Pest-Control Primer: Keeping self-storage free of critters, creepy-crawlies and things that go bump in the night

July 1, 2004

18 Min Read
Pest-Control Primer: Keeping self-storage free of critters, creepy-crawlies and things that go bump in the night

Keeping a well-maintained self-storage facility involves sundry tasks, the least pleasant of which involves the eradication of nasty critters that make any building unappealing. Rats, mice, pigeons, cockroaches, ants, termites, stray animals and other pests will not only chase away tenants, they will make a business distasteful to the employees who operate it.

Dealing with pests in a place of business is different than confronting them in a residence. Homeowners have the luxury of deciding their particular comfort levels when it comes to multi-legged invaders. Some people see a couple of ants in the kitchen and shrug them off as a fact of life. Others see an ant crossing the driveway 100 feet from the house and call the National Guard. Business owners don’t share the same advantage. An inch-long cockroach standing guard at your lobby entrance isn’t the best way to start a relationship with a potential tenant. While a complete pest-control compendium would be impossible in the scope of one article, the following will provide sound advice in some of the areas storage operators find most daunting.

What to Do About Rascally Rodents

Here are a few things you probably didn’t know about rodents:

  • An average-size rat can squeeze through a gap about the width of your pinky finger, an adult mouse through a gap the thickness of this magazine.

  • A healthy female rat can give birth to six litters per year, with as many as 20 baby rats per litter. Each new female is ready to breed at about three months of age.

  • Many fire investigators say one quarter of all structure fires of “undetermined origin” are caused by rodents gnawing on electrical wire.

  • Even today, rats can transmit the bubonic plague to humans.

  • Groups of rats are called packs. (You thought Sinatra just made that up off the top of his head?)

  • Rats and mice aren’t all that fond of cheese.

Unless you consider simply embracing the presence of rodents at your self-storage facility as some form of enlightened social consciousness, there are four basic steps to a rodent-control program. To be effective, all four steps must be taken in the order described here.

Step One: The Inspection. Short of seeing a live rat or smelling a dead one, the most obvious sign of these non-rent-paying creatures is their droppings. Rodent droppings vary in size, from one-eighth of an inch to a half-inch. They are about the same shape and texture of a popular rice breakfast cereal (the lawyers for which would probably take exception to my using the brand name to make the comparison.) Other less obvious indications are gnaw marks in electrical or PVC conduits, rips or holes on the coverings to heating and cooling ducts, and open burrows filled with nesting materials. A pest-control professional may use a black light in a darkened area to detect the presence of urine trails or special powders to track little footprints.

Step Two: Sanitation. This generally tends to be less of an issue in self-storage facilities. No doubt you have rules as to what your tenants can and cannot store in their spaces. Obviously, food for human or animal consumption should be strictly regulated if not completely prohibited. Tenants should be required to dispose unwanted items and trash off-site. The facility dumpster or trash containers should be secure to prohibit use by tenants—of both the two- and four-legged variety.

Step Three: Exclusion. There is no more important issue in rodent control than a tight building. The same measures you should take to keep your energy costs down will help keep rodents out of your buildings. Always use the strongest, most durable materials to seal your doors and utility openings. While it will not always be cost-effective to completely seal off the structure, and rodents are particularly persistent and adept at exploiting structural weaknesses, the harder you make them work, the better the chances they won’t get in.

Here are a few tips on rodent-proofing a building:

  • Trim vegetation away from the structure. Never allow overhanging tree branches to contact the building or roof.

  • Expanding foam is just a quick fix—always use heavy-gauge hardware cloth or flashing to cover holes and gaps.

  • In wooden roof structures, check for water damage or soft spots. (See comment above about rodents exploiting structural weaknesses.)

  • Employ self-closing exterior doors wherever possible.

  • Maintain screens on all windows that can be opened.

Step Four: Elimination. One hundred and fifty years ago, it took two months to deliver a document from New York City to San Francisco. Today it takes two seconds. One hundred and fifty years ago, it took six weeks to travel from New York City to London. Today it takes less than six hours. One hundred and fifty years ago, the best way to kill a rat was a spring-loaded metal trap mounted on a scrap of wood. Today, well, the best way to kill a rat is a spring-loaded metal trap mounted on a piece of wood! OK, “best” might not be the right word for those not inclined toward handling dead rodents. It remains, however, the most effective method to quickly eliminate an established population. It also requires the least expertise and expense.

The most efficient way to set snap traps is to place them where you and the rodent can easily access them. Rodents normally travel the same path consistently to move about their surroundings, so if you see droppings, chances are your little friend will be back soon. Simply coat the business end of the trap with a small amount of chunky-style peanut butter and place it on a flat surface. DO NOT arm the trap until you are ready to place it. (I have armed a trap before I was sure where I wanted to put it, and I have the X-rays to prove it!)

Ideally, you will place the trap perpendicular to a wall, with the business end facing inward. In warmer weather, check the traps daily; otherwise, check them every other day. Be patient. Rodents are sensitive to new objects in their environment, and it may take them a few days to get used to the traps, even if they smell yummy. If you are successful, simply dispose of the dearly departed and the trap together. Keep at it until the traps collect dust quicker than they collect rats. There are a number of live-catch options available to the general public; however, these devices tend to be expensive and require some expertise. The larger the target rodent, the less effective these things are.

Another option is sticky trap or glue board. Basically, it is a piece of plastic or cardboard coated with a glue like substance. This is placed much like snap traps. Sticky traps tend to be ineffective against larger rodents, as even professional-grade sticky stuff isn’t strong enough to mire any rat with some sense of self preservation. It generally will hold a mouse or young rat. Just be prepared to deal with a very unhappy little camper if it’s still alive.

No primer on rodent control is complete without a word about electronic devices. Sometimes called ultrasonic or electromagnetic pest repellers, they tout high-frequency sound waves or eltromagnetic pulses as a means of controlling rodents, insects and a variety of other unwanted wildlife. They all have one thing in common: They don’t work.

In a number of cases, manufacturers of these devices have been prosecuted by the federal government for making false claims and fraud. Consider this bit of wisdom taken from official Department of Defense policy: “Electromagnetic exclusion or control devices, ultrasonic repellent or control devices ... will not be procured or maintained with public funds, and personnel should discourage the use of such devices by pointing out their relative ineffectiveness.” Now, go unplug them, put them in a bag, and hide them at the bottom of your dumpster, and no one will be any the wiser!

Sorry, Mickey, but the best way to control a rodent population is to kill as much of it as you can. This brings us to the subject of controlling pests with poison. There are a number of products available for use by the general public (e.g., De-Con). I can’t stress strongly enough that toxic substances to control pests, sold for use by John Q. Public, should never be used in a commercial environment.

If it isn’t illegal where you do business, just ask your insurance carrier what it thinks about the idea. If you are considering using either poison baits or fumigants at your self-storage facility, the limiting factor is not expertise or legality but liability. Poison baits and fumigants are a highly effective means of eliminating rodent populations but should only be applied by a licensed, insured professional.

Ants and Termites: Eating Away at Profits

Wood-destroying insects and organisms present a particular problem to anyone who earns a living off real estate. When we discuss insects in this context, the culprit is almost always termites and less frequently Carpenter Ants. (In the interest of brevity and a show of good faith that I’m not trying to pad my word count, wood destroying insects and organisms will hereafter be referred to as WDI/O.)

No real estate transaction should ever be undertaken without a comprehensive WDI/O inspection. It is unlikely any reputable lender or broker would allow a real estate transfer to close without certification that the structure is free of WDI/O. A realtor once asked me how much faith he should have in the WDI/O inspection report he was given on a property he was considering for purchase. My answer was, “not much.” The issue wasn’t the contents of the report, the company performing it, or even the results. The concern is the prospective buyer was not the final arbiter in the hiring of the company performing the inspection.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of unqualified businesses and individuals in the building- inspection industry. No doubt the majority of people in this business are competent, ethical professionals. The problem is, in most states and provinces, the industry is grossly under-regulated. The individual who comes to inspect your structure could have gotten the job simply by watching a one-hour video on WDI/O and taking a self-evaluated exam.

You, as the buyer, should take steps to ensure you are getting a quality report on the condition of your potential investment. This is normally the part where I give you a bulleted list of information related to the topic. Unfortunately, laws and regulations vary so greatly from place to place, this article would need to be several hundred pages long. In conducting my research, I tried to gather info by checking Internet resources on a state-by-state basis. Working in alphabetical order, I finally threw in the towel at California. However, there are a few bits of advice I can give that will cover a lot of ground:

  • First, seek qualified legal advice from a lawyer with no connection to any of the parties involved in the real estate transaction. Given the size of your investment, and the ramifications of a bad WDI/O report, hiring a lawyer who specializes in real estate is money well spent.

  • Second, if you are comfortable with your knowledge of the rules of the game, hire an inspector who has no financial interest in the outcome of the examination— except if he screws it up!

  • There is actually a third piece of advice that can guarantee you will not have a termite problem in your building: Buy it in Alaska. It is the only state where termites have not been detected.

Finally, just because you are dealing with buildings made of steel and concrete, doesn’t mean WDI/O is not an issue. While your structure may be impervious to such things, the contents aren’t. A termite doesn’t care if it’s eating a 2-by-4, a cardboard box full of financial documents or an antique dresser. Your liability for the condition of the contents introduced to and stored in your facility is likely quite limited, but your reputation is at risk.

Now, on to the topic of ant control. The common theme of most questions I receive regarding this issue involve ants invading a structure and not going away, even though the outside source of the ants is located and thoroughly treated. This is a dilemma for amateurs and professionals alike. Even if you managed to kill all the ants outside, you have to deal with the ones inside.

Most pesticides in use to control ants are classified as Pyrethrins and Pyrethroids. Pyrethrins are a naturally occurring chemical derived from the Chrysanthemum plant. Pyrethroids are man-made versions of the same. While they are an effective pesticide, they also act as a repellent. Since ants live outdoors, what you’ve done when you use the repellent outside is block their exit. When you spray the ants inside, all you are doing is killing the ones you can see. You end up chasing ants around your building for days on end, killing a few at a time and contaminating your environment.

Baits are the preferred method of treatment when dealing with ants close to a structure. Baiting gives the ants no reason to go inside in the first place, and while a little slower acting than pesticides, it is more efficient. If you decide to have a pest-control professional handle the situation—which I recommend—choose one that uses bait as his main weapon of choice against insects.

Aviary Annoyances

A lot of storage operators ask my advice on the topic of pigeon and/or bird control, as these pests love to roost at places like storage facilities, which see relatively little human traffic. As a rule, visual devices like plastic birds of prey (owls), foil streamers, etc., that many people will try offer brief relief at best. It doesn’t take pigeons long to figure out whatever you are trying to scare them off with won’t actually eat them. Sometimes, just to show us who really runs this planet, they will cake the fake owl with poop and leave the surrounding area spotless. OK, maybe it’s a stretch to assume they are doing it to mock us, but after a day or so, the plastic bird is just another thing to sit on.

The same holds true for just about any device you might use to chase pigeons off. A number of large airports spent a pile of money on “noise cannons,” literally large gun-like devices that emit a loud boom-type noise to scare away pigeons and seagulls. After a few days, the birds would merely jump a few feet at the sound of the cannon firing. Soon, birds that frequented the area learned to ignore the sound. Worse yet are those so-called ultrasonic devices. The only chance of gaining any control using ultrasonic bird repellants is if the pigeon laughs itself to death.

As with many pests, the best way to keep pigeons away is to eliminate nesting places and roosting spots. Eaves and gables can be relatively easily covered with some sort of netting. Anti-roosting devices come in several forms, the most popular being a spike strip that can be attached to any surface a bird might sit on. Spike strips can be easily installed by the property owner and cost roughly 45 cents per linear foot.

Finally, controlling birds with chemicals or poison should be done only as a last resort and is best left to someone who is licensed. In many places, it is illegal for an unlicensed person to use poison in the control of nuisance birds.

The Stray Cats

Feral cats are very much a pest-control problem. While they may have some minor value as a method of rodent control, they will introduce more pests than they will consume. In addition to carrying diseases that can be transmitted to domestic pets, they carry parasites, like ticks and fleas, which can transmit disease to humans. In addition, there is undoubtedly a percentage of your customer base that is allergic to cats.

Your best bet is to use live-catch traps. These devices are cage-like traps baited with cat food, with a spring loaded door that closes behind the animal when it enters to take the bait. While you can purchase them, many animal-rescue organizations will let you borrow them at little or no cost, and take the cats off your hands for a small fee. With a little luck and a lot of patience, you should be able to handle this situation without shelling out a pile of money. In the interim, make sure they don’t have any alternative food sources like open dumpsters or trash cans.

Choosing a Pest-Control Company

When it comes to the business of banishing pests from your facility, you have the option of dealing with our little friends personally; but there are a few things you should understand. Rule No. 1: Potential liability, not personal knowledge, is the first consideration in deciding whether you are going to solve the problem on your own. In many states, it is illegal to use pesticides labeled for residential use in a commercial setting. In counties and states with less stringent statutes on such matters, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have a stack of regulations that cost the lives of thousands of innocent trees to print.

I’m not telling you to toss the Raid and Black Flag into the dumpster, but if you don’t already have a pest-control company on your Rolodex, it’s time to look at the big picture. A pest-control service means one less thing for you to handle. Once you find the right company for the job, the problems become the company’s, not yours. Equally important, much of the liability resulting from pest-control measures becomes the company’s as well. Of course, there is the new entry in the accounts-payable column, but the benefits almost always outweigh the costs. The revenue you lost from those two renters who saw the rodent droppings in their units would have covered the cost of a regular pest-control service.

For most people searching for a pest-control service, the first impulse is to go to the good old Yellow Pages (or whatever they call those big books with all the phone numbers and information on what to do in case of your most prevalent disaster). Resist the urge. Your first inquiry should be to other businesspeople. This is a good time to put those networking skills into action.

Your best bet is to contact the local chamber of commerce or similar network of local business interests. If you choose the phone book, check out the Better Business Bureau issue. If you end up using other phone books or advertising sources, ignore any company that goes by AAAAAAA Pest or AAAAaron Exterminators. Actually, they may be totally competent pest-control providers, but we should all do our part to discourage this lame marketing strategy. (Please, don’t let there be any AAAAAAA Self Storage Centers out there).

If nothing else, look for companies that use the same basic advertising tools you do. If you share similar marketing strategies, chances are you share similar business philosophies, creating a greater likelihood of a mutually beneficial working relationship. Here are a few other things to keep in mind:

  • Bigger isn’t necessarily better. A smaller company is more likely able to tailor a program to your specific needs. Larger companies tend to have a “one size fits all” philosophy, particularly when it comes to commercial accounts. Do, however, keep in mind that some of the big pest-control brand names have independently owned and operated franchises that are worth a look.

  • Older isn’t necessarily wiser. Newer companies tend to emphasize customer service as a major selling point. Word-of-mouth is everything to newer businesses, and they want your mouth to say nice things about them. When dealing with a company with a shorter track record, checking references is a must. When considering any pest-control company, check insurance and licensing documentation diligently.

  • Is the person selling you the work the same person who will be performing it? That’s a big plus. Too many pest services use salespeople who have never spent a day in the field doing actual pest control. If you are inquiring about a regular service and have to go through a sales rep, insist on meeting the person who will actually perform the work before making any deals.

  • Price isn’t everything. In the pest-control business, the adage, “You get what you pay for” rings true. If a company’s main selling point is its low rates, it’s probably just that—a low-rate company.

  • Any service agreement you are offered should be in plain English, short and to the point, and should contain no tiny letters or Latin words. Lack of a written service agreement is no deal-breaker. Personally, when I offer a potential customer an agreement, it’s in the form of a handshake.

  • Does the company emphasize Integrated Pest Management (IPM)? IPM is the use of a broad variety of techniques and strategies to control pests, as opposed to plain old chemical warfare. IPM might consist of such measures as trapping, baiting, exclusion, landscape modification and the use of moderated amounts of pesticides. IPM is the weapon of choice for today’s pest-control professional.

  • Last but not least, trust your instincts. Gut feelings are almost always a parameter in a good business decision.


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