Home Sense

Checking into Professional Pest Control

By Mike McClintock
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, June 23, 2005; 1:05 PM

As summer heats up, bugs of every description come out of the woodwork - or eat into it. To halt the invasion you could try home remedies such as spreading boric acid for roaches or setting traps for mice. But many people turn to professionals, with mixed results. To start with, don't be looking through the phone book for an exterminator. That highly descriptive term has gone the way of garbage man (sanitation engineer) and mattress salesman (trained bedding consultant). Now it's pest control operator, or PCO. You'll want to consider basic consumer issues of payments and guarantees when you deal with them, and check with local consumer agencies and the Better Business Bureau. Because health issues are involved, also use the sources below to gather more information about the people, pests and pesticides in question.

Professional services

On the positive side, professional pest control is a $6.5 billion dollar business with revenues growing at almost six percent annually, according to the Fairfax-based National Pest Management Association. That growth is explained by research conducted by the association. It found that 24 percent of consumers believe the risks associated with pest infestations have increased, and that 72 percent believe professional services are more effective than DIY products. But a study of area firms by Consumers' Checkbook (checkbook.org) found a wide range of service satisfaction and an even wider range of prices.

Ratings: Some 15 area firms were rated superior for overall performance by more than 80 percent of surveyed customers, but 17 others were rated that way by fewer than 40 percent. * Prices. For a single visit, some firms charged $125 or less, while others charged $250 or more. For providing the paperwork required with termite inspections in real estate transactions, charges ranged from $15 to $175.

Approaches: Checkbook found that different firms have very different strategies for treating pest problems. For instance, some use poisonous bait, which confines the exposure of toxins, while other favor sprays.

Services: Some pest control firms provide one-time treatments for specific problems. Others push service contracts and repeated visits- and won't do business any other way. The obvious drawback: you could pay a monthly fee even if initial treatments take care of the problem.

Staff: You want a certified pest control operator to do the job. All firms should have at least one- someone who has passed a state test to qualify as a certified pest control applicator. But some firms price the job with their most qualified candidate and then send employees who are not certified to do the work.

Guarantees: Checkbook reports that firms offer guarantees ranging in duration from 30 days to six months. For termite control, most offer a one-year guarantee with extended coverage for an extra fee- generally one year at a time with an annual inspection included. Re-treatment is generally covered, but only some guarantees also cover the repair of property damaged by further infestations. Checkbook doesn't take a position on extended warranties- a thorny issue that arises with many consumer products and services. It's standard with title insurance (against a faulty search of real estate ownership), and has become a common sales pitch to enhance the coverage on new cars. On one hand, it's nice to have the protection- just in case there is another infestation. On the other hand, when a pest control firm sets the price to deal with a problem, why should you need to pay extra? I'd rather pay for products and services that do what they are supposed to do- without an extra charge as a hedge against failure. Taken another way, when a company pushes or even insists on a contract that protects against bad work, I figure I've got the wrong company.

Information Sources

These sources will help you check on pest control companies, and provide information about pesticides and other treatments. Some help in very practical ways- like where to set traps after discovering that mice live close to their food supply and often spend their entire lives within a 20-foot radius.

Maryland Cooperative ExtensionHome and Garden Information Center; hgic.umd.edu

Virginia Cooperative Extension; ext.vt.edu

Virginia Department of Agriculture Pesticide Regulation Service; vdacs.state.va.us/pesticides

California's Integrated Pest Management Program; ipm.ucdavis.edu.

National Pest Management Association; pestworld.org 

Consumers' Checkbook; checkbook.org

Council of Better Business Bureaus; bbb.org

Finally, my main reference- the best book by far that I've found on pest control- is Common-Sense Pest Control by William Olkowski (Taunton Press; 1991; 715 pages). It's clear, detailed, well illustrated and adopts a least-toxic approach within a sensible and practical system of integrated pest management. Try the library as the, back then, $40 book seems to have been replaced on the Taunton list by a much shorter paperback related only to pest control in gardens.

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