Termites & Public Attitudes

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February 1, 2000

A recent survey by the University of Kentucky reveals that homeowners have many preconceived ideas (and anxiety) about termites, their control and the practices of PCOs.

No pest causes more confusion and concern than termites. Of the thousands of householder inquiries received each year by the University of Kentucky’s Entomology Department, the greatest number involve termites and their control. Knowing what’s on the mind of these people is an important first step in ensuring customer satisfaction. Such insight can also lessen the chance of misunderstandings "down the road" between termite customer and service provider.

In an earlier consumer survey (see "People, Pests & Poisons," PCT, June 1995), we investigated householder attitudes toward pests and pest control in general. With our latest study we interviewed people solely about termites. Our findings, presented in this article, shed new light on public attitudes and expectations and have important implications for all who are involved with termite control.

THE SURVEY. Our survey was conducted by telephone in collaboration with the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center in Lexington. The survey questions were designed to probe people’s attitudes and understanding about termites and their control. We also obtained background information on each respondent, including their age, gender, level of education and household income.

The survey was conducted from June 22 to July 16, 1999. A total of 2,324 phone calls were made to households throughout Kentucky, resulting in 674 completed interviews. (That represents a 29 percent response base; 53 percent female, 47 percent male; margin of error +/- 3.8 percent.) Households were selected using computer-assisted random-digit dialing. This procedure ensured that each residential phone line in the state had an equal chance of being called. Survey respondents were required to be at least 18 years of age.

All phone interviews were conducted by experienced staff members who had been trained in the proper implementation of the survey. Telephone responses were entered via computer and the data were statistically analyzed.

Attitudes and opinions from the 674 interviews are summarized in this article. Collectively, they paint a revealing picture of how termites and termite control practices are perceived by the public. The findings should sound a wake-up call to pest control operators, manufacturers and agencies that regulate the pest control industry.

ATTITUDES TOWARD TERMITES. The first series of questions focused on people’s reaction to and understanding of termites. For reference, 28 percent of respondents indicated that they had previously had a termite problem. Most of the respondents (93 percent) expressed concern — 77 percent said they would be very concerned — if they discovered that their home had termites. As a group, women were more apprehensive than men: 85 percent of female respondents expressed a high level of concern about termites vs. 68 percent of males.

A series of questions dealt with people’s perception of how long it takes for termites to cause serious damage. When asked, "How much structural damage do you think termites can do to a home in one year?," 60 percent of the respondents said either very severe (17 percent) or severe (43 percent), with 31 percent answering moderate. Half of the 674 respondents (50 percent) estimated that an infestation of termites could cause serious structural damage to a home in six months or less. Almost all respondents (92 percent) answered "true" to the statement, "Termites eat wood quickly, and can cause extensive damage to a house in a short period of time if not stopped."

The obvious take-home message from this series of questions is that householders have a high degree of anxiety about termites. The fact that people believe that termites can cause serious structural damage in a shorter period of time than they normally do is both a blessing and a curse to companies that provide termite-related services. On one hand, householders are inclined to act swiftly and seek professional help when they discover a termite problem. The downside to the company that makes the sale may arise later if the homeowner discovers hidden termite damage that, regardless of age, will be interpreted as being recent.

Overestimating the speed at which termites can cause serious damage may also have implications for slower-acting control strategies, such as baits, leading some customers to conclude they have accrued significant damage while the bait system is working. Regardless of which method of termite control is being offered, we would do well to inform clients that termite damage generally progresses slowly and that they have plenty of time to make an informed purchasing decision. Of those respondents (67 percent) indicating that they had previous dealings with termite control companies, 13 percent felt they had been "pressured" into buying an immediate treatment with stories about termites and their potential for damage.

KNOW YOUR TERMITES. Another series of questions surveyed people’s familiarity with the signs and symptoms of termites. About two-thirds of those interviewed believed they were either very (30 percent) or somewhat (38 percent) familiar with the telltale signs of a termite problem. When they were subsequently asked which specific signs and symptoms they were familiar with, more than half (56 percent) mentioned damaged wood and 39 percent said winged termites. Less than a fifth (19 percent), however, mentioned either the presence of mud tunnels, or damaged wood with mud in the galleries. About a third (31 percent) indicated they knew how to distinguish between winged ants and termites — yet when asked to list specific features for telling the two apart — only 9 percent noted that ants have a pinched waist, 5 percent knew that ant wings are unequal in size and 1 percent volunteered that ants have elbowed antennae.

Clearly, most householders are pretty much "in the dark" when it comes to diagnosing their termite problem. The pest control industry should continue to take the lead in the education process.

ATTITUDES TOWARD INSPECTIONS. One of the more ominous findings of the survey involved people’s expectations about termite inspections. We asked our 674 householders the following question: "Suppose you paid a pest control company to perform a termite inspection on a house you were planning to buy. If no signs of termites are noted on the company’s inspection report, but termites are discovered the year you move in, what should be the responsibility of the company who did the inspection?" One-fourth of all respondents (25 percent) felt the company should provide a free treatment, 10 percent said they should repair any damage and 52 percent believed the company should provide a free treatment and repair any damage. Only 6 percent felt the company’s only responsibility was to refund the cost of the inspection, while 7 percent of the respondents felt the company had no further obligation. Astute pest control companies are fully aware that the stakes are high when performing real estate inspections. Our findings serve as a chilling reminder that PCOs must take every precaution when performing such inspections and filling out their reports.

WHAT ABOUT TREATMENT? Several questions probed consumers’ understanding and attitudes about termite treatment. For reference, about a third (34 percent) of our respondents indicated they had previously hired a pest control company to treat their home for termites. When we asked our 674 householders how much they thought it would cost to have their home treated for termites, about a fourth (26 percent) said less than $250 and 60 percent answered $500 or less. Only 13 percent of respondents expected that a termite treatment would cost more than $1,000.

Householders were perhaps less naive in their predictions of how long a termite treatment remains effective in the soil. About a third (36 percent) answered two to four years, while another third (35 percent) said only one year. Only 8 percent of respondents expected the treatment to last more than 10 years.

Furthermore, only 16 percent of the householders in our survey answered "true" to the statement, "A single treatment of your home for termites should prevent termites from ever returning," while 29 percent agreed with the statement, "If a company offers a guarantee on its termite control services, you can be sure that the termites will not return after treatment." Respondents with fewer years of formal education and lower household incomes were more inclined to believe that a service guarantee assured that termites would not return after treatment than those with higher incomes or a college education.

Another important finding of the survey involved people’s expectations about treatments performed by pest control companies. Nearly half of our respondents (47 percent) answered "true" to the statement, "If termites return after your home has been treated, then the pest control company did not perform the treatment correctly." Even more disturbing was that two-thirds (65 percent) of all householders answered "true" to the statement, "If a pest control company treats your home for termites, but the termites later return and cause damage, the company will be responsible for repairing the damage."

PCOs would do well to caution prospective clients that, unlike plumbing or electrical work, termite control involves unpredictable living creatures. Because of this, termites will occasionally bypass the most thorough treatments performed by the most experienced technician. Honest, open communication from the outset may result in more tolerance and cooperation down the road.

BAITS VS. BARRIERS. Another line of questioning probed people’s preferences and impressions about different forms of termite treatment. About a fourth of our respondents (23 percent) said they had heard about a new method of termite control that uses baits to reduce or eliminate termite colonies. The following carefully worded question was asked to get an impression of which method of control — baits or barrier-type treatments — people preferred: "There are two basic ways to control termites. One method is to block or repel termite entry by treating the soil around and beneath the house with a liquid insecticide. In order to achieve a thorough barrier, large amounts of the liquid (100 gallons or more) are injected into a narrow trench dug along the foundation wall and through holes drilled in concrete slabs such as basement floors, garages, porches and patios. The other method is to install a series of bait stations, primarily underground, which the termites eventually find, feed upon and share with their nest mates. The bait method is slower-acting than the barrier method and also tends to be more costly. However with baits, floors don’t have to be drilled, wall-to-wall carpeting doesn’t have to be pulled back and very little insecticide is needed.

"Assuming that both treatments are equally effective, if you had a termite problem, which method do you think you would prefer?" Fifty-nine percent of respondents said they would prefer the bait method, while 36 percent chose the liquid method (5 percent had no preference). Younger respondents and those with college degrees were almost twice as likely to prefer the bait method to the liquid method.

While it was not possible to convey all the characteristics and nuances of the two forms of treatment to our inter-viewees over the telephone, it is nonetheless apparent that the new bait technology has appeal to much of the public. We further recognize that the assumption "both forms of treatment are equally effective" is still open to debate and could well have influenced the outcome of this question.

Considerable attention has also been directed at termite baits sold over-the-counter, i.e., Terminate Termite™ Home Defense System (see "Do-It-Yourself Termite Baits: Do They Work?," PCT, October 1998). Regulatory and consumer protection agencies have been especially concerned about product advertising claims and whether homeowners know what they are getting for their money. We wanted to see how consumers interpreted two of the more controversial elements of Terminate’s advertising claims: first, whether people equate killing termites in the soil with structural protection; and second, if they believed that a product which "guaranteed to protect a home from termite attack" would also eliminate termites from a house that was already infested.

Forty-three percent of respondents answered "true" to the statement, "If you purchase and install a do-it-yourself termite baiting system that kills termites in the soil, this procedure will also protect your home against termite attack." This would suggest that many householders equate killing termites in the soil with structural protection. More than half (53 percent) of our respondents also answered "true" to the question, "If a termite baiting system includes a money-back guarantee to protect your home from termite attack, you would assume the product also eliminates termites from a house that is already infested." This suggests that many consumers will also misinterpret the advertising claim "guaranteed to protect your home from termite attack," by assuming the product will also eradicate an existing termite problem.

IPM WHO? It is difficult to attend a termite control seminar these days and not hear mention of the terms "IPM" and "Integrated Pest Management." While these terms have pretty much become household words within our industry, we were curious whether the terms were familiar to the average citizen. When we asked our 674 householders if they knew what the terms "IPM" or "Integrated Pest Management" meant in the context of termite control, 98 percent had no idea. Interestingly, the same near-total lack of awareness was recorded five years ago when we asked this question of 631 householders in another survey about pest control in general (see "People, Pests & Poisons: An Attitudinal Survey," PCT, June 1995).

Numerous attempts have been made to build public support for IPM, including high-profile joint initiatives by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food & Drug Administration. Apparently these efforts have been unsuccessful, at least in terms of establishing name recognition for IPM.

It really isn’t important that PCOs use the terms "IPM" or "Integrated Pest Management" with their customers. What is important is that they communicate that termites are generally best managed through a blend of techniques, e.g., moisture management, removal of wood-to-ground contacts, routine and thorough inspections and careful selection and deployment of treatments. By articulating these points to our customers, we stand a better chance of gaining their cooperation. To assist with the communication process, a wealth of termite information is available through such sources as the National Pest Management Association and various university sites on the Internet (e.g., www.uky.edu/Agriculture/Entomology/enthp.htm).

ATTITUDES TOWARD PESTICIDES. A topic that our householders had very strong opinions about was the usage of termiticides. Ninety-three percent of respondents expressed concern about the application of termite control chemicals inside their home — more than three fourths (78 percent) indicated they were very concerned. (In comparison, only 36 percent said they would be very concerned about using pesticides to control pests in their home in our 1994 survey.) A somewhat smaller percentage of respondents said they were either very (56 percent) or somewhat (25 percent) concerned about the application of termite control chemicals on the outside (around the exterior) of their home. While pesticide concerns were high for all demographic categories, they were highest among women and respondents who were younger.

One of the most common causes of pesticide-induced anxiety is odor. In fact, nearly all of our respondents said they would either be very (73 percent) or somewhat (20 percent) concerned if the termite control chemical applied inside their home had an odor. Moreover, three-fourths (75 percent) of the respondents believed that such an odor would be harmful. (Fewer householders [54 percent] believed that the odor from a pesticide was harmful in our 1994 attitudinal survey.) In regard to termiticides, odor-related fears tended to be highest among women, the less educated and those with lower household incomes.

The final pesticide-related question asked of our householders was whether they thought more people in the United States die each year from smoking-related illnesses, or from exposure to pesticides. While 69 percent answered correctly (more people die from smoking), about a third believed either that pesticides kill more people (18 percent), about the same number of people die from each (5 percent) or did not know (9 percent). Clearly, the public has deep-rooted apprehensions about pesticides and the chemicals used for termite control. Given the amount of negative news coverage paid to pesticides by the media, it’s doubtful that any form of consumer education will alleviate these concerns in the future.

HOW DO WE RATE? Respondents gave PCOs, as a whole, decent marks on their credibility and knowledge. When asked for their overall impression of companies that provide termite control services, 25 percent said they thought PCOs were very credible and knowledgeable, 57 percent said somewhat credible and knowledgeable and only 4 percent said not credible/knowledgeable at all. Higher levels of satisfaction were voiced by those who had previously had their home treated for termites. Among this group, 56 percent said they were very satisfied with the pest control company’s service, 32 percent said somewhat satisfied and 12 percent were either somewhat dissatisfied or very dissatisfied.

WHO ’YA GONNA CALL? The final series of questions dealt with the ways in which householders obtain information about termites and termite control. When asked to list what sources of information they would use in selecting a termite control company, the greatest percentage (57 percent) said they would rely on references from friends and neighbors.

Other sources of information volunteered by respondents included the Yellow Pages (27 percent), company salesperson (13 percent), Better Business Bureau (10 percent), television (8 percent), Internet (8 percent) and county extension office (4 percent). (Being extension entomologists, we found it humbling that only 2 percent of respondents said they had ever contacted their local county extension office or our entomology department for information or advice about a termite problem.)

On the other hand, 56 percent of our respondents said they had easy access to the Internet either through a home or office computer. Internet users reached a high of 78 percent among respondents aged 18 to 35 and a low of 17 percent among senior citizens 65 or older. Strong associations with Internet use were also linked to education (84 percent usage by college graduates vs. 45 percent for those who only completed high school) as well as income (78 percent Internet usage among households earning $50,000+ vs. 36 percent for those with household incomes less than $25,000).

Clearly, the Internet is becoming an important source of information about our industry. Our entomology department website is fast-approaching 4,000 "hits" per day, many involving the management of structural pests.

CLOSING THOUGHTS. We believe that the findings of this survey accurately reflect public sentiment and present an important message to our industry. Consumers are very concerned about termites but know little about them. They are equally "in the dark" when it comes to termite treatment. Expectations run high for complete detection and eradication of the termite problem. Failure to do so will cause householders to hold the PCO responsible for retreatment and repair of damages, irrespective of when they occurred.

As if this weren’t enough, anxiety over pesticides is at an all-time high and is on the minds of most consumers if their home needs to be treated. The challenge for PCOs will be to provide better termite protection without triggering people’s fear of pesticides — all for a price that most householders already think is too high.

Some readers may question what relevance a survey in Kentucky has to public opinion in their own area of the country. Demographers describe Kentucky as a "border" Midwest state with characteristics of both southern and northern cultures. Half (50 percent) of our survey respondents lived in small towns or suburban areas, 21 percent lived in cities and 29 percent lived in rural areas. About three-fourths (78 percent) own their own home while the rest (22 percent) were renters.

Kentuckians tend to have conservative views; on the whole, they would not be described as having a particularly strong "green" or environmental focus — certainly not to the degree found in some other parts of the country. Consequently, if a similar survey were conducted in states or communities with people who react strongly to environmental or health-related issues, we would expect to find even greater levels of concern than those encountered in this study.

The authors are extension entomologists at the University of Kentucky, Lexington.