Good night, bed bugs

August 1, 2012 By    

Heat is gaining steam as a treatment method behind one propane-fueled system

One key to killing bed bugs with insecticides is pinpointing their location. But as entomologist Kent Marsh attests, pinpointing bed bugs can turn into a five-hour task that’s as tedious as searching for a needle in a haystack.

Making the task even more challenging for Marsh is the possibility of each room he searches having multiple infestations, not to mention each living space having multiple rooms that need poring through. So pinpointing bed bugs really is like searching for multiple needles in multiple haystacks. And who wants to waste their time doing that?

“It’s hard to find these bugs and their eggs,” Marsh says. “You’re going through everyone’s belongings trying to find a poppy seed that’s translucent. Or you’ll find droppings but no other signs.”

Marsh established his own business, Aces Pest Solutions, based in Jefferson City, Mo., in February because he believes heat, not insecticides, is the most effective bed bug solution for both his customers and his bottom line. Marsh is building his business around a propane-powered system from Temp-Air called the EBB 40-kilowatt remediation unit. The unit is mobile and relies on as many as four electric heaters that can treat up to 1,400 square feet in six to eight hours.

According to Temp-Air, the system consumes 8,750 gallons of propane each year. To Marsh, that kind of use translates into savings when compared to the diesel-powered systems he’s explored.

“I’m able to use this system with great fuel efficiency,” he says. “I can get $1.20 propane versus diesel power at $4-plus – and the diesel is not as efficient or as environmentally safe.”

Knocks against propane
Marsh has identified multiple systems for bed bugs over the years that generate heat on a trailer and move it into a building. But a downside to many existing systems, Marsh says, is that the heat generated loses Btus the closer it gets to delivery. Considering this drawback, pest controllers are forced to crank up the heat to dangerously high temperatures to effectively control.

“I’ve gone in after guys who’ve heated 160 degrees or hotter and the blinds are curled back,” Marsh says.

Direct-fired propane systems have been problematic in controlling bed bugs in recent years, as well. In one Canadian incident, a fire broke out at an apartment where a pest controller chained tanks to a top-story balcony. That incident, coupled with another infamous one in Cincinnati, has somewhat stained propane to the pest control industry.

“A lot of my colleagues use electrical systems more than propane-powered systems because there are concerns about propane, dealing with cylinders and flammable gases,” says Jeffrey White, technical director at BedBug Central in Lawrenceville, N.J. “And it’s not just our industry, but the end client who has the concerns. They’re uncomfortable with the concept, whether it’s justifiable or not.”

Developing optimal equipment
That’s one reason why the heat-treating equipment developed needs to be designed specifically for bed bug control. Stephen Kells, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Entomology, conducted a study a few years ago that determined bed bugs and their eggs can be immediately killed at 122 degrees. He also found temperatures as low as 113 degrees can be effective in treating, but that a temperature that low needs to be maintained for several hours before bed bugs and their eggs are killed.

Still, whether pest controllers are heating at 113 degrees for several hours or 122 for a few minutes, the idea is to heat the cracks and crevices in a room at those temperatures – not just the center of a room. To reach those temperatures inside a baseboard, for example, some controllers have been heating rooms in the 160- to 170-degree range. And those are the temperatures at which some pest controllers have gotten themselves into trouble.

“Airflow management is extremely important,” says Rajshekhar Hulasare, Temp-Air senior scientist and product manager. “We place a lot of fans in the Temp-Air system so you have a uniform temperature throughout the room. You must have fans so you reach the 122-degree minimum over the space.”

Temp-Air actually collaborated with the University of Minnesota and the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) to develop its system. Today, the EBB 40-kilowatt bed bug thermal remediation system is part of the Propane Exceptional Product Program that provides financial incentives to professionals like pest controllers who adopt new, propane-fueled products.

Aces’ Marsh is one user who’s taken advantage of the program. In exchange for the $2,000 financial incentive, PERC asks users to provide feedback on the product’s effectiveness.

“The program has a host of benefits,” says Mark Leitman, PERC’s director of business development and marketing. “In this case, we get some rich data about the bed bug equipment – what they like about it, what they don’t – and that can help us develop new products in the future.”

Heat full of potential
Considerable strides still need to be made before propane-powered thermal remediation takes off across the United States, but BedBug Central’s White is optimistic for propane marketers for a couple of reasons.

One is that few insecticides have been developed to eliminate bed bugs in the last few decades. As a result, White says bed bugs have developed resistance to some of the insecticides that are available.

Another reason for optimism is because pest controllers have changed how often they apply insecticides over the last few decades. White says insecticides applied to baseboards every three months used to be the standard for bed bug treatment. But controllers have gotten away from applying insecticides quarterly, which, he says, could be one reason why bed bugs are resurging.

Thermal remediation, like insecticides, is not exactly new to pest controllers. The propane-powered method that drives electric heaters is, however, a new concept White says pest controllers could get excited about.

“Propane honestly could be a bigger market for us because it is one of the cheaper forms of heat that can be provided,” he says.

Greg Grabow, above right, national sales manager for Temp-Air, who participated in a panel discussion on propane technologies during the Western Propane Trade Show and Convention earlier this year, agrees.

“The industry has really migrated to [integrated pest management] over the past 20 years,” Grabow says. “Controllers are reaching into their toolbox for new options, including many who are trying to minimize their application of pesticides.”

One downside White points out is that the Temp-Air system is a costly one at $56,800. He says more affordable propane-based systems are available, plus adopting propane requires controllers to learn a new way of handling bed bugs.

“I’ve heard someone say [pest controllers] adopting propane is like giving a Ferrari to an 18-year-old – even when you give it to an experienced technician,” White says. “Propane has a lot of power, but if you give it to an inexperienced person it can cause a lot of damage.”

Heat treatments typically cost consumers about 50 percent more than insecticidal treatments, White adds, so that’s yet another obstacle to overcome. On the flip side, proper heat treatments can rid bed bugs after one visit from a pest controller, whereas insecticide treatments often require controllers to visit on more than one occasion.

“I would describe [bed bugs] as a new market opportunity,” Leitman says. “We have a lot of interest at PERC in autogas, lawn mowers and different kinds of combustion-gas technology. The bed bug opportunity is less well known to the industry at this point, but we’re optimistic about it.”

Hotels an ideal market
If BedBug Central’s Jeffrey White was forced to choose between eliminating bed bugs from his home with heat or insecticides, the choice would be an easy one, assuming the infestation was manageable and cost was not a consideration.

“I would go with heat,” says White, technical director at BedBug Central. “But when you add cost into the equation, that’s where heat starts to lose a little luster.”

At least for single-family homes it does. Hotels and motels, however, could be an ideal market for a Temp Air-like system that’s fueled by propane yet heats electrically.

“Heat fits in ideally in the hospitality industry because the rooms are small like concrete block cells,” White says. “Bugs have a difficult time going anywhere in that setting.”

Apartments are another ideal market.

“I know housing authorities and other organizations that have purchased heating equipment,” White says. “They have thousands of units. If they have thousands of units, having thousands of bed bug-infested units is not out of the question.”

The Temp-Air system’s components
So the Temp-Air system stands to benefit the propane industry, but what else does the EBB 40-kilowatt bed bug remediation system involve? Pest controllers who purchase one at the $56,800 package price will manage multiple components, including:

• Four EBB 460-volt electric bed bug heaters
• Four 25-foot 12/3 high-visibility extension cords
• Two 75-foot main power cables
• One 460-volt distribution box
• Two 25-foot heater patch cables and two 50-foot heater patch cables
• One wireless temperature monitoring system with 24 sensors
• One fluke infrared handheld thermometer
• Ten 16-inch-high temperature multifans
• Two 16-inch multifan adapters
• Ten sprinkler head covers
• Four door sweep seals
• One roll of 48-inch x 25-inch reflective insulation
• Four rolls of poly tape
• Fourteen cable clamps

Photo at top courtesy of Paul Bello
Trailer photo courtesy of the Propane Education & Research Council

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About the Author:

Kevin Yanik was a senior editor at LP Gas Magazine.

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