Termite Treatment and Extermination: How to Get Rid of an Infestation in Your Home

Termite infestation. Just the words can strike fear in a happy homeowner's heart. Termite colonies don't merely have a strong yuck factor; they threaten to devour the structural members of the house in their protozoa-enhanced guts, not to mention putting a real dent in the monetary value of a house.

If you have these pests, you should get rid of them - completely eradicate the colony if possible. Here you'll learn options for treatment and "extermination" - or, actually, "control," as it's known in the pest-control circuit. You'll also learn to recognize some of the specific signs of termite damage and how to distinguish the different types of termites.

Although it would be nice to get rid of termites on your own, for most homeowners, a do-it-yourself approach won't be enough. DIY treatment has limited effectiveness and for many is not realistic to perform. A professional control service is recommended in the majority of infestation cases by the regional departments of agriculture and local extension services in most states I investigated.

How Many Types of Termites Are There?

There are about 50 species of termites in the United States, approximately 20 of which can cause structural damage in wood members.

Termites in Your Area

With the caveat that these particular insects can be transported to non-native areas by way of furniture, different types of termites are native to different areas. This excellent termite regional map shows which types - subterranean, drywood, Formosan, and/or dampwood - are generally found in your state. If you live in California, for example, you'll see northern California has only subterranean termites, while San Diego, Los Angeles and other southern regions have both subterranean and drywood termites.

What Harm Can Termites Do?

Termites are expensive to keep - to the tune of $1 billion to $3 billion annually in control and repair costs. The insects survive on cellulose fibers - that's right, the fibers in wood, paper and cardboard. They eat not just the wood timbers and other wooden members of a structure, but also insulation, swimming pool liners, books and paper inside the house, and living woody plants outside.

Infestations, if not treated when found, can continue to haunt a homeowner, who watches the value of the house decline over time as more damage to the interior structure is done. And if the house goes on the market to be sold, home inspections will reveal the true extent of the damage.

Nest of the Formosan Subterranean Termite, a Very Destructive Pest
Nest of the Formosan Subterranean Termite, a Very Destructive Pest | Source

DIY Termite Treatment: Maybe Not Such a Good Idea

A DIY treatment involves injecting large quantities of termiticide into the ground, underneath slabs of concrete, and inside foundation walls.

DIY termiticides are available to buy in many places. Yet do-it-yourself termite treatments involve quite a bit of carpentry know-how. For control of the termites inside the house, homeowners who choose to take a DIY approach to getting rid of a termite infestation will need to be able to identify and access areas within the home that are vulnerable, using equipment such as:

  • drills that drill through masonry
  • special pumps
  • large tanks
  • soil treatment rods

And an important note: Pesticide laws vary by region. The legalities of the treatment you use depend on where you live.

The laws that allow or disallow the pesticides and chemicals used to kill the insects, such as fumigants and the various termiticides, vary according to your region or state.

The takeaway? Just because Termidor or Premise termiticides exist, it doesn't mean they're permitted where you are. Contact your local environmental organizations for details.

Termite Treatment Options

Subterranean Termite Treatment

Subterranean termites live in the soil and account for most of the termite problems in the United States and are seen in every U.S. state except Alaska. The colonies can be quite large. Treatment means creating a chemical barrier, or perimeter, that prevents termites from passing through and entering the structure. If they try to pass through, they are killed. Non-repellant liquid pesticides called termiticides are used. Some brand names are Premise, Termidor, and Phantom. Spot treatments are also used to kill off areas of infestation.

These two strategies are used together for termite control. However, this kind of treatment may not eradicate the termites, so some termite control companies offer an optional service agreement in the event the termites return.

Termite bait, installed beneath the ground in plastic cylinders or inside over areas of active infestation, is another termite extermination option used to control the pests. Cellulose-based "food" such as cardboard is used as the bait, and a pesticide within slowly kills them and the termites they spread it to. A baiting control strategy can take from weeks to up to a year to complete.

Drywood Termite Treatment

Drywood termites are a type of pest that presents its own special problems. Drywood termites live in coastal warm, tropical or dry climates - such as southern Texas, Florida or Southern California (especially San Diego and the desert). Unlike the subterranean termite, a drywood termite colony does not need a source of water, such as soil, to thrive. They can live in wood carrying less than 3% moisture. Their hardiness and secretiveness make baiting and treatment difficult. Do-it yourself termite treatments are not advised for this type of insect. Call a pest control specialist.

Spot Control of Termites Vs. Whole House Eradication

There are two main types of drywood termite control: spot, or localized control, and whole structure eradication.

The difference between these two strategies is what it sounds like: Localized treatment focuses on one or more areas, while whole house eradication involves treating all infested locations in and around the entire structure simultaneously.

Spot control treatments include a host of possible chemical and nonchemical treatments. A list of localized treatments includes:

  • Chemical foams
  • Chemical liquids
  • Pesticides injected into timbers
  • Extreme cold/ liquid nitrogen
  • Electrocution
  • Extreme heat
  • Microwaves

The two types of whole house termite control agents are fumigants (such as sulfuryl fluoride, largely replacing the formerly popular fumigant methyl bromide) and high heat. These work in different situations and have advantages and disadvantages.

People and pets must be absent during the use of fumigants, and food and medications must be sealed. The time people must stay away from the house or site of infestation varies from a few hours to a week.

Heat termite treatment is only appropriate for smaller houses that can be heated evenly, since temperature differentials in larger houses and those with tile or concrete floors below the wood can lower its effectiveness.

With heat treatment, people, pets and household plants must be removed while the temperatures of the structural timbers of the house are driven up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit and the room temperature approaches 150 degrees. The cell membranes of termites are destroyed and their enzymes denatured, making heat a very effective method of "extermination."

What if the Termites Come Back?

According to the University of California program of Integrated Pest Management, spot treatments, also called localized treatments, and perimeter treatments have a good chance of not preventing recurrent termite infestations.

In other words, unless you implement a whole structure treatment, the insects are likely to return.

Formosan Subterranean Termite Swarmers

Swarming Formosan Termites, Alates (Breeders)
Swarming Formosan Termites, Alates (Breeders) | Source

Signs of Termite Infestation and Damage

Termite Swarm

Homeowners might see winged insects swarming inside the house around windows and doors in the spring or fall and shedding their wings as part of their reproductive cycle. According to the Consumer Education Council on Termites, it takes years for a colony to reach a size large enough to swarm. So seeing a bunch of swarmers is likely to be a sign of a termite problem. If you see a termite swarm, contact a pest control company.

If the termites emerge from the base of an outside wall or along a porch, that's also a sign that the house may be infested.

How to Tell the Difference Between Termites and Ants

  • Termites have straight antennae, while ants have bent antennae.
  • Ants have a "wasp" waist, while termites don't.
  • Termites' hind wings and forewings are the same size; ants have longer wings in front.

Drywood Termite Soldier, Image
Drywood Termite Soldier, Image
Drywood Termite Worker, Image
Drywood Termite Worker, Image | Source

Drywood Termite Infestation Signs

Climates where the temperature never falls below freezing are friendly to drywood termites. With the exception of the twice-a-year swarms, signs of a drywood termite colony infestation are subtle, and may not be present for a long time. Meanwhile, the damage is being secretly done to the wood structures in the home. Upon close inspection, signs include:

  • Fecal pellets or droppings, called frass. Frass are tiny, hexagonal tube-shaped, and grainy (like sawdust). The droppings are sometimes seen at the site of the wood damage.
  • Kickout holes in the wood through which fecal pellets are pushed out.
  • Damaged windowsills or other exposed wood objects.

By the time you see signs of a drywood termite infestation, the damage may be extensive. For more information, see the University of California's western drywood termite information page.

Subterranean Termite Soldier, Image
Subterranean Termite Soldier, Image
Subterranean Termite Worker, Image
Subterranean Termite Worker, Image | Source

Subterranean Termite Infestation Signs

According to the Georgia Department of Agriculture, most of the termitedamage done in the U.S. is owing to the eastern subterranean termite known as reticulitermes flavipes. As implied by the name, subterranean termites build colonies in the soil and survive on the ground's moisture. They eat floors and structural beams with no compunction.

Besides swarming, signs of a subterranean termite infestation include:

  • pencil-thick earthen mud tubes visible on foundation walls, floor joists, support posts, plumbing or chimneys. (These tubes preserve moisture and allow the worker termites to survive as they chew their way through wood.)
  • caked mud or soil residue along the feeding galleries inside infested beams - this dried soil distinguishes termite damage from that done by carpenter ants and moisture ants
  • less commonly, small holes in drywall or plaster bordered by soil stains
  • damaged wooden structural members in the house, such as a foundation wall or floor
  • sunken areas behind wallpaper

Picture of a Dampwood Termite
Picture of a Dampwood Termite | Source

Choosing the Best Termite Control Company

If you've found yourself the victim of a termite infestation, first - don't panic. You have time to thoroughly investigate several termite control companies before choosing one. A few weeks will not make a difference.

Get termite inspections from more than one company. The resultant report will cover:

  • Where in and around the house are the inactive termite infestations, as well as the active ones.
  • What treatments are called for, and where
  • How many treatments are called for
  • Termite control cost estimate or quote - make sure you know which it is

Check that the termite control company or companies you're considering:

  • are well-established, with experienced pest management technicians
  • have reputable references
  • do not have a large number of unresolved complaints with the BBB (Better Business Bureau)
  • are members of the NPMA (National Pest Management Association) or a local pest control association.
  • are licensed by the Dept. of Agriculture (or whatever local agency regulates termite treatment within your state)
  • offer a service agreement in the event the termite infestation recurs

More Termite Infestation Resources

This termite infestation fact sheet from the state of California and the extensive Consumer Education Council on Termites helped source this article.

Termiticide Dangers

A termiticide is a poison that kills termites. The Environmental Protection Agency has standards for labeling that includes important precautionary measures. Read the EPA termiticide labelling standards.

Orange Oil Termite Treatment

Orange oil termite treatment, considered more eco-friendly and "natural" than the "chemical" eradication methods, has been studied and found, with proper application and in combination with other methods, to be promising in the control of drywood termites and potentially the Formosan subterranean termite.


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