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Getting rid of household pests

There's nothing like the pitter-patter of little paws to strike fear into the hearts of homeowners. Raccoons, mice, bats, rats, cockroaches, ants and pests of all sorts turn a house into a battle zone, costing owners anywhere from 99 cents to thousands of dollars to expel such unwelcome guests.

"A home is a person's most valuable asset," says Larry Cross, president of Canadian Pest Management Association and owner of Pest Control Services Gulf Islands on Salt Spring Island, B.C. Pest control "is not a cost, it's an investment."

Thankfully, pest control involves many inexpensive do-it-yourself options, from a 99-cent mouse trap to a homemade wasp baiter. The key is to know what you're dealing with and how to target the remedy.

Know your enemy
It's essential to identify the pest at hand -- otherwise you'll exacerbate the problem or use unnecessary pesticides.

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Many pest professionals or garden centre staff identify pests for free (you'll have to bring a sample to them). A simple option is posting a photograph on the Pest Control Canada website, where entomologists volunteer their services.

DIY pest control
When choosing a pest control product for bugs, get one that kills gradually rather than instantly. For example, while insecticide spray (which starts at about $5.99 a bottle) kills live ants, it has no effect on those back at the colony. A $3.99 bait, however, ensures ants take the poison back to the nest.

The slow-and-steady advice doesn't bode well for mice -- after all, who wants to play hide and seek with dead rodents? Old-fashioned traps cost less than a dollar, but fancier, and less messy, versions can cost as much as $50. The humane opt for the trap-and-release method (small traps start at $4.99), but keep in mind that mice will travel several kilometres to return home -- namely your kitchen -- and can carry disease.

A low-frequency electromagnetic or ultrasonic transmitter is an effortless way to keep mice and some bats and insects at bay. For between $20 and $100, these products claim to repel pests for up to 5,000 square feet. But ultrasonic sounds can't travel around walls, so it may be necessary to buy several. Outdoors, electronic bug killers range from $50 to more than $500 depending on the coverage area.

For furry pests, solar-powered repellents for the garden start at $30, but if these animals infiltrate the house, watch out. Racoons are vicious creatures that carry rabies, will rip apart a roof, and attack the family pet. Ammonia, mothballs, loud music and light are known to encourage racoons to move on, but the best way to ensure they stay out is to install a chimney cap.

Crafty solutions
There are countless homespun remedies that combat pests and require little investment. Borax (about $6 a bottle) solutions are popular, while baking soda, cinnamon, baby powder and even Vaseline can keep bugs from crossing a threshold.

The Pest Control Canada site offers a range of tips. For example, it has instructions on using wasp spray but also suggests eliminating nests with a simple soap-and-water solution.

Pesticides should always be used with discretion, says Cross: "I can't emphasize enough -- read the label." If your pest isn't listed, it likely won't work.

Who ya gonna call?
Ordinary ant traps, for example, have no influence on nasty carpenter ants. In most cases, unless you're willing to don coveralls, a respirator and rubber gloves to search every inch of your home for the nest, call a professional.

In addition, Dustyn McDonald, of AAA Professional Wildlife Control in Toronto, doesn't recommend dallying with loud music if raccoon or squirrel has invaded. "You want them out as soon as possible because they can do a lot of damage," he says.

When looking for a professional, forget about fumigation -- these days it's all about integrated pest management. Whenever possible, professionals use baits rather than chemicals, and service is as much about consultation and advice on living pest-free than getting rid of an immediate problem.

"Anybody who isn't following these principles shouldn't be in the business," says Cross.

Membership to the Canadian Pest Management Association or similar group indicates a company abides by standards and employees attend training classes. Look up member companies on association websites, but also ask for recommendations from neighbours and friends.

Expect a pretreatment inspection and ask questions about options, risks to children or animals, how long the process will take, and the guarantee.

Pesky costs
When you call an electrician, you expect to pay a minimum service charge -- the same goes for pest control professionals. An initial visit can cost about $60 an hour.

From there, fees reflect the extent of the problem. Three visits to lay and empty mice traps can total about $150. Dealing with carpenter ants is labour intensive and can cost $300 to $1,200, while destroying wasp nests ranges from about $65 to $125.

McDonald charges $180 to trap a raccoon, but if there's a roof hole to fix, add $40, plus an additional $20 for each vent cover.

Although you may be anxious to get the job done, shop around as quickly as you can, and ask for a complete estimate. Often professionals will be upfront if they think you can take care of the problem yourself.

An ounce of prevention
"A vacuum cleaner is one of the greatest bug tools there is," says Cross, stressing that pest control must include environmental changes. Try these quick fixes:

  • Cut away large tree branches to block roof access.
  • Repair any holes greater than ¼ inch in diameter.
  • Install vent screens in chimneys.
  • Discourage termites by removing all wood pathways between the soil and the house.
  • Eliminate wet or damp areas.
  • Store firewood away from the house and off the ground.
  • Install screens and weather stripping on all doors and windows.
  • Invest in tight sealing garbage cans.
  • Move bird feeders, which attract mice and rats, away from the house.
  • Regularly dust diatomaceous earth (about $8.99 a kilogram) around the house perimeter.

Prevention is smart, but if that fails, there are pest control options to suit environmentalists, animal lovers and those overrun with uninvited guests. Whatever your method of choice, a pest-free home is always a sound investment.

Michelle Warren is a writer in Toronto.

-- Posted: Aug. 26, 2005
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