Never say never with termites
Termites have been an enemy of the building industry since the two first came into contact – and, unfortunately, they don’t show any signs of disappearing. Dimi Kyriakou recaps the knowledge that all builders need to reliably assess and deal with termite infestation and prevention.
Do a bit of research on termites in Australia and the statistics are alarming, to say the least. Industry experts suggest that the little critters manage to drill through hundreds of millions of real estate per year – in simpler terms, that translates to around one in three homes that have a history of infestation.
With more than 300 species of termites throughout Australia, the day when termites are no longer a threat to the building industry will probably never come. And even if it did, I doubt it would be in our lifetime.
The good news is that termites are fairly predictable as they are drawn to a habitat with a combination of moisture and timber. Putting a bit of thought into termite management and prevention can greatly reduce the risk of infestation in the future.
Termite control falls under specific state-based jurisdictions, so it is always best to consult with your state’s building licensing board for current information on termite infestation in your area.
There are also requirements set out in the Building Code of Australia (BCA). It recognises two alternative strategies for termite management (the use of termite-resistant materials in the primary structural elements or the use of a chemical/physical barrier system) and also references Australian Standards. Our regular contributor Jerry Tyrrell will interpret these further in his column on page 40.
Local councils also have the power to declare specific areas within their municipality as being ‘termite infested’, so make sure your building practices conform with these requirements before starting a new development, renovation or extension. Conducting your due diligence will ensure that your client is not left with a hefty bill after you’ve handed over the project.
Dealing with termites
The Australian Environmental Pest Managers Association (AEPMA) represents professional pest managers across Australia, sets standards for the pest management industry and provides information to consumers on urban pest control.
Simon Dixon is a technical advisor and former chairman of the Victorian chapter of the AEPMA. With an educational background in entomology, he has been working with termites for more than 30 years through his own professional pest control company.
According to Simon, the most effective way for a builder to detect if a building has been infested with termites is to engage an accredited professional termite company – this job is best left to the experts.
“Trained termite inspectors use a variety of modern detection equipment, such as a three-in-one handheld piece of equipment which detects moisture, movement and heat; we also use a very sensitive moisture meter to run over timber in a property to see if there is any moisture,” he says.
“Termites themselves have moisture in them and the mud tunnels they build within the timber also have moisture. You can find termites deep within the timber using a moisture meter, infrared camera or movement detection device.”
Victorian Termite Specialists manager Nick Bentley says that for an existing building, an external inspection is the first port of call.
“We conduct an inspection around the perimeter of the building to make sure none of the subfl oor vents are blocked up. If the house is on a concrete slab, we make sure the weep holes at the base of the walls aren’t blocked or restricted. We also visually assess the trees onsite for any possible nesting sites and do a test drill on suspect trees to assess if there is any termite activity,” he says.
Nick adds that Red Gum sleepers are one of the usual suspects when conducting an external inspection of susceptible landscaping timbers around an existing building.
“Quite often people are under the misconception that termites won’t go into Red Gum, but they’re a highly palatable source for termites. We look particularly for Red Gum sleepers or a retaining wall adjoining the building where the joining could allow for direct entry points.”
For David Rice of TermiCam, thermal imaging is the tool of choice when it comes to detecting termites in a building.
“It is important that structures are inspected yearly by a licensed pest inspector and/or licensed builder and if he or she has a thermal imaging camera, it must be fit for purpose and the operator should also be certified to Australian Standards,” David says.
“The report generated by the pest inspector and/or builder or thermographer must be accurately documented and the report must have proof of an infestation – not just colourful thermal images.”
He says the assessment itself should not be rushed, as even the best inspectors can overlook termite infestations. However, once the termites are detected, it is important not to disturb them and seek the help of a licensed pest controller who can then determine what steps need to be taken for treatment.
“Thermal cameras are just a tool among the many that are used – it’s the operator who must have an understanding of structures, how they are made and what can bring termites to a structure,” David explains.
There are many different types of treatments to use – some processes work better than others in different areas of Australia, but the builders should listen to the pest controller for the correct advice.”
Trends in prevention
As with any form of pest control, prevention is better than dealing with an invasion.
“The BCA calls up Australian Standard 3660.1-2000 Termite management Part 1: New building work, so if you’re building in a declared area by local council, the builder has to follow termite prevention requirements,” Simon explains.
“This standard focuses on many types of building structures, such as a concrete slab floor or a suspended timber floor. Both need protection from termites.
“The Australian Standard looks at deterring termites coming up the stump or the slab penetration or around the slab edge. The builder normally engages a licensed termite installation company to install these termite barriers. That’s a termite entry point and it needs protecting.”
There are many types of brands and options available for termite prevention (see page 38), but according to Simon, he sees a trend in industry moving away from chemical soil spraying.
“Back in the 1990s and early 2000s most builders would have used soil treatments with a chemical barrier – a treated zone – but the Australian industry is moving towards physical chemically impregnated barriers. Most of these are fitted around the slab penetrations and around the slab edge to stop termite entry,” he says.
“The great thing about impregnated barriers is that they last for 20-30 years. You can protect a new structure for that long whereas the chemical soil spraying had 3-8 years maximum protection.”
Given the wide range of options available, Nick believes it is best to use a combination of different termite prevention solutions and tailor them to the building as required – obviously, a different approach is needed for a new build as compared to an existing building infested with termites.
“A combination of systems is always best. Generally my company uses a combination of physical barriers, as well as traditional sprays. It’s your best chance of protection to put in as much as you can and reduce your risk as much as possible,” he says.
“All termite protection systems have their benefits and each one is suitable for different sites. Once again it’s about consulting with your pest controller at a very early stage – when plans are being drawn up – and working out the best system for that type of building.”
Things to remember
As termite prevention measures are usually put into place at the start of a building project (rather than being called in as a last-minute addition), it’s important to remind other trades not to disturb the work that has already been done. It may also be necessary to revisit the termite prevention measures in place if the floor plan changes after they have been installed.
“The classic is that you have the slab set out and the plumbing penetration coming through to the bathroom and kitchen. Another trade might come in and move that pipe, then forget to put the new termite protection around it,” Simon says.
If you’re working on an extension, the existing building should also be inspected for termites. This is the case even for steel and masonry houses, as they have virtually the same chances of termite attack as timber houses.
“A lot of builders will build a house with a concrete slab and metal framing and think they won’t have a problem with termites. Termites can get into steel-framed houses because as soon as you put in plasterboard or a chipboard kitchen, there is a potential available food source for them,” Simon explains.
Although local councils dictate which areas are ‘termiteinfested’, builders should research the area well and also be mindful of the possibility of building in some areas where there are known to be termites but they’re not declared by council.
Given this, it is advisable for builders to look at termite prevention in any project, whether it’s a small domestic build or a larger commercial one, regardless of its location – simply because council requirements could change over time.
“In early 2000 we did a survey for the CSIRO that looked at areas that were known to have termites by pest control companies in Melbourne. The data was collated and put forward to councils – some were receptive and some weren’t,” Simon explains.
“It’s frustrating and a worrying trend, although you can still decide to put termite protection measures in place, even if the council does not specify it.”
While the professionals are called in to deal with the issue itself, the client should be advised that they are responsible for post-construction management of termite risk.
“Every time a professional termite company does prevention work on a site, a certificate of installation is issued. The home owner then receives an annual termite inspection reminder letter, as the building should be checked yearly. This includes some guidance on maintenance for the home owner to prevent termite infestation,” Simon says.
Nick adds that it must be made clear to the owners what systems have been installed and what requirements are necessary to honour the warranty.
“Quite often people get a system installed and they forget about it until it’s too late. It’s important to have follow-up visits if a house has had termites to check on the effectiveness of treatments. It’s vitally important that any drainage issues are addressed because ongoing moisture issues or loose timbers and rubble around the place will attract termites.”
It’s also imperative for builders to conduct their due diligence – there are cowboy installers in every industry. If you call upon a professional termite inspection company, make sure they are qualified and licensed (preferably a member of a reputable industry association such as the AEPMA) and also have insurance.
“A good builder needs to conduct these checks as part of their due diligence – it will save you thousands in the future,” Simon warns.
“We’re seeing the termites adapting to our environment. They eat plasterboard, laminated timber, even craftwood. They keep you on your toes; we’re always learning and there is always something around the corner. Even though we’re treating it to the best of our ability and following building regulations, you can never say never with termites.”