Preventing Termite Trouble

When was the last time that you had a termite inspection done on your Victorian, craftsman, Spanish revival or modern home?  If you’re like many of us, that might have been a day or two before you moved into your newest home—even if it has been decades.  Unfortunately in Southern California, it is generally termite season 365-days a year and none of the various treatments available last forever although some are more effective than others.So you need to watch out for signs of new termite infestations.  At Helfrich Associates, we’re licensed engineers specializing in structural issues and we routinely encounter termite infestations and damage.  We see them or sadly the damage they’ve already caused most often when we are a part of large renovation projects involving classic homes, such as aging Victorians with their intricate decorative trims or craftsmen with their rustic natural style.

About Termites

With modern structures from the 1950s on, stucco is generally the exterior material of choice in Southern California.  You’ll find, however, that these so-called “stick houses” are wood-framed structures with wood throughout the attic.  Anywhere there is a void in the stucco or brick trim or siding, or torn vent screens, that’s an entry point for ravenous termites.  They are relentless once they find a home and continue to breed, eat and destroy structures from the inside-out.

Now for the latest bad news about termites; this is cringe-worthy so you might want to skip a sentence or two.  They are now considered by some scientists as relatives of the dreaded disease-carrying common cockroach.  That fact alone should make you want to call your pest control service and ask them to inspect for termites.

According to Wikipedia, “Like ants and some bees and wasps . . . termites divide as “workers” and “soldiers” that are usually sterile. All colonies have fertile males called ‘kings’ and one or more fertile females called ‘queens’. Termites mostly feed on dead plant material and cellulose, generally in the form of wood, leaf litter, soil, or animal dung. Termites are major detritivores, particularly in the subtropical and tropical regions, and their recycling of wood and plant matter is of considerable ecological importance.”

We wish to expand on that post and say, “Unless you’re a homeowner in Southern California, who owns a stick-house, has an attic, or a garage, with open wood framing, etc.  If only termites would limit themselves to outside leaves, dead trees and wood piles, but they are not all that picky about what kind of wood they eat and your nice warm home is the perfect dining room for them six to nine months of the year.

More bad news from the scientists: “Termites are among the most successful groups of insects on Earth, colonizing most landmasses except Antarctica. Their colonies range in size from a few hundred individuals to enormous societies with several million individuals. Termite queens have the longest known lifespan of any insect, with some queens reportedly living up to 30 to 50 years.”

Prevent, Search & Destroy

To balance that perspective, many kinds of birds and various mammals eat termites including some humans who consider them a delicacy. (Yuck!)  We don’t, however, recommend that you turn your attic into a kind of Noah’s ark or zoo to get rid of termites.  When we find termites during construction or restoration projects, there is no choice other than to call in a pest control specialist to rid your home of these voracious pests.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is interested in controlling termites to keep people safe while minimizing environmental damage as well.  In fact, the EPA offers a free handbook, which is available by clicking on this link, ”EPA Citizen’s Guide to Pest Control Safety.”  You’ll find this guide is full of steps that you can take on your own as a homeowner as well as helpful information on when it is time to use a professional pest control service.

We wish to expand on that post and say, “Unless you’re a homeowner in Southern California, who owns a stick-house, has an attic, or a garage, with open wood framing, etc.  If only termites would limit themselves to outside leaves, dead trees and wood piles, but they are not all that picky about what kind of wood they eat and your nice warm home is the perfect dining room for them six to nine months of the year.

The EPA recommends that you can help prevent termite infestations by following these steps:

  • After construction, keep the soil around the foundation dry through proper grading and drainage (including maintenance of gutters and downspouts).
  • Reduce openings that offer termites access to the structure (filling cracks in cement foundations as well as around where utilities pass through the wall with cement, grout, or caulk).
  • Fix leaks immediately.
  • Keep vents free from blockage, including plants.
  • Ensure that trees and shrubs are not planted too close to the structure and do not allow them to grow against exposed wood surfaces.
  • Do not pile or store firewood or wood debris next to the house.
  • Inspect periodically to help ensure that termite colonies do not become established.

You’ll recognize several of these preventative measures as steps that we’ve discussed in our blog series on routine home maintenance tasks.  

If Disaster Strikes

As we’ve said before, we recommend that our clients establish a routine pest maintenance schedule with a licensed, professional company.  These companies and their certified technicians have access to national, state and locally approved products for application in the proper strengths to be effective, yet safe.  For example, they know how long you might need to leave home when certain products are in use or if it is safe for you to remain home.  They are also familiar with pest behavior such as where they are likely to reside inside and outside of your home and more.

Should you find major damage, we at Helfrich Associates are here to help you remediate, reconstruct and recover.  We’ll be happy to come out early in the process and evaluate the situation from a structural engineering standpoint  We’ll provide a report detailing the damage and the remediation steps, including any reconstruction necessary.  

We’ll work with your contractor of choice and help with plans and permits if necessary.  We also pre-inspect to make sure all construction work is done to code so you’ll pass any required municipal inspections. You’ll be good as new or better once the job is done.

Dream Home: Pool Nightmare

The owners of a beautiful contemporary 7,000-square foot dream home with a forever view in Murrieta near the Temecula wine country of Southern California awoke to a disturbing pool disaster a few years ago. Shortly after construction, their new pool, surrounded by a resort-like patio deck suddenly started to slip tragically down the slope below.

The movement of the patio/pool structure with large, visible cracks left no doubt about the unstable nature of the lot and hillside below. With the region’s often weak, compressible soils, and a proclivity for earthquakes, hillside homes in Southern California are often unstable and subject to more than a little shaking. Continue reading

Building Permits and Professional Relationships

Most of the projects that we are involved in require permits from the local Building Departments.  Although many cities have their own building departments, some cities rely on the County to review and process permits.  Other cities contract out the plan review process to specialty engineering and construction consulting firms.  Having a professional engineering submit your plans for approval is often helpful.

No matter who is in charge, having a professional engineering firm present your permit request and when necessary answering questions about your building plans can be extremely helpful.  More often than not, the person who will review and approve your building plan is also a professional engineer.  Based on our experience, we know what questions to expect and how to answer them for first-time right success in securing your building permit.  We won’t let you attempt to build something that we know will be problematic from the start and delay your project. Continue reading

Maintenance Series: Keep Your Cool All Summer

Now is a great time to perform the semi-annual maintenance of your HVAC system to make sure that your system is ready for the upcoming summer months.  I recommend that you obtain a contract with an HVAC specialist for this maintenance, which is generally done in March/April (to prepare for the summer months) and then again inAugust/September (to prepare for the winter months).  Take care of your HVAC and it will take care of you when you need it most. Continue reading

COVID in Retrospect: Positive Changes Come To Construction Industry

The past year has been a remarkably interesting one for sure. In March 2020, when we were informed of the COVID quarantine, our initial question was, “How is the construction industry supposed to deal with this situation?” We soon found out, to our great relief, that construction was considered an essential service, and that the operation of our business would not be affected. Unless, of course, our clients decided to stop their projects.

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2021 Property Maintenance Checklist:

The Top Ten Annual Must-Do Items

If your home, your wallet and peace-of-mind are important priorities, then the beginning of each year comes with a new opportunity that’s too good to pass up.  You can save yourself all kinds of unpleasant surprises, unexpected bills and headaches by committing to the annual scheduling of the top twelve most important home inspections and maintenance tasks.

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Working Under Cover, On the Sly, Going Rogue . .

Are there problems when you do construction work before you get a permit?  The answer is always, “Yes!”  Sooner or later it will catch up with you.  Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

In December 2017, we were asked to help a property owner get a grading permit from the County of San Bernardino for a partially graded hillside property.  This scenic property had a great mountain view. Because the property was located within an earthquake fault zone, we performed a fault study and determined that the site could not be developed with a residential structure. Continue reading

How Far Would You Go To Feel Secure?

How far would you go to feel secure in your home? In one of our latest projects, we’re working for a client who is going to build his dream home on a gorgeous view lot. The lot overlooks homes that have settlement problems. In fact, he owns one of the homes that is suffering from settlement.

Knowing the history of the soil around his view lot, he is concerned that he could run into the same settlement problems with this lot. The question now is, how far will he go to feel secure? He wants the foundation for his new home to be strong enough so that it will never settle.

For example, the concrete contractor’s bid is for a 5 inch foundation. The contractor said that in his experience, 5 inch foundations are strong enough to address this situation. The client asked if a 6 inch foundation would be better. The contractor said 5 inches was enough. The client said let’s make it 6 inches to be safe.

If you are in this situation what would you do? Do you have limitless amounts of money? Have you researched your contractors and trust their qualifications?

Feeling secure about your property is paramount. So, do your research and find contractors you trust. They are the experts and will be able to help you find the best solution.