- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2007

An apartment dweller can clean up after every meal, vacuum religiously and spackle every conceivable crack in the floorboards.

He or she still may see bugs crawling around the home, and it isn’t just those tenacious cockroaches that are to blame. Condominium and apartment residents are at the mercy of their neighbors when it comes to fighting cockroaches, ants or the newest scourge in the entomological world, bedbugs.

Jay Nixon, president of Takoma Park-based American Pest Management, says such residences too often have “focus units” where bugs go, thrive and then spread out to other parts of the building.

“There can be focus units in any building; forget the economic status of that building,” Mr. Nixon says.

Mr. Nixon can tell one exists in a building when his company gets repeated requests to treat clean, neat units.

Typically, an exterminator can only enter a unit into which he or she is invited, so sometimes a focus unit will be left untreated for far too long. Homeowners and tenants may have to grapple with their condominium or apartment building’s management firm to get to the bottom of a focus-unit issue.

Beyond that, Mr. Nixon says the question is, “Can you seal yourself off from your neighbor?”

To do that, a condo owner will have to inspect the unit’s gas lines, water pipes and electrical outlets.

If that doesn’t help, “it could be a structural fault in the building,” he says. “[Bugs] can fit through a very narrow opening.”

Frank Meek, a board-certified entomologist and technical director with Orkin, agrees that homeowners may only be able to minimize the impact of a focus unit.

That effort doesn’t have to involve traditional bug-battling techniques.

“It can be done without chemicals or [with] noninvasive chemicals. [Exterminators] can use very good baits and traps,” Mr. Meek says.

Exterminators also can place highly repellent, all-natural mineral products within a unit’s walls to provide a barrier to bugs coming in from the exterior, he says.

Some steps in the battle against bugs don’t involve big price tags. Mr. Meek says a simple device that costs less than a dollar can make a difference.

Too many apartment units have bathroom pipes without an escutcheon plate, the little silver ring that encircles a pipe as it enters the wall, Mr. Meek says.

“Make sure it’s flush and caulked to the wall,” Mr. Meek says.

Another easy fix involves the drip condensation pan under a refrigerator. Bugs love moisture, and keeping this plate dry is a start, but bugs still may head for the condensation beads from pipes beneath the refrigerator, he says.

Cindy Mannes, vice president of Public Affairs with the Fairfax-based National Pest Management Association, says ants remain the No. 1 pest invading this country’s homes. Termites and cockroaches come next, but in recent years, bedbugs have come on strong.

Bedbugs can be found in greater number in the District but also all across the country, Mrs. Mannes says.

“People believe it’s still a nursery rhyme,” Mrs. Mannes says of the generically named critters.

She says exterminators once would receive one or two calls a year regarding bedbug problems. Now, the average exterminator fields one or two calls a week.

Even entomologists don’t know why, Mrs. Mannes says. Some suspect frequent international air travel is to blame. People go overseas and bring bedbugs back with them without knowing it.

“Bedbugs are great hitchhikers,” she says.

These bugs frequent all manner of homes and hotels; even high-end hotels can have them.

Those who own stand-alone houses have a different set of procedures to follow.

Ken Martin, a sales manager with Atlanta-based Do-It-Yourself Pest Control (www.doyourownpestcontrol.com), says fighting bugs in the home means looking outside the home in question.

“[Homeowners] focus far too much on spraying the interior of the home,” Mr. Martin says, even though the bugs enter from the outdoors and aren’t brought in like some bedbugs.

An exterminator can spray a home’s perimeter as the first line of defense, but homeowners have plenty of options they can consider, as well.

Mr. Martin says they should keep the shrubs off the house and install a thin gravel or stone strip around the foundation before putting down any mulch.

“It allows a small, insect-free zone around the foundation,” he says.

Sometimes a homeowner does all the right things and the bugs still come crawling.

“Bugs will even find their way into clean homes sometimes,” Mr. Martin says. “People are very surprised they have an insect problem.”

Sometimes the shelter of a home and the availability of water is enough to invite bugs inside. An opportunistic bug will eat any food around the house once it’s inside.

Homeowners can be equally savvy. Mr. Martin recommends bug-bait kits that not only kill bugs but feature poison that can be spread to their fellow creatures.

“With a poison bait, you can wipe out an ant colony,” he says.

Some merchants sell a variety of plug-in devices that emit an ultrasonic wave meant to keep bugs at bay.

Mr. Martin isn’t sold on the products.

He has tested 15 types of plug-in repellents, which run from $6 to $600, and hasn’t found one that works as advertised.

Mrs. Mannes offers a few simple steps to make one’s home as unattractive as possible to bugs.

“The kitchen is a prime target area for bugs, so clean up any crumbs or food items,” Mrs. Mannes says, adding that homeowners should cover their garbage cans and keep them sealed.

In the winter, keep stacked firewood away from the house to keep hungry termites from moving from dead wood to the foundation.

For more information, visit the nonprofit National Pest Management Association’s Web site (www.pestworld.org/consumer/preventiontips.asp).

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