By Sherri Hall
It’s no secret that termites are a nuisance, but is it possible for these pests to go unnoticed and can they cause actual structural damage to homes? What are some signs to look for in terms of possible termite damage or an infestation?
“Termites can cause significant structural damage to homes as they essentially bore out the interior of wood framing members,” said Steven Lang, AIA, NCARB, Architect and Executive Vice President of The Falcon Group’s Building Envelope Division. “Wood framing relies on its cross-sectional thickness to give it strength. When you reduce the thickness, you effectively reduce the amount of load that the wood framing member can carry. This effects both vertical framing members, like wall studs, as well as floor framing members like joists and beams.”
So, when termites bore tunnels through the wood, they are in turn, reducing the overall strength of those members, Lang noted. “They essentially hollow out the wood members.”
However, termites don’t always show signs of their presence on the outside of the framing members, which can make it difficult to know they are there and causing damage. Lang explained that termites typically conceal themselves well within the framing in order to hide from predators. “The damage can often be hard to assess because the termites bore into the core of the wood members, so you don’t always see evidence of their damage on the exterior surface of the wood,” he said. “And that’s kind of the issue you have — you don’t necessarily see it and you don’t know you have a problem until it’s too late.”
Lang said that it’s important to know how the community’s buildings are constructed since some types are more vulnerable to termite damage than others.
According to Lang, wood-framed homes are the most vulnerable to termites. He noted that typically, single family homes and townhomes as well as some low-rise and even mid-rise structures will use wood framing. Lang also said that engineered lumber can be affected by termites, but not as much due to the glue elements used which the termites don’t care for.
He noted that wood framing is being used quite a bit more now in low-rise and mid-rise structures. “There’s a lot of push from lumber associations to try to get approvals for fire ratings for their materials for use in those applications because of the high price of steel,” said Lang.
In addition, he noted that as building codes have been changing, they have been requiring foam insulation on the outside of buildings. This is done in order to provide continuous insulation to meet energy code requirements. “In a lot of cases, the termites can just bore through very easily and move up the building,” said Lang. “Those buildings can be susceptible to termite damage to a certain extent, especially if they do have wood framing in other areas.”
According to Lang, structural issues caused by termites can be remedied. “From a structural standpoint, you’re really looking at either reinforcing the damaged member or replacing it,” he said.
However, Lang pointed out that the process can be an invasive one, especially if those areas are finished. “So, if they have sheet rock over them, you’re looking at having to pull off the sheet rock,” he said.
Lang also explained that if the damaged area involves a kitchen or bathroom, it can become very expensive to have to remove cabinetry and finishes in order to get to the sheet rock.
However, he also noted that due to the redundancy in wood framing, the termite damage would need to be extensive before causing any major structural issues.
Therefore, structural remediation may not always be necessary. “You need to have a professional look and see if the members are damaged to the extent that they need to be replaced or reinforced. It is rather easy to do from a structural perspective, but it’s more of a problem in terms of costs and having to replace interior finishes,” said Lang.
Although termites are hard to detect because they conceal themselves within the wood and there is often no surface damage, Lang noted that there are some signs to look for. “Signs that you may have a termite infestation typically include finding the termites themselves. They’ll almost look like winged ants, but there are differences in their body types. Termites have equal sized wings and a broader waist whereas ants have unequal wings, a pinched waist and an angular antenna,” he said.
Lang suggests that rather than trying to determine whether any insects found are winged ants or termites, it’s best to call a pest control company to make that determination and added that either way, both ants and termites can cause damage to homes. He noted that the pest control company will be able to treat the building as well as the surrounding soils.
In addition to spotting the termites themselves, Lang noted that it is possible to also notice small tubes forming in the wood as well as wood material that looks like mud left behind in areas where the wood framing is exposed such as basements, crawl spaces or attics. Finding these can also indicate termites and again, Lang recommends contacting a pest control company to come out an assess the situation.
“It can be hard to see evidence of termites in rooms that are finished, so they may not be noticed until someone is doing a renovation project and the wood framing is exposed,” he added.
These are things that may be detectable early on, but Lang noted that some later stage signs of termites could be cracks in the interior finishes or sagging floors in certain areas indicating there’s a structural concern. “That would be later down the road if they’re getting to a point that they’re compromising the framing members themselves,” he explained.
According to Lang, termites can spread between units in multifamily communities such as townhomes and condominiums because they share framing. Although it’s less likely for termites to spread from one home to another in single family community, if termites are found at one home, Lang said it means termites are already in the general vicinity which could indicate that the area itself is prone to termites. Therefore, he suggests being proactive and engaging a pest control company to come out and treat the soils around the buildings to eliminate the likelihood that the termites are going to infest other structures.
In addition to proactive treatment of the soils around the buildings, Lang noted that other best practices for an association with regard to preventing and detecting termites include keeping mulch beds low and ensuring plants are cut back from buildings. “They just create pathways for ants, termites and other pests to get into the building and you want to eliminate those pathways as much as possible,” he said. “These are examples of preventative maintenance that can be done to reduce the chances of termites and other infestations.”
Lang noted that if unit owners are concerned about a potential termite infestation, they should talk to the property manager and have a pest control company come out and perform an inspection. “It’s better to be safe than sorry,” he said. “Get a pest control company to come out and take a look at it.”
Lang noted that the pest control company will also be able to detect any damage caused and assess how extensive that damage is in terms of a structural issue. If a structural problem is discovered, he said the next step would be to contact an engineering professional who would work in tandem with the pest control company.
Although it’s not practical to walk around the community looking to see if there is a termite issue, Lang noted that there are some other steps property managers can take to be proactive. For example, he said that it’s important for property managers to be aware of any patterns regarding building damage, especially if the damage was insect-related, as that can help in the future. Lang also said that property managers should ensure that the landscaping contractors are not continuously throwing new mulch on top of old much. “Every few years, you have to pull the old mulch out,” he noted. “You reduce the protection of your building from termites as you increase the grade height against the building. Make sure the landscaping is trimmed back and that the mulch isn’t getting too high or too close to the wood framing.”