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Keep homes dry to keep termites out

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POSTED: July 17, 2014 2:15 p.m.
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Termites will build tubes of dirt and debris from the ground up a foundation to get into wet wood.

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Dealing with termites costs over two billion dollars a year in the United States. In Georgia alone residents pay between two hundred million and three hundred million dollars for remedial control and repair of damage done by termites.
I would never buy a house that did not have a termite contract on it, and I doubt anyone could find a bank that would approve a mortgage on a property that did not have a clean bill of health when it comes to termites.
No, termites are bad news when they get into your house. But water is bad news when it gets into my lungs, yet I cannot live without it.
Termites are like water. They are everywhere in the outdoor environment.
Drop a piece of untreated wood down on the ground and leave it there for two weeks. Chances are when you pick it up, it will have termites under it chomping away at the wood.
This is the point where some people make, or are allowed and encouraged to make, an unjustified and illogical conclusion: Because termites are in my yard, termites are trying to get into my house!
Termites are one of Nature’s recyclers. They help in the break down of waste wood and start nutrient cycling of dead wood. If termites and other small critters were not actively breaking down wood, the fuel accumulation in our woodlands would make forest fires like the Waycross fire a common occurrence.
Termites consume cellulose, but they are lazy and take the easiest forms of cellulose first.
They will attack loose fibers first, then paper, cardboard, softwood (example: pine studs), and last, hardwood. I expect to see termites feeding on the newspaper I put on the ground around my tomatoes, but that does not lead me to believe the dining room hutch is next.
Termites need warmth, water and food. Landscapes in the summer in South Georgia have plenty of all three. Termites are out there in your lawn and landscape, no doubt about it.
So how do you go about keeping termites out of your house? Keep it dry!
Keeping your home dry is one of the most important strategies to keeping termites out. Make sure that water does not pond at the foundation of your house. The land immediately surrounding the foundation of your house should slope away from your house at least past the roof overhang.
Most homes in this area do not have gutter systems, so rainwater tends to erode the soil where roof runoff impacts the ground.
Topdress these areas with soil as needed to maintain the slope away from your home. Mulch around foundation plantings, but leave a gap a several inches wide next to the foundation of the house that is free of mulch.
A good three to four inch layer of mulch can keep rain from splashing up onto the walls and foundation, helping to keep them dry and free of dirt. Without mulch, dirt gets splashed onto the walls and creates another cleaning job.
Will termites colonize good organic mulch like pine straw or cedar when it is around a home foundation? Probably, but again, that does not mean they will get into your house. Do not plant anything or disturb the soil within a foot of the foundation of your home. Termite control companies inject insecticide into the soil to form a barrier against termites burrowing through the soil to get to the house.
If you dig or till the soil you will destroy the barrier and create a gap for termite attack. If you have a roof leak or some wood in contact with the soil and wooden siding or the sill itself, it can create a wick effect that will make the wood wet. Since it is already warm here, conditions would be perfect for an infestation and the materials piled against the house make a good bridge for the termites to cross to get into your home.
So let us say you have mulched around your home and have cleared debris away from the foundation and raked the mulch back to leave a small gap of soil exposed at the ground line.
Now you have found these things that look like flying ants around the mulch. Swarming termites can also indicate possible infestations. Ants also swarm, so it is important to be able to tell the difference between ants and termites.
A 10x hand lens is all that is required to tell the difference. The antennae of termites are a chain of beads while ants have antennae that are two long arms with an articulated joint, like an arm and forearm that can move about.
Ants have a thin waist while termites have a thick waist. Once you have seen the difference you will not forget it. What else can you do? Take a walk around the entire outside perimeter of the house and look for small earthen tubes running up the side of the foundation from the ground. Termites must have high humidity to keep from drying out and dying, so they build tubes of soil that maintain the high humidity they need to bridge the gap from the soil to the wet wood in you house.
If you see these tubes do not destroy them. Let your pest control specialists with which you have your termite contract see them first. Repair roof leaks, keep rain from splashing against wood siding and keep air conditioner condensation piped well away from the house foundation.
Inspect from both inside and outside the house the wooden sills that are anchored to the concrete slab to make sure they are dry. Use a pocket knife and light plastic hammer to test the soundness of the wood. Rotted or infested wood will make a dull thud. Poke the tip of the pocket knife into the wood. Sound wood will resist penetration and only the tip of the knife will go in. Rotten wood will be less resistant and allow greater penetration of the knife blade. Rotten areas should be explored to determine both the extent and cause of the wood deterioration.  
If you should find termites in your home, and they could be in wood, drywall, foam insulation, foam stucco or other relatively soft building materials, your next step is to call your pest control operator.
Two things will have to be done: first, treat to kill the termites, and second, correct the moisture problem that made the wood of the structure wet and attractive to termites. Repairs, if any, should be done by someone with the building and carpentry skills to do a proper job that meets building codes. Termites in a structure are a serious problem requiring serious medicine.
Termites are not a spray-and-forget problem. The reason termites got in and correcting those issues takes someone with training in not only the proper application of restricted-use pesticides, but knowledge in the lifecycle and habits of termites. Prevention is everything. If you keep your house dry inside and out you will probably not have much chance of a termite infestation.

Gardner lives in Keller and is the UGA extension agent for Glynn County, serving South Bryan.

 

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