Most pest management professionals see enough in crawlspaces to give them the creeps. Billy Tesh sees opportunity.
The president of Pest Management Systems Inc. (PMi) in Greensboro, N.C., began renovating crawlspaces in 2002. It’s become a lucrative add-on service, generating $2.7 million in its first four years alone.
Tesh said customers who live in the Southern United States “consistently have moisture issues” with conventional, ventilated crawlspaces.
You’ve seen the mess: wet and sagging insulation, rusting ductwork and electrical connections, rotting wood, mold, fungi and mildew. These factors contribute to pest infestations, buckling hardwood floors, high energy bills, humid and musty air inside the home, even structural damage.
The problems are “easily solved by changing that environment in the crawlspace,” assured Tesh, whose company installs closed crawlspace systems.
With 76 million homes built on crawlspace foundations and 18 percent of new homes using them, PMPs have lots of opportunity to improve customers’ living conditions, Tesh explained at PCT’s “Profit Boosters: Add-On Service Growth Opportunities” virtual conference in May.
If you operate in an area with crawlspace homes, “you should give serious consideration” to adding this service, he said.
What Is It? A closed crawlspace is a sealed, clean, moisture-free environment similar to that inside the house.
To achieve this, crawlspace wall vents are closed and sealed, interior walls covered with termite-resistant insulation board, and piers and floor lined with heavy, fiber-reinforced plastic sheeting. (Transparent plastic and gaps between insulation board and wood framing allow for future termite inspections.)
A drying mechanism (commercial grade dehumidifier, supply air inducers or fan system that injects house air) keeps moisture levels low. A thermo-hygrometer with send/receive unit informs the homeowner of crawlspace humidity levels and lets her know the system is performing.
Closing the crawl may require clearing the space of clutter and damaged insulation, sealing wall and floor penetrations with expanding foam or adhesive, fixing drainage issues or leaky plumbing, evaluating HVAC systems, installing new insulation and providing termite protection.
Tesh also performs an odor-disinfectant treatment “because there’s a lot of nasty stuff” in crawlspaces, and provides mold remediation, which he initially subcontracted but found it lets technicians “take the job from start to finish.”
Closed crawlspaces for new construction are based on the same principles, but installation phases are tied to building schedules.
Sound Science. The science behind closed crawlspaces is hard to dispute. Early on, Tesh worked with Raleigh-based Advanced Energy to conduct field tests for the U.S. Department of Energy.
The study found new-homeowners could save 18 percent on heating and cooling costs annually with a closed crawlspace. Owners of older homes experienced savings of up to 50 percent depending on the condition of the existing crawlspace and insulation, said Tesh.
Why are wall-vented crawlspaces no longer performing as designed? Air conditioning: Homeowners rely on it more and at lower temperatures.
While the air of a wall-vented crawlspace is similar in temperature, the moist air that enters through the vents contains a lot of humidity, which raises the dew point within the crawlspace. This causes water to condensate on cooler surfaces, such as the ductwork, water pipes, framing, overhead floor system and insulation. It’s just like when a glass of iced tea is brought outdoors on a warm day. On humid, August days, moisture can be excessive — Tesh described “raining” crawlspaces — and cause rot, mold and indoor air quality problems.
Some people wrongly think more ventilation, like installing vent fans, will solve the problem but this actually makes it worse. “The only way to resolve this is to close the crawlspace,” said Tesh, who has a general contractor’s license and is president elect of the National Pest Management Association.
A Picture is Worth... Healthier homes and energy savings are an easy sell. In many cases the crawlspace sells itself, said Tesh. Just show the homeowner photos of what they’re sitting on. “They get a much better understanding when they see the bad conditions with their own eyes.”
Explain the science behind your recommendations by providing humidity, temperature and dew point readings from the crawlspace, as well as a detailed map of the space and inspection form.
With valid customers, “our rate of closure is about 60 to 70 percent,” said Tesh. Jobs generally run $3,000 to $4,000, and homeowners see a seven-year return on investment.
Tesh’s closing rate with home builders and remodelers is almost 95 percent. Once they start using your system, they call you up to let you know when the next foundation is ready, he explained. Prices are locked in advance for future installations. “You don’t have to resell that. That’s the beauty of new construction.”
The green building industry is particularly interested and homes built to LEED, NAHB Green and SystemVision specs increasing require closed crawlspace systems.
As the economy picks us, “we see a lot more opportunity to make these systems available to people,” Tesh added.
A Good Add-on. Closed crawlspaces are a good fit for pest management. PMPs already inspect crawlspaces and understand the impact of moisture problems, how to seal cracks and crevices, and use high-tech equipment.
Jobs can be scheduled during slow seasons. Tesh sees the biggest impact from sales in mid-summer, following termite season in early- to mid-spring. Work is scheduled to keep technicians busy year round.
Annual inspections and maintenance of closed crawlspaces provide renewal revenue and can be performed with termite inspections.
Additional liability insurance, certification or equipment is not required. Mold remediation is the exception.
Cross Selling. Cross selling the service helps “increase the revenue stream,” Tesh said. Providing termite pre-treatments? Target existing home builder clients, who prefer “one-stop shopping” for termite protection, mold prevention and closed crawlspace systems, said Tesh.
He sponsors industry meetings to educate the home building trades, green builders and home inspectors.
Technicians often can pick up pest control service while performing annual termite and closed crawl inspections at these new homes. Likewise, they evaluate existing termite and pest customers’ crawlspaces for problems.
Tesh said TV commercials are great at showing the transition from damp, nasty crawlspace to clean, closed environment. Yard signs and truck graphics are effective, as are cut-away displays at trade shows. “Visual is big for us,” he said.
He differentiates his service with comprehensive check lists that provide “a chain of custody from the very beginning to the very end” of the job, and by providing a full complement of science-based information to builders and homeowners.
Learn more about closed crawlspace systems at www.crawlspacedepot.com and www.crawlspaces.org.
The author is a frequent contributor to PCT magazine. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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