[Bed Bug Supplement] Avoiding Hot Water

Supplement - Bed Bug Supplement

What PMPs need to know about bed bug heat treatments and sprinkler systems.

March 26, 2013

As pest management professionals continue to use a variety of tools for bed bug management, heat treatments continue to grow as a popular option. But, as with any treatment option, there are pros and cons. One of the challenges in using heat treatment in public locations is fire suppression systems and sprinklers.

Effective and Challenging. In the National Pest Management Association’s (NPMA’s) Best Management Practices for Bed Bugs (BMPs), heat receives attention along with other Integrated Pest Management methods, including insecticides, fumigation, vacuums, steam, encasements and cold. Heat treatment can be used in whole structures, apartment units, a room or portion of a room, or a compartment containing furniture and possessions. (See the BMPs at www.bedbugbmps.org.)

“Heat as a control method is a re-introduced concept with regard to pest management,” explained Jim Fredericks, NPMA technical director, at NPMA’s PestWorld 2012. “Certainly heat has been used for many years to address a number of pests, but it really took on a life of its own as we started to figure out how to battle bed bugs.”

The BMPs provide temperature and exposure time recommendations in harborage areas to achieve bed bug-lethal heat levels and durations necessary to kill bed bug eggs, nymphs and adult bugs. These are not ambient air temperatures. Bed bugs are killed at 113°F in harborage areas, “But you have to hold that temperature for seven hours to control all life stages,” explained Fredericks. “At 118°F it takes about an hour-and-a-half. If you can get the temperature to 122°F, all life stages will be dead in less than a minute, which most firms are probably using as the gold standard. Certainly the faster you can do it, the better it is for the bottom line.”

The Sprinkler Challenge. It’s a challenge for PMPs to use heat in rooms and buildings with fire suppression systems.

Automatic sprinklers respond to heat, regardless of its source, and can pose a significant threat. Temporary heat-producing sources, such as construction lighting and television cameras, have been known to activate sprinklers. If a sprinkler exceeds its temperature rating and is activated, an average 20 to 40 gallons of water per minute may begin falling from the ceiling.

Heat also may compromise the future effectiveness of a sprinkler, which may result in property damage, or human injury or fatality. There also is potential liability if a PMP disables a fire suppression system without an appropriate license or, if while the treatment is being performed, a fire occurs while the system is disabled. Any of these situations pose significant business liabilities.

The challenge is to perform heat treatments to control bed bugs while protecting sprinklers from being activated and from damage.

Here is the challenge:

The temperature required in harborage areas to kill all life stages of bed bugs is between 113°F and 122°F, depending on the exposure time.

The temperature threshold where ordinary sprinklers will sustain damage is 100°F — and they can activate at around 135°F. So, how can PMPs use heat treatment when the required temperature exceeds the sprinklers’ maximum ceiling temperature rating?


Fire Sprinklers 101. To understand how to best approach using heat to control bed bugs, you need to understand sprinklers. There are several types of sprinkler heads. The two most common operation types are “fusible link” and “glass bulb” sprinklers. In the fusible link type, water is released when a specified temperature melts a heat-sensitive alloy. The glass bulb type, which is common and one with which most people are likely familiar, has a small glass reservoir that holds a heat-sensitive liquid. When the ambient temperature reaches a certain level, the liquid expands, causing the glass bulb to break, and water is released.

There are two temperature ratings PMPs need to be aware of: maximum ceiling temperature and sprinkler temperature. Temperatures exceeding the maximum ceiling temperature rating can cause damage to the sprinkler head, without releasing water, and effect how it may perform in the future. This rating is so critical that temperatures are controlled during their manufacture and shipping to protect the integrity of the sprinkler head. All sprinklers have a temperature rating and are color coded, which indicates the temperature required for a sprinkler head to activate.

Here is the challenge: the temperature required in harborage areas to kill all life stages of bed bugs is between 113°F and 122°F, depending on the exposure time. The maximum ceiling temperature for ordinary sprinklers is 100°F. So, how can you use heat treatment to control bed bugs when the required temperature to kill them exceeds the sprinklers’ maximum ceiling temperature rating?

Code May Dictate Treatment. How to best address fire suppression systems during heat treatment needs to be decided upfront. “It is extremely important for each of you to take responsibility if you’re doing heat treatments,” said Fredericks. He recommends pest control companies contact the fire authority in their area, understand local fire codes and determine whether permits are required to use portable heaters, for example.

NPMA recommends PMPs research and understand applicable fire codes, and local ordinances regarding fire suppression systems and the use of portable heaters. Understanding the ordinances will allow companies to develop their own compliant approach. Adopting a practice that may seem safe, even those that other companies have used in an adjoining county, may actually be a violation of your local fire code.

Pest control companies across the nation take different approaches to dealing with sprinklers during heat treatments. “I don’t know that there’s one way that’s better than the other,” said Fredericks.

What follows is a review of several approaches to address sprinklers during heat treatments:

Monitoring. Some companies place sensors near sprinkler heads and will monitor the temperature so that it does not reach the maximum ceiling temperature. This works with higher-rated sprinklers, as they are able to withstand higher temperatures.

Cover Sprinkler Heads. Other companies cover the sprinkler heads with insulated devices, some of which may contain cooling packs or other cooling agents. This keeps the temperature immediately surrounding the sprinkler at an acceptable level. Remote sensors also may be used to monitor each sprinkler to ensure the temperature is below the maximum ceiling temperature. However, PMPs must note that in some areas, placing any device over the sprinkler head may be considered impeding the fire suppression system, and is, therefore, an ordinance violation. Even placing something close to a sprinkler may be a violation.

Hire a Contractor to Disable the System. Another approach is to hire a fire sprinkler maintenance professional. Some pest control companies contract with a fire sprinkler company, which already may oversee the property, to disable the system. This is a good strategy, especially for multi-family housing or hospitality settings. PMPs may be required to hire a fire fighter to be on site when a suppression system is disabled.

Hire a Contractor to Disable the Fire Suppression System and Change Sprinkler Heads. One comprehensive approach may provide the greatest safety, but also could be the most costly. Some firms contract with a fire sprinkler maintenance company to not just disable the system, but to also remove the sprinkler heads and replace them with higher-temperature sprinkler heads so they cannot be damaged during treatment. Then, once the property has cooled, the system is again disabled and the sprinkler heads, often new ones, are reinstalled. Although this could be a costly option, it may be the price of doing business in some areas.


About NPMA’s BMPs

Finding the best methods for controlling bed bugs has long been a challenge for PMPs, which is why the National Pest Management Association (NPMA) has developed its Best Management Practices for Bed Bugs (BMPs). It provides credible, common sense guidelines to help pest management companies develop their own protocols that meet the needs of their business and customers in their service area.

Heat treatment has gained considerable attention for controlling bed bugs as part of an integrated approach. Although heat treatments are an effective method of control, there are a number of regulatory issues that need to be considered, including a plan to deal with fire suppression systems and sprinklers.

NPMA first assembled its Blue Ribbon Bed Bug Task Force at PestWorld 2010 to address the resurgence of bed bugs both in residential and commercial establishments. Those assembled included 40 individuals from various backgrounds, including the pest management industry, state and federal regulators, academics and entomologists. The result was the first iteration of NPMA’s BMPs for Bed Bugs, which can be found at www.bedbugbmps.org.

One of the most important goals for the task force was to document best practices for controlling bed bugs. The BMPs are not a series of prescriptive, step-by-step guidelines or service protocols. They are what the industry believes are the best methods to use. Practices are evolving as the pest management industry continues to learn from the trials, and sometimes errors, in treating bed bugs and the new technologies that emerge. There were a lot of questions as the task force assembled and many questions remain. There is no silver bullet. An integrated approach is best.

Pest control companies need to “Consider carefully and choose the best treatment method for a particular client, location and situation,” explained Jim Fredericks, technical director at NPMA, during his presentation at PestWorld 2012.

The NPMA BMPs for Bed Bugs will continue to evolve as additional best practices are discovered and additional education materials and resources for pest management companies are developed.


Recommendations. No matter what method you use, monitoring and keeping good, detailed records is recommended. You then have documentation if there is a future problem with the sprinkler system. You can demonstrate the problem was not a result of the heat treatment.

Significant liabilities may be avoided if pest management firms develop protocols specific to their area, so the most important recommendation is to know the fire code governing your city, county and state. “Research and understand applicable fire codes, and local ordinances regarding the use of portable heaters, fire suppression systems and other heat treatment-related concerns,” as indicated in the NPMA BMPs for Bed Bugs, Fredericks said. And develop an action plan in case the unthinkable happens.


The author is the owner of Perspective Communications in Milwaukee. Email him at daustin@giemedia.com. Contact NMPA’s Jim Fredericks at jfredericks@pestworld.com.


Resources for Additional Information

Consumer Information on Bed Bugs

– This is a consumer site, which includes a consumer-focused .pdf of the Best Management Practices (BMPs) for Bed Bugs in English and Spanish.

Professional Resources