Termites are a serious problem throughout the entire country, doing billions of dollars in damage each year. They can eat away enough wood throughout the house to cause structural hazards that can cost you thousands to remedy. But how do you know if you've got termites?
What Termites Look Like
There are several types of termites, but the primary one is the subterranean variety. These look like small white ants and live in colonies several feet underground. These colonies aren't necessarily in the area where you see them; they can be hundreds of feet away. One indication of termite infestation is the swarm, either on the ground or in the air. You may see this outside, or they may even swarm inside the house. This usually happens in the spring or summer, depending on the type of termite.
Mud Tubes and Moisture
Termites like moisture, and wet wood is an invitation for them. Once termites get to the surface, they build mud tubes about the diameter of a pencil. These tubes must be kept moist, so if you find dry tubes, they're probably abandoned. Termites are more prevalent in wet climates, needing moisture to maintain the tubes and their nest. Those abandoned tubes aren't necessarily a good sign, either. While it means termites aren't in that area anymore, they once were, and there is probably adjacent damage. And they're probably still around somewhere close by.
One key is to catch them early, as termites don't devour wood at a very high rate. A large swarm may not consume one board foot (1'x1'x1") of wood a year. However, they'll eat through just about anything to reach that wood and may have been there quite some time before you discover them. And their damage is not always obvious. A perfectly sound-looking board may have termite damage on its backside or in its unseen interior.
Where to Look for Termites
The sign of dry wood termites is small piles of sand-sized droppings. Check in the corners of rooms and inside cabinets. Outside, look along foundations, under bushes, or around downspouts for mud tubes.
If you suspect termite damage, you can probe the area with a screwdriver or ice pick. Poking and knocking on the wood can be a good indicator of damage. Listen for a hollow sound or feel to the wood. There are electronic devices the pros use, such as microwave detectors, infrared imaging, and fiber optic scopes. They now have termite-sniffing dogs too. The cost of these methods depends upon several factors, but can range from $250 for spot treatment up to $3000 for more specific prolonged underground treatments.
When In Doubt, Call a Pro
This has been a general overview of what can be a very involved problem. Termites can be a serious problem that can affect the structure of your home and the safety of your family. If you do not feel like you could properly handle the situation, then it's best to leave it to the experts.