organo- phosphates such as ‘Aldrin’ and ‘Dieldrin’ were fantastic at keeping termites away, but they were found to be too toxic for the environment because of their long after-life.
There are now many effective and safer chemicals available to professional pest managers that last between one and ten years.
Expensive Termite chemical V Cheaper Termite chemical, what’s the difference?
Do the maths. Some chemicals are cheap and some are expensive. It’s no surprise that the expensive ones actually work better and last much longer. A good quality chemical will last eight to ten years. If you are comparing quotes on chemical termite systems make sure you take into consideration how long the chemical will last. Here is a quick and easy way to compare the value of two different quotes.
Quote 1. “Bloody Ripper Pest Control”
Uses a cheap chemical. Installation costs $2,250. Re-treatment (expiry date) in three years = Cost to you $750 per year.
Quote 2. “Aussie Battler Pest Management”
Uses a more expensive chemical. Installation costs $2,750. Re-treatment (expiry date) in eight years = Cost to you $344 per year.
When comparing quotes, you should always look at the annual cost over the life of the termite management system to understand the true cost.
Monitoring and baiting systems
The third most popular type of termite management system is a monitoring and baiting system. This involves the installation of many (sometimes 30 on a standard suburban lot) ‘bait stations’ in the ground around the building. The bait stations are typically a plastic tube with openings in the sides and a removable lid on the top. These are buried in the ground with the lid sitting level with the ground. Inside the tube some timber or an attractant like ‘Focus’ is placed. Usually the timber is a species of pine timber. Pine is a softwood and more often is the target of termites as it is easier for them to eat. The teeth of a termite have the density of a human finger nail so they find eating denser timbers a slow process.
The bait stations are checked regularly by the pest management technician for the presence of termites. Any termites found are killed with poison. There are both professional and DIY monitoring and baiting systems available. Systems are extensively tested for years to ensure they are effective but be warned, this system needs constant monitoring.
Some buildings have structural elements made from treated timber or steel. When the structural elements are termite resistant no termite management system is necessary. These properties are still at risk of termites doing damage to timber found in kitchens, floating floors, architraves, skirting boards and door jambs, etc.
Every pest management system requires regular inspections by a professional timber pest inspector. Most properties should be inspected at least annually and some more often depending upon the level of risk of termite attack and the type of management system installed.
Exposed concrete slab edge
This involves using at least 75mm of visible slab edge on the ground as part of the termite management system.
These are made of folded metal sheeting. These shields are built at the base of walls, and termite caps are placed on top of support posts. As with exposed slab edge, it is advisable to have at least 75mm of visible slab edge to enable regular visual inspection to detect termite attack.
PEST INSPECTION EQUIPMENT
Most obvious termite damage is found by home-owners who have no knowledge of what termites look like, or their habits or how to find them. Professional timber pest inspectors can usually find the damage the average person cannot. They do so with the help of the following equipment.
The best tool anyone has is their eyesight, but you have to know what to look for. Your eyesight can be enhanced by a high-powered LED torch. Buy yourself a rechargeable LED torch. A very handy piece of kit.
What is a donger?
The next most vital piece of kit is a sounding stick. This will often consist of a golf club type of handle with a golf ball or similar plastic ball on the tip. In the trade, this sounding stick is called a ‘donger’. By lightly tapping the donger onto accessible timbers the inspector can listen to the sound made. If the timber sounds hollow, this will indicate termite damage and if the timber sounds dull, this will indicate water damage (that can lead to decay and then attract termites). Most ‘tapping’ is done on visible and accessible timber inside the building, for example wall-panelling, exposed beams, skirtings, architraves, windows and door jambs.
What does a moisture meter do?
Another essential item is the electronic moisture meter. The moisture meter is a device that measures the relative moisture of the building surface. Termites need water to survive, so when high moisture readings (above 18%) are present, this can be an indication of live termites. Sometimes the high moisture can also be due to a water leak from a leaking plumbing fixture. High moisture in a wall is a condition conducive to termites and decay. Moisture meters, like other tools, have their limitations and cannot be used reliably on days of high humidity or rain.
Can a thermal camera really see inside walls?
Thermal imaging cameras have been used in the pest management industry for many years now. These cameras work by shooting a laser beam onto a surface. The temperature of the surface is detected and then mapped onto a screen, often in multi colours. Relative cold spots can indicate dampness associated with water leaks or termite nests. Conversely, hot spots can indicate heat from termites or another heat source.
Anyone using a thermal imaging camera in a professional capacity should also be a certified thermographer. Pictures of the thermal imaging camera results must also be included in timber pest inspection reports otherwise they are not valid.
What is Termatrac?
I personally use a ‘Termatrac T3i’. This is a termite detector that combines three technologies in one device. It has a radar to detect movement, a thermal sensor to detect temperature and a moisture sensor to analyse moisture levels. The digital screen graphs the movement and with a small amount of training it is possible to recognise the movement pattern of termites. This is an accurate non- invasive method of finding active termites.
Are termite dogs any good at finding termites?
Occasionally I am asked about other methods of termite detection, including sniffer dogs, listening devices and other methods. The different tools and equipment used for detection of termites all have their pros and cons. A carefully trained termite dog can cost more than $20,000. Termite dogs can be easily distracted by the smell of paint, pet food, cigarette smoke and many other smells. They are also easily bored and need the excitement of finding termites every day to stay motivated. For all but a few properties and situations the use of a termite dog is unwarranted in my opinion.
There are many other types of equipment available. I have tried to cover the most commonly used here. It is important to note that the standard timber pest inspection is visual only and only visible and accessible areas are inspected. This excludes moving furniture or stored items, lifting floor coverings, inspecting inside walls, looking under insulation or stumps below ground level.
Conditions that will attract termites
Places and conditions conducive to termite attack include (but are not limited to) the following:
Warmer climates with lots of trees.
Tree stumps and logs. Trees, especially dead trees.
Weepholes covered or partly covered by concrete, soil, gravel or other material.
Leaks, such as a leaking water pipe or leaking shower. Untreated landscaping timbers.
Deficiencies with termite shields or ant capping, such as rust holes, missing sections, damaged sections.
Timber in contact with the ground, such as posts and weatherboards.
Piles of timber such as firewood or loose timbers in the garden or under the house.
Old timber formwork used in construction, left under suspended concrete slabs, e.g. patios.
Poor surface drainage makes buildings damp and more prone to termite damage.
A timber pest inspection report should include comment on conditions conducive to termites and recommendations to address these issues. The fewer conditions conducive to termites there are on the property, the lower the risk of termite attack.