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.

Maintaining Your HVAC System Because It’s Too Darn Hot

This summer has been truly a record-setter in the West for heat, drought and smoky wild fires. If you’re not all that bothered about the heat at home because you work in a cool office all day and then jump in the pool after 5 o’clock,count yourself lucky.  Also, don’t forget your home’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system also filters pollutants day and night to reduce the effects of allergies and other respiratory issues that affect quality sleep. Continue reading

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

Now You’re in Hot Water . . . Let’s Keep it That Way!

Water heaters are like many appliances, and they need to be maintained regularly to extend their life.  Minerals in our hard water, as well asnormal corrosion, can shorten the life of your water heater by years without annual maintenance. Otherwise, you might be in for a rude, cold surprise!

If it has been awhile since you purchased a new water heater, the prices have gone up quite a bit.  You can easily spend $500.00 to $1,000.00 for a simple, natural gas entry level small family water heater that serves up to four people.  

Labor is extra and typically adds up to another $1,000.00 or more.  In Southern California, earthquake strapping is necessary too.  With natural gas, the services of trained, licensed plumber are needed to ensure safety during installation and that the installation will meet local fire codes. Continue reading

Property Inspections—Keep Your Eye on the Ball

Can a tennis ball really give you home-buying insight? Normally, when people are looking for properties to purchase, they worry about the roof or the walls or the plumbing or the appliances or the heating/ac system, but not many realize that inspecting the foundation is critical to the building’s structural integrity.

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June Maintenance: Drainage Assessments

Hint: Water Always Flows Downhill …

Assessing drainage conditions around properties and how to improve them are both simple and at times complicated. Simple because everyone knows that water flows downhill; so you start out knowing generally what direction it is likely to go. Far more complicated, however, are designing commercial or residential property lot drainage systems based on technical analyses of how much water flow to expect, where it will go and what needs to be done to prevent damage. At Helfrich Associates, we are most often called in when drainage conditions have been long neglected and/or when there is real damage to property and structures. In Southern California with our abundant sunshine, it is tempting to put off addressing drainage problems until after our relatively short, but sometimes intense rainy season. Those fast-moving thunderstorms in August or that first gentle rain in the fall disappears and then nothing happens until January or February when the bulk of our seasonal rain arrives (sometimes in buckets). Continue reading

Double Trouble: Termites & Water

Dark staining means that the roof sheathing has been wet in the past from leaks. In this case, the insulation covers the evidence of the roof leak.

You may not think about it much, seeing as how it’s over your head most of the time, but the roof is an important part of every building.  The roof provides shelter from the sun, from hot and cold temperatures, and from water leaks.  A roof also provides large interior spaces for warehouses and other large buildings with walls and columns.  Roof structures also support important building safety systems such as interior lighting, utilities, fire-proofing assemblies, insulation, roof-mounted air-handling equipment, and fire-suppression systems.   

When things get tough it’s easy to start down the path of deferred maintenance (that’s putting off fixing that leaky roof until you “have more” money to fix it) but it’s important to make sure that your building’s roof is properly maintained – otherwise you could be looking at more costly repairs than if you’d fixed it sooner.

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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