[Vertebrate Pests] Escutcheonology 101

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February 28, 2008

escutcheon (also escutcheon plate): a flat piece of metal for protection around utility penetrations into structures such as plumbing pipes, gas lines or around keyholes, door handles, electrical switches and the like.

I start out with the dictionary definition and pronunciation of the word escutcheon because interestingly, many people know an escutcheon when they see one, but they do not know its name.

For example, when you show an escutcheon plate to a homeowner, apartment tenant or commercial client, few have a clue. Moreover, even those affiliated with building repairs and utility installments such as plumbers, electricians, cable installers, construction contractors, maintenance personnel, apartment superintendents and custodians are a bit fuzzy on the name. When asked, many use terms such as “pipe rings,” “pipe collars,” “plumbing plates” and “pipe doohickey.” But all of these terms are incorrect, ambiguous or vague.

Yet, even within our own industry there are a similarly surprising number of professionals that aren’t fully aware of this plate or its impact on our services day in and day out. This is unfortunate, because in reality, pest professionals are even more impacted by the escutcheon plate than are plumbers, electricians and building contractors.

So, let’s take a detailed look at the beautifully simple, yet so highly useful (and for us pest management professionals, so very important), escutcheon plate.

FUNCTION. Not only do rats and mice commonly enter into our buildings and travel through the different floors and rooms via unescutcheoned lines, so too do cockroaches, ants, flies and bed bugs (consider how important escutcheons are now to a hotel or apartment complex).

When a pipe or a utility line is passed through a construction element (e.g., wall, ceiling, etc.), a hole must be created. In turn, this creates the potential for pests to be initially attracted to the specific area of the building, and subsequently, for them to gain entry at the penetration location.

EXTERIOR ENTRY. When a utility line is passed from the outside through an exterior wall, roof or floor, there is (obviously) now a direct connection to the outside through the resulting hole. If the hole is not properly closed, warm (or cool) air currents escape. Depending on the season, these currents will likely attract rodent or insect pests seeking to escape life threatening cold, heat, wetness or drought. Too, our buildings generate millions of food and water molecules every day and night as a result of our breakfasts, lunches and dinners. These molecules and “food currents” can be detected by pests as they explore and forage along building foundations.

HARBORAGE AND HIGHWAYS. Once pests have gained entry to our buildings (by whatever avenues), they must explore for suitable nooks, crannies, voids or items in which to hide from us and other dangers. Indoors, when a line is passed through walls, floors and ceilings (as well as into certain types of large commercial equipment such as cooler boxes, ovens, etc.), a hole now connects to whatever void or cranny exists on the other side. Consider the utility walls of our residential kitchens and baths and the walls behind the ovens in a restaurant. These dark and protected wall voids are warm and humid — the preferred nest environments for rodents and many other structural pests.

Additionally, pests use interior plumbing and electrical lines within walls, floors and ceilings to travel from one area to another unexposed and undetected. Pest professionals experienced in servicing multi-family housing complexes learn to appreciate the connecting vertical radiator lines that mice follow up and down to forage among different apartments for food scraps. Those apartments without the floor escutcheons are, to no surprise, often the “mousey” apartments. As the mice travel between floors and through the holes, pheromones are left to guide them, or future mice, to these same locations. To not close such openings with escutcheons is short-sighted if a sustainable pest management program is the goal.

WE SHOULD ADVISE. Sometimes, we can provide a value added service by actually installing an escutcheon plate where one is missing — perhaps for a residential client. But for many of our commercial clients, our most appropriate role is to advise them of the escutcheon’s importance and where they can purchase them.

With the exception of large industrial operations, the typical escutcheon plates encountered around residential and small commercial operations (e.g., food-serving establishments) are simple in design and in installment. Escutcheon plates are available from plumbing supply houses and the new home mega depot stores in wide variety of materials, shapes and sizes (e.g., convex, concave, plastic, different metals and gauges for light-weight and heavy-duty functions, etc.). For commercial facilities such as hospitals, hotels, food-serving establishments, school kitchens and grocery stores, heavy-duty stainless steel escutcheons have the greatest utility.

Offering the client information on what not to do around pipe gaps and openings is also a value-added service. Stuffing steel wool or copper meshes into these spaces provides only temporary protection. And expanding foams should never be used as substitutes for the escutcheon plate itself. Nor should they be used to “seal” the escutcheon plate to the wall. Expanding foams have their greatest utility as fillers of spaces, not as sealants of the gaps and crevices as created by line penetrations.

Ideally escutcheon plates should be sealed to the surface of the element needing to be closed. Often times, plumbing and other contractors will not do this; they merely shimmy the plate up to the surface (heck, who’s to know?). To properly seal an escutcheon plate to the wall, a sealant designed for cracks and crevices and that allows for vibrations and movement (elastomeric) should be used (e.g., NP-1, Geocel, Rustoleum Industrial Grade Sealant, etc.).

CONCLUSION. Once on my residential Long Island pest control route, when for the first time I informed an apartment superintendent about escutcheon plates and their importance in cockroach and mouse control, he look at me as if I was from Pluto. But after a brief explanation, he said, “Wow. This makes sense. I get it. And to be honest,” he continued, “You’re the first exterminator who has ever mentioned this to me.”

We inform our clients about doors, windows, cracks in foundations, gaps in fascias and the like, why would we overlook one of most common of all pest entry routes and access points to interior harborage? A pest management company constantly servicing and collecting mice from multiple-catch mouse traps placed along a commercial food-service establishment’s wall, and yet never addressing the issue of the four missing escutcheon plates which are allowing the mice to find harborage for nesting and reproduction there, does not understand the true intent of quality pest management service. The best traps and baits will not offset the impact of incoming pests and the resulting infestations that develop as a partial result of locating good indoor harborages.

So, talk about escutcheons with your residential and commercial clients (especially those which seem to have more than their fair share of callbacks). How many are missing, how many may need sealing, how many need replacing and so forth. See if they look at you as if you’re from Pluto.

Personally, I have come to welcome the Pluto-look from clients. In a way, it’s their invitation for you to shine.

The author is president of RMC Consulting, Richmond, Ind.