Finding profit in pest control

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Frank Morales, operations manager of Eco-Rid, flips bedding during a thermal remediation treatment. High temperature treatment has received considerable attention as the primary non-chemical means of killing bed bugs.

Frank Morales, operations manager of Eco-Rid, flips bedding during a thermal remediation treatment. High temperature treatment has received considerable attention as the primary non-chemical means of killing bed bugs.

Tiny, reddish brown bed bugs that feed on human blood are back with a vengeance and for local pest control operators, it means big business.

Bed bugs have been catching rides on human travelers from across the country in record numbers. The National Pest Management Association has seen a 71 percent increase in bed bug infestations since 2001, due mostly to international travel.

“Every pest-control operator I’ve talked to has seen an increase in bed bugs,” said Matt Camper, a research associate at the Colorado State University Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management. “There has been such a huge uptick — it’s insane.”

The bugs, which typically lay their eggs along the folds of mattresses, are all the rage in the pest-control industry.

Last year, revenue from bed-bug extermination work alone reached $258 million, up from $98 million three years earlier, said Pest Management Association spokeswoman Missy Henriksen. Bed-bug extermination still only represents about 5 percent of the total pest-control revenues, she said. But she expects revenues to increase again this year.

Once thought of as only infesting crowded living areas in lower-income areas, the little blood suckers of today are not particular about which side of town they infest. Local exterminators and researchers said bed bugs can be found in four-star hotels, condominiums, suburban homes and even offices.

Unlike mosquitoes, bed bugs do not transmit disease but the gross-out factor seems to be higher.

“It’s the fact that they are in your personal space — your bed,” said George Ortiz, service manager for Mug-A-Bug Pest and Termite Control in Colorado Springs.

Five years ago, Mug-A-Bug got one bed bug call a month. Today, it’s closer to 10 a day, and killing bed bugs represents about 25 percent of its business.

Mug-A-Bug uses chemical sprays to help exterminate bed bugs. Initial treatment costs $290 with follow-up visits at $90.

“Sooner or later, for most pest control operators, this will become the most important area of business,” Ortiz predicted.

In the 1920s, bed bugs were part of everyday life, Camper said. By the 1940s, with the advent of synthetic pesticides, they were gone. Now, with one in five U.S. adults expected to take business trips this year, the bugs are hitchhiking across the world.

“The way they are moving is us,” Camper said. “The people who fly 300 days a year, their chances increase exponentially that bed bugs could catch a ride home.”

John Obringer, who manages 200 apartment units in the Springs, has been called in the middle of the night by residents who live in his complexes. He was spending about $500 a month per apartment building on bed-bug extermination.

So in August, he started his own bed bug eradication business, Eco-Rid, which relies on heat — four heaters that reach 135 degrees — to kill the bugs. Thermal remediation was developed long ago to kill insects inside grain silos. Now heat is being embraced as the “green” way to kill bed bugs, Obringer said.

He spent about $60,000 on the heaters and first used them on the properties he manages. Last month he started selling his thermal remediation service at $1 per square foot. Business is growing, he said.

“We essentially turn the apartment into a convection oven,” Obringer said. “The lethal temperature for bed bugs is 113 degrees. At 122 degrees, it kills them in less than one minute.”

The pest-control industry is looking for news to get rid of the bugs.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency held its first bed bug summit to discuss the increasing infestation and a recent Colorado Pest Control Association meeting was devoted to the topic. In November, Congress will host a bed bug forum and discuss possible grant money to study the bed bug surge.

“It’s anybody’s guess on whether they cycle out,” Camper said.

Until then, the pest-control companies are staying busy.