The first step is to prevent pests from getting what they need to live and reproduce. Often this does not require pesticides; you can maintain a clean kitchen, vacuum frequently, eliminate water leaks, and seal possible entry points.
For persistent problems, homeowners often say they want “green” or “natural” pest control. And many companies claim to practice it or offer alternative treatments. But is it real? And it works?
Some effective non-chemical extermination approaches have been in use for years. Rodents can be effectively controlled by closing entry points from the outside and placing traps in strategic locations. Humane traps are available to move rodents, not kill them.
Small ant infestations can be controlled by caulking cracks and other access points and using soap and water to wash down the ant movement paths, erasing the smells they follow to food sources. .
The most effective bed bug remedies often don’t involve pesticides. Wash your clothes, sheets and blankets in very hot water; have your carpets and rugs cleaned by a professional; carefully and repeatedly vacuum up likely hiding places; and use isopropyl alcohol to wipe off furniture, walls, paintings and others personal effects that cannot be cleaned in a washing machine. (Isopropyl alcohol destroys bedbugs and their eggs.)
But beware and be skeptical of any pest control service or product that sells as “green”. Checkbook found that many companies that claim to provide natural solutions use the same pesticides and methods that are used in conventional treatments. We’ve even heard of companies claiming to be “eco-friendly” because they recycle office paper.
Even if a pest control method is labeled “natural” or “non-synthetic,” read the safety labels carefully; companies must provide them on request. To learn more about a pesticide, see the Environmental Protection Agency’s Pesticide Selector website at epa.gov/insect-repellents. You can also find information by searching the web for the name of a pesticide or chemical and the word “safety”. If you find a notice that an EPA review is underway – or researchers or citizen groups are asking for one – that’s a red flag.
“Natural” is an ambiguous term, and non-synthetic pesticides can still be harmful to your family and the environment. Some products derived from natural sources are not safer for humans, pets, fauna and beneficial insects than their synthetic counterparts. And some natural products need to be applied more liberally than synthetics to achieve similar results.
For example, many pest control companies consider boric acid a natural replacement insecticide. This is a rather dubious claim; exterminators have been using it for cockroach control since the 1940s. But boric acid has very low toxicity to humans and is safe if applied correctly. (Avoid inhaling it, use small amounts, and focus on areas where insects live and travel.)
Another commonly advertised alternative to natural pesticides is pyrethrum. It is the naturally derived form of pyrethrin, which, like boric acid, is fatal to insects, but has very low toxicity to humans and other mammals. Pyrethrum is extracted from the flowers of chrysanthemum; pyrethrin is created in a laboratory. While each product has the same effect on insects – and poses the same risks to beneficial insects – pyrethrin is generally more potent and lasts longer. So using the natural form of the pesticide often means applying it more often and more liberally.
Another option for controlling cockroaches is sticky traps, which will likely only put a small bump in a moderate or heavy infestation. Some companies will vacuum roach infested sites to capture many insects and eggs and reduce infestations to levels that can be managed with sticky traps.
Peppermint and rosemary oils, which repel or kill many types of insects, can also control infestations of roaches, ants, and other insects, but they should be applied often. They will kill the biting insects, but as an exterminator once told me, “It will kill them, but not as fast as other products – not fast enough if you are the killer.”
To exterminate wasps and hornets, instead of using pesticides, professionals can knock many types of nests down to the ground and crush them. Honeycombs can be moved. (Unless you own a bee costume, don’t try to DIY these jobs.)
Finally, some companies offer to wrap your house in a tent and pump hot air until the temperature reaches 120 degrees or more, destroying the insects and their eggs. This process is very expensive (thousands of dollars for an average-sized home) and disruptive (residents must remove anything that could be damaged by heat and live elsewhere for a few days). In addition, the amount of energy needed to heat the house at 120 degrees could theoretically disqualify this procedure from being “green”.
If you end up hiring a pest control service, shop around. There are significant differences in quality, and you don’t have to pay more for good service.
Checkbook found big business-to-business differences when it asked consumers in the area to rate the pest control services they had used. Some outfits were rated “superior” overall by 90% or more of their clients surveyed, but others received similarly favorable ratings from less than half of their clients surveyed.
Get multiple estimates. Underground price check buyers found a wide range of prices, and there was no connection between what companies were charging and customer satisfaction. Some companies charge $ 175 or less for a single treatment for cockroaches, while others charge $ 300 or more. Some have annual contracts that cost $ 400 or more, although for most pests a single treatment well done should suffice. Avoid getting and paying for apps you don’t need.
If you think you have termites or bedbugs, it is mostly important to get multiple proposals. Some companies recommend treatment when there is neither an active infestation nor a serious threat. For termites, ask them if they recommend treating only part of your house or its entire perimeter; you’ll save big if a company can eliminate your infestation without a home-wide treatment. To treat a small termite infestation, companies offered prices ranging from $ 600 to $ 2,000 to buyers under Checkbook’s blanket.
For any type of creature, get your warranty in writing and check what it offers: will the company pay for additional pest damage or just retreatment? How often will it be inspected at no additional cost? And what must you do to keep the warranty in effect?
Brasler is editor of Washington Consumers’ Checkbook and Checkbook.org.
Washington Consumers’ Checkbook Magazine and Checkbook.org is a non-profit organization whose mission is to help consumers get the best service and the lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and does not take any money from the service providers it rates. You can access all of Checkbook’s Pest Management Services Reviews for free through May 10 at Checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/Pest-Control.