[Mold Treatments] Is There Gold in Mold

Pest management professionals hold divergent thoughts on opportunities and risks to these add-on services.

Add-on "mold" service is not a new concept to pest management professionals. For years, the debate has raged whether the prevention and remediation of mold and decay fungi make good fiscal and regulatory sense for the industry. Faced with flooding, aging housing stock and minimal termite swarms, pest management professionals once again are taking a close look at this controversial topic. Should you place your fortune in fungi, or is it a business disaster in the making?

Mold is a member of the fungi family and grows on a substrate’s surface. Its cousin, decay fungi, attacks the interior of wood, causing rot. Mold and fungi, like all wood-destroying organisms, require moisture to thrive. When a substrate’s moisture content exceeds 20 percent, conditions are ripe for fungal growth.

Fungal decay is "public enemy No.1," says Mycologist Dr. Jeff Lloyd, vice president of research and development, Nisus Corporation, Rockford, Tenn. According to the 1992 NPCA Field Guide to Structural Pests, wood decay fungi cause as much if not more damage to structures each year than do termites. (Editor’s note: This guide was revised in 1996.) As the U.S. housing stock ages, wood rot from decay fungi will become a more prevalent problem, Lloyd says.

"Mold is no more a bad actor than any of the pests we deal with," adds Lloyd. Just like other pests, its presence can pose potential health consequences.

PREEMPTIVE ACTION. In the humid Southeast, "[Mold] is an issue that’s not going to go away," says Ralph Morse, general manager, National Exterminating, Newport News, Va. That’s not such a bad thing. In the first 10 months of 2006, the company saw revenue increase $150,000 directly from its "moisture control" service.

Pest Management Systems President Billy Tesh, Greensboro, N.C., has seen his mold prevention service grow from nothing to eight percent of gross revenue in one year. Termite work is declining, Tesh explains. "We have to diversify our portfolio."

Both firms work closely with builders and existing homeowners to pretreat structures with EPA-registered borate wood preservatives, which diffuse into wood over time, and fungicides to kill and prevent mold and fungi.

The preventive service can be combined with termite pretreatment, and some products allow same-tank mixing. Critical, leak-prone areas near showers, sinks and other plumbing are major targets.

Homeowners are willing to pay for the added margin of protection, Morse explains. "[The service] pays for itself."

The liquid wood pretreats are a source of ongoing income even in traditionally down periods, says Morse, who offers a bundled, annual termite and moisture control service. Customer retention has improved with "no capital investment."

"Pest industry professionals are already in the right spots in new homes and existing homes" to perform this add-on service, says Sostram CEO Tim Zech. Pretreating wood against mold and fungi growth is "gravy on the potatoes."

Tesh and Morse also install closed crawlspace systems, which employ moisture barrier, dehumidification and sealing systems to reduce crawls’ high relative humidity. This eliminates conditions suitable for fungi growth and pest activity, which in turn reduce wood damage and improve air quality. Crawls may be treated with fungicide to prevent fungal growth on wood that gets wet from occasional sweating of HVAC and plumbing lines.

"Controlling moisture with dehumidification in the crawlspace minimizes pest survival, mold and bacteria growth," says Therma-Stor Sales and Marketing Manager Monica Elchlepp, Madison, Wis. And, the air quality in regard to fungal spore levels will become better inside the home, adds Dan Fitzgerald, marketing director, Basement Systems, Seymour, Conn. The "stack effect" dictates "whatever [air] is below the house is in the house."

The add-on services are a perfect business fit, says Morse. "Moisture conditions are a really big part of pest control."

REMEDIATING PROBLEMS. Remediation requires a "systematic, scientific" approach for killing and physically removing mold, explains Expediant Environmental Solutions President Rich Wasvary, Hyde Park, N.Y. It can involve sampling, laboratory testing and, depending on your state, special licensing.

Five years ago, he stumbled into mold remediation by doing a small favor for a real estate agent friend. Since then, mold inspection and remediation account for more than 70 percent of his revenue. "Pest control is now my add-on," says Wasvary, who has inspected more than 300 homes and serviced 100 of them.

"You need to know what you’re doing, as in any field," cautions Wasvary. Knowing your "pest" in this case may be one of the thousands of microscopic allergenic, pathogenic, carcinogenic or toxic mold species. Not all experts agree, however, that exact species identification is necessary as all can be potentially harmful.

"I see on a daily basis how confused the operators are on [remediation] issues," says Kevin Sodhi, director of research & development, Caltex International, Syracuse, N.Y., which provides remediation products, training and support. "The service provider must do everything possible that the air customers are breathing is of a normal fungal ecology."

Wasvary’s six-technician crew use moisture meters, infrared cameras, laser particle counters, pre- and post-treatment lab tests, and various products to kill and remove mold from crawlspaces, basements, attics and other areas damaged by water and high relative humidity.

Customers’ health improvements following remediation are a major payoff, says Wasvary. "It’s a business, but it’s about your clients."

Yet, customers can be the source of problems. Getting into the mold business "was probably the worst thing I’ve ever been involved in in my life," recalls ABC Pest, Pool and Lawn Services President Raleigh Jenkins, Houston. Seven years ago he aggressively entered the mold remediation business supported by a full-blown marketing program. After 90 days and 75 bids, "We packed up and got out." It wasn’t the work, says Jenkins, rather it was dealing with insurance companies and customers intent on getting a free home remodel.

For many pest management professionals in hurricane-ravaged Louisiana and Mississippi, performing mold-related services wasn’t a matter of choice. It was survival. "It came up after the flood," says Terminix Service Entomologist Eddie Martin, New Orleans. Customers were frightened by what contaminated floodwaters from levees might have brought into their homes. Terminix technicians used hospital-grade disinfectant to sanitize damaged structures, allowing state-licensed mold remediation contractors to tear out fouled sheetrock to stud walls. Technicians then applied borate wood preservatives to halt wood rot from decay fungi and discourage wood destroying insect activity, and a moldicide to prevent future mold growth. For Martin, the disaster dictated pest management professionals’ response. "We took care of business for customers as an industry."

The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry adopted a permanent regulation that allows the state’s licensed PCOs to apply pesticides for control and the prevention of mold. Initially, this rule was adopted as an emergency rule after Hurricane Katrina but now it has been made permanent.

"That whole process saved several pest control operators from going out of business in New Orleans," said Louisiana Pest Management Association Executive Director Jeff Porter. "It was one way operators could get some source of income."

JURY’S STILL OUT. Whether prevention or remediation, mold services pose problems, warns ABC’s Jenkins. "There are so many other substrates that can grow mold that you’re not treating." Mold services offer good returns, but are high risk, he adds. Liability remains a major concern, as do unresolved questions on licensing, regulations and the lack thereof.

Orkin Technical Director Frank Meek, BCE, agrees. "As a company, we’re staying away from the mold business. There’s a definite need for remediation services and a good need for prevention and treatment services." Whether it’s the right role for the pest control industry "needs to be seen," he adds.

In New Orleans, where increased termite and rodent pressure has slowly replaced clean-up efforts, Terminix’s Martin doesn’t see returning to mold services. "It’s a very dangerous field" until more liability protection is available. "A few bold men may take the step," but he expects "most pest control operators aren’t going to touch it."

"Five to six years down the road is when I see the problems coming up," says Jenkins. He advocates spreading business risk and building a company’s brand, but "there are so many other add-on services that are appropriate to what we do."

"It’s not something you hop in to," says Expediant’s Wasvary. But "if [other pest management professionals] can do it right, I definitely welcome the competition in the field."

"For those of us who do wood application pretreatments, it’s a natural fit," adds National Exterminating’s Morse. Pest Management Systems’ Tesh agrees, and says mold prevention fits nicely with pest control industry policies, procedures, liability exposure and technical expertise. "If you’re dealing with moisture control of any type, you’re involved in mold."

The National Pest Management Association does not have an official stance on the industry’s role in mold prevention and remediation. "Mold prevention is probably a pretty good add-on service," says NPMA Senior Vice President Bob Rosenberg. "Remediation raises a whole host of issues. It’s not something you go into lightly."

Pest management professionals who conduct WDO inspections are responsible for identifying conducive conditions and taking or recommending corrective action, reminds Nisus Corporation’s Dr. Lloyd. "Even if a pest control operator is not interested in mold or fungal services, he needs to know how to document it on inspection forms and explain it to customers as evidence of a conducive condition, or he potentially will get in trouble even on a termite inspection."

The author is a frequent contributor to PCT magazine. She can be reached at anagro@giemedia.com.

January 2007
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