How can PMPs balance bed bugs, clients’ budget constraints and tenant satisfaction? Some firms are trying a reduced-price, three-service bed bug treatment protocol.
As bed bugs continue to spread through different socio-economic classes, one aspect of protocol development that many pest control companies are quickly learning is that one treatment does not fit all. While an elimination protocol consisting of encasements, interception devices, non-chemical contact tools and pesticides may be the best legal and ethical option, there are many communities that can’t afford a treatment that costs $800 to $1,200 or more per apartment.
Due to the cost of an elimination program and the financial restrictions many suffering from bed bugs have, demand for cheaper bed bug services is increasing. In response, many pest control companies are offering a contract consisting of three services (that averages three to five hours of total labor spread out over the course of four to six weeks) for one set price. Although most bed bug experts claim that there is not enough time invested within these programs to eliminate more advanced bed bug infestations, many property management companies claim they are happy with the results. In addition, many PCOs are claiming that the three-service model works but often cannot provide data to back their claims. Is this type of service truly eliminating bed bugs or is the claim of success based entirely on tenant perception and thus providing a false sense of security?
Study Parameters. In August 2010, a multi-family housing management company with a 1,000-unit, garden-style apartment complex presented an opportunity to develop a protocol that was “budget sensitive” yet maintained a high-level of effectiveness. Management asked for a service consistent with the three-service contract that many other management companies were receiving. The opportunity was seized to put data behind the three-service model and to determine if the protocol truly eliminated bed bugs or the determination of “success” was based upon tenant perception and not reality.
Treatment Protocol. As per property management, bed bug service consisted of three treatments with a total of three to five hours of labor included in those three services. The initial service was projected to take two technician hours to complete and each follow-up was one hour each. At the completion of the third treatment, regardless of whether bed bugs were visually observed by the technicians, service was discontinued unless management requested additional services. At this point, a 60-day callback policy was instituted so if the tenant called management to complain of bed bugs within 60 days of the completion of the work, bed bug services were performed at no cost to management. If no bugs were noted by the technician during the initial or first follow-up then service was discontinued at that point and the 60 day callback policy would commence.
When an infested unit was identified, each unit would receive a box spring encasement and interception devices under every bed and couch. Mattress encasements were only used in high-level infestations where obvious infestation of the mattress existed. Diatomaceous earth was applied inside the box spring encasement before it was closed to assist in killing any bed bugs that were locked into the encasement. Transport GHP was applied to the underside of the box spring encasement, bed frame and other areas throughout the apartment in a manner consistent with label directions (around furniture, non-contact areas of couches, baseboards, etc.). Close attention was paid to all items within two feet of the sleeping areas and all items were thoroughly “treated” in a fashion consistent with the item (sheets were laundered, nightstands taken apart and treated, socket and switch plates removed and dust applied around the electrical box, etc.). Diatomaceous earth and Tri-Die aerosol were applied to all cracks and crevices and voids in walls were treated with Tempo Dust. Bedlam was used on upholstered furniture where evidence of bed bug activity was noted.
First follow-ups incorporated Demand CS as the liquid residual and focus was applied to any areas where new bed bug activity was noted. If a second follow-up was needed, Transport GHP was again the liquid residual applied.
Limited preparation was required by tenants prior to the initial service. The only requirement was to clean the apartment so items were not in the high-traffic areas and technicians could work without tripping hazards. A thorough service report indicating obstacles encountered, future cooperation needed and areas pesticides were applied was completed at the conclusion of the initial service.
All data were tracked from September 2010 through August 2012, which included: the degree of infestation, the number of bed bugs noted on each service, the number of services, the number of callbacks within the 60-day guarantee and any units that were retreated after the 60-day guarantee expired. Permission was not granted by management to re-enter the majority of the apartments after service was completed to further evaluate if bed bugs were still present.
Time Saved. An average elimination protocol in an average bed bug infestation takes 10 man hours spread among four services, compared to an average of four man hours in this protocol. The time is saved by simplifying follow-up treatments and dramatically reducing vacuuming, steaming and installing mattress encasements. Also, product cost is eliminated by not installing mattress encasements in most apartments.
The Contract. Prior to commencing work, a contract was written that stated that the management company is not receiving an “elimination protocol.” Instead, the protocol being applied was intended to eliminate many of the infestations but in some instances where a large number of bugs were present or tenant cooperation was limited that the protocol may only manage the bed bug infestation. The management company verbally and contractually received what an elimination protocol consisted of and agreed in principle that they understood what the bed bug program should be and that they declined the option in favor of a management approach. In the future, if the management company does not agree to the contractual verbage stated previously, declining the business is the most advisable course of action.
Results. Over the course of the two-year study, 54 apartments were treated, of which 49 were unique (five repeat units). Of those 54 apartments, 70 percent were low-level infestations (20 bugs or less noted on the initial service), 22 percent were moderate-level infestations (21 to 100 bugs noted on the initial service) and 8 percent were high-level infestations (more than 100 bugs noted on the initial service).
At the completion of the third and final service, bed bugs were still visually observed by technicians in 33 percent of the apartments treated. In those apartments, there was an average of 8.4 bed bugs visually observed by the end of the third service. Of those 18 units where bed bugs were still present, six had more than 10 bugs present. Despite the fact that bugs were observed in 18 apartments during the third visit, only two apartments called management to complain about bed bugs within the 60-day callback policy, which was a contractual callback rate of 4 percent. Within the two years of the study, five apartments were retreated at different points of the study, which is a retreatment rate within the two years of 10 percent.
Although permission was not granted to re-enter a majority of the apartments treated in this study, in November 2012, permission was granted to re-inspect six apartments where bed bugs remained present after the third service to evaluate the status of the infestations in those apartments. Of those six apartments, two could not be entered due to the locks being changed unknown to property management. Of the remaining four, no bed bugs were found in three of the apartments and only one male bed bug was found in the fourth.
Discussion. This is one of the first studies of its kind to put control data behind a bed bug protocol that many companies within the industry are providing and evaluating success based on tenant complaints. Determining the success of a pest management protocol based on complaints is inherently flawed as a tenant’s perception does not determine technical success, since individual tolerance to pest issues can widely vary.
The question remains why the tenants did not report the presence of bed bugs in the 18 apartments in this study where bed bugs were found at the end of the third service. The inspection of four of these units months after conclusion of the program found that three did not have bed bugs and the fourth had only one male bed bug. This indicates that more than 50 percent of these apartments may be continuing to elimination. That being said, 10 percent of the total units treated were retreated over the course of the study which means that a handful are not continuing to elimination.
Some possible explanations as to why the tenants are not complaining sooner include:
- Bed bugs continue to be present but the residents do not perceive the remaining bugs to be a problem
• Residents are unaware that the problem still exists (not reacting to bites or seeing the bugs).
• A certain number of bed bugs is tolerable.
• Residents find pest control services to be an inconvenience or too disruptive to their lives.
- Bed bug numbers continue to decline following the last service.
• The University of Kentucky recently reported that Transport GHP has a residual effect in field settings, which could be assisting in pushing low-level bed bug infestations to 0, especially when applied to high-probability areas, such as the bottom of the box spring encasement.
• Interception devices could also be catching and eliminating the remaining bugs as they travel to and from the bed in the weeks after the third service.
FIinal Thoughts. While we cannot say which of the above is occurring, the bottom line is that many property managers are happy as long as they are saving money and not receiving complaints, which the three-service bed bug treatment protocol achieved in this study. These results could help explain why the three-service program is becoming more common as property management companies request a cost-effective solution to bed bug management. The findings in this study need to be expanded upon to determine better methods to reduce the 33 percent of apartments where bed bugs were found after the third service. Also, access needs to be gained to all units post treatment to determine the true status of the program.
While there are obvious ethical and legal concerns raised when evaluating this study, the intent was to use the findings to begin building a protocol that delivers a high level of effectiveness while being budget sensitive. While suggesting that certain tenants may need to live with a low level of bed bugs is often viewed by many as ethically unacceptable, forcing property management companies into bankruptcy because more affordable solutions don’t exist isn’t acceptable either. More research needs to be conducted in this area to determine the right solution for all interested parties.