If you’ve found some uninvited guests in your home and need to call in the cavalry, most people turn to exterminators or pest controllers.
Though they may seem like different names for the same service, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Pest controllers (firms that practice integrated pest management) offer longer-term solutions with low toxicity products.
But their timescale and price tag can lead you to choose an exterminator, who’s often cheaper, faster, and uses toxic chemicals.
In this article, we’ll highlight 7 key facts you should consider when deciding if you should hire pest controllers or an exterminator.
Seven things you need to know
Names and qualifications
Nowadays, many pest removal businesses will call themselves pest controllers or exterminators interchangeably. The education and training received by exterminators and pest controllers can also vary wildly.
Name is important, but the real distinction is in practice.
To really get the services of an actual pest controller, you need to ensure that the business adheres to integrative pest management (IPM) goals and practices.
IPM was first proposed in the 1940s as a method of pest control that integrates modern knowledge of pest life cycles, natural enemies, and as few (and the least) toxic repellants and pesticides as possible.
Pest controllers who practice IPM should have IPM certification. IPM certification means that they have training in practices and procedures that prioritize long-term, environmentally friendly solutions.
There are several IPM certifications, such as Green Shield and Green Pro, which are both nationally recognized.
Green Pro is offered by the National Pest Management Association, a non-profit supporting pest management professionals’ commitment to environmental practices.
Pest control firms will also often employ entomologists and biologists, as well as experts in ecosystem management, whose knowledge of all things pest-related helps determine the best course of action for removal and long-term solutions to pest infestations.
The training exterminators receive may cover some of the same issues, but primarily covers knowledge of how to use toxic pesticides.
When hiring an exterminator, it’s always a good idea to check where they got their training, and if it requires ongoing education.
Exterminators have one goal: extermination.
Typically, this involves employing toxins that kill any and every living thing in or on your property.
One example is structural fumigation (aka tenting) where a large tent is placed over your home and a colourless and odourless chemical called sulfuryl fluoride is pumped in.
Though this isn’t the first move, it is a go-to option for exterminators. Tenting is labour-intensive when done correctly, and can incur some pretty big costs and risks without guaranteeing long-term results.
Another thing to consider with tenting is that sulfuryl fluoride is toxic to everyone, not just pests.
You have to vacate your home for up to a week and should have it professionally cleaned after in order to prevent accidental poisoning to those who are more sensitive.
In comparison, pest controllers don’t believe eradication of a pest is always the only or best option.
The aim of IPM is sustainability; implementing long-term pest control solutions that respect the health of people, animals, and the environment.
Pest controllers who adhere to the practices of integrated pest management (IPM), want to fix your pest problem but prefer it to be non-toxic and lasting.
Though exterminators rarely guarantee their work, a good IPM practitioner will.
The IPM Institute of North American outlines the following four principles for the community (residential and commercial) IPM:
- Inspecting and monitoring: examining structures (from sheds to large buildings), and keeping an eye on pest levels, while using traps to figure out where the pests may be coming from.
- Sanitation, pest-proofing, exclusion: discovering what is attracting the pests in the first place, what is sustaining them, and cleaning up the problem to make the infestation site unappealing.
- Recordkeeping: documenting the history of complaints, the results of previous inspections, and the history of solutions utilized (from pesticide to hormonal repellents.)
- Low-risk pesticides: the first choice is always non-chemical, and progressing to products with low toxicity applied in a way that limits spread and exposure for people and animals.
Based on the list of practices, it’s easy to see that another difference in techniques used by pest controllers is that they can take a long time to properly implement.
Whereas an exterminator can make a couple of visits and call the job done, the process of IPM pest control often necessitates multiple visits to the site and extensive follow-up.
Though this means that the job gets done well, it can sometimes feel intrusive.
Unlike exterminators, pest control is likelier to offer non-lethal options.
This is especially important when dealing with unwanted guests like bees and hornets, both of which are integral to pollination (and in the case of bees, endangered).
When dealing with rodents or other small mammals, the options for non-lethal pest control are numerous.
After figuring out how they’re getting in and stopping them at the source, pest controllers can employ live traps to nab anyone who is already in situ.
Though they require frequent monitoring, the benefit is the ability to release the rodent (or any other critter) safely into the wild.
Another tool of the pest control trade is natural repellents. Things like pepper or citronella-based repellents irritate rat and mouse sinuses, encouraging them to move elsewhere.
Other humane non-lethal ways of discouraging rodents are ultrasonic sound and vibration devices, which are sensory irritants but not deadly.
When it comes to infestations of important species or mammals if you want to “get rid of them” in the mafioso sense, call an exterminator.
If you want rodents to be happy and healthy but just not in your home, pest controllers will be the most educated and willing to help out.
Given the information already provided, it may go without saying that exterminators are significantly cheaper than pest controllers.
For a single-time visit from an exterminator (depending on your region), the cost can vary between $100 to $300. Examples of one-time visits include a poisonous snake or scorpion found on your property (or even in your house!)
Bee, wasp, and roach infestations can sometimes also be covered by a one-time exterminator visit.
For pests like rodents or termites, you may require an exterminator to visit monthly or quarterly, which can add a monthly cost of $40-$70, or a quarterly cost of $300-$500.
Brace yourself: one-time visits from pest controllers can cost upwards of $300-$500. This is because when it comes to pest control, there really isn’t such a thing as a one-time visit (unless it’s a simple extraction of an individual pest).
Pest control charges are higher because they include an initial survey of the problem, location of the origin or nest, discovery of entry points, and creation of a plan that accounts for long-term support when necessary.
It’s clear the cost is greater because so much more research and prep work goes into that initial and follow-up visit.
Post-visit work is also more extensive, with things like site-specific guides that have common-sense solutions that lower the risk of re-infestation included in the price.
Both may offer a free quote, but pest controllers are more likely to offer long-term guarantees for their work.
Exterminators may offer short-term warranties or guarantees on their work, but they’re frequently worded in a very specific way.
For example, if you hire an exterminator touting a guarantee unless the contract explicitly states total extermination of the infestation there’s a likely chance you won’t be able to legally hold them to their word.
Because exterminators won’t typically search for the origin of an infestation or attempt to close off points of entry, you may need to have them come back multiple times.
You may be offered a contract with unlimited returns to deal with the problems, but this is based on availability.
Take ants. Spraying them once won’t solve the problem, and may result in a pretty quick resurgence.
But there are numerous examples of people attempting to the unlimited service they paid for and being told after the fact that it’s only available during certain hours.
Another issue that arises from exterminator contract guarantees relates to language. It’s common for termite extermination companies to guarantee free re-treatment on “new damage” only.
That means if they missed something in their initial assessment, it won’t be covered.
They can also argue the definition of new damage, claiming their expertise makes them better placed to determine whether the damage is historical or current.
There are a lot of ways that dishonest companies can fiddle with terms to get out of providing the coverage you paid for.
As outlined, the training for pest controllers who adhere to IPM standards includes practices that prioritize safety and the environment.
Pest controllers won’t typically opt for toxic pesticides.
When absolutely necessary, the application will be focused on using the correct technique and product to minimize the impact on local ecology.
Exterminators will typically use the product that works more quickly, without prioritizing environmental concerns.
Like in the earlier days of DDT, just because a product is widely used, doesn’t make it safe.
Making your choice
Figuring out whether you need a pest controller or exterminator can be a tough choice. You may want to prioritize the environment, but don’t have the funds to pay for a pest controller.
There’s also the issue of time: the time it takes to research your best option and the time promised to deal with the problem. You may also want a quick solution instead of worrying about an investigation and a long-term plan.
Keep in mind that regardless of what kind of professional you opt for, you may not be seeing all the costs up-front.
A quick job could easily turn into a long-term issue that you may keep having to fix (and pay for) time and time again.
You can do all the research in the world, but unless you read the fine print on the contract, you may be choosing the worst option.
Take the time to read any contract thoroughly before signing, and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification in writing.
Though it adds to the workload, taking the time to check reviews for your chosen service provider can also be the difference between long-term pest removal success and short-term problem-solving.
Milestones in pest control and extermination
Going over the history of pests and how we’ve dealt with them may seem like overkill (no pun intended), but it provides important context for making choices about whether you need an exterminator or a pest control specialist.
We initially didn’t have much in the way of defences, but by the 18th century, we came to possess a lot of the knowledge used as the basis in pest control practices and extermination today.
Revolution in extermination
Before the Industrial Revolution came the Agricultural Revolution, and the widespread implementation of new technologies and techniques such as chemical pest killers and crop rotation.
This makes sense when you consider that we didn’t require pest control until we decided (as a species) to settle down and invent farming.
We began domesticating animals, creating different means of farming and cultures, and also living in population-dense groups.
Suddenly, we needed to grow a lot of food and then store that food, and pests decided that humans both were and provided a great source of food.
Fast-forward to the 17th century, where revolutions in pest killers came in the form of treatments with active ingredients such as arsenic, antimony, selenium, sulfur, thallium, zinc, and plant alkaloids.
Shockingly, hydrogen cyanide gas was also used to fumigate.
Shortly after, we began to realize that the more widely-used compounds like arsenic and sulfur were causing workers to become ill.
By the late 1700s, in countries such as France, it was strictly forbidden to use arsenic or mercury for field or seed treatment.
Though this is when we discovered the tools of the exterminator trade, this also marked the time where scientists truly began to study pest control, documenting the cause, effects, and methods used to eliminate the fungus, illness, and vermin causing crop destruction.
Science of the 19th century
Before the dawn of the 20th century, we experienced two big jumps in pest control technology and methods.
The first was the widely available application of the first chemical pesticide, iron sulfate. Though effective at killing pests and keeping crops alive, the application was so labour-intensive that most farmers opted for other means.
The second was the adoption of biological means of pest control. In other words, taking animals that eat or scare away pests that aren’t native to an area, and importing them specifically as a means of pest management.
Though this sounds problematic now that we grasp the damage foreign species can cause on native flora and fauna, the reality is that very often the pests in question were imported as well.
For example, in the mid-1800s an Australian insect called the cottony cushion scale was accidentally brought to California and started wreaking havoc on citrus farms state-wide.
In response, the US government sent an entomologist to Australia to figure out which natural predator of the cottony cushion scale would be most effective.
The chosen beetle was successfully introduced, and the cottony cushion scale is no longer a problem.
The problem with chemicals
In the 1900s, evidence-based pest control became much more common, incorporating everything from long-used techniques like pest-proof varietals, mechanical controls, to the newest chemical solutions.
But the chemicals and applications weren’t always safe or their usage well-monitored.
Synthesized in 1874, dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), it wasn’t until 1939 that Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller (who later won the Nobel Prize for his work) discovered its anti-insecticidal properties.
DDT came into common usage in 1939, where the spread of malaria and typhus throughout Europe (among soldiers and civilians alike) was becoming as deadly as warfare.
World War I and II saw soldiers in trenches plagued by lice, fungus, and ticks.
From here the chemical pesticide industry exploded, with DDT being touted as a universal solution for everything from crop failure to insect spread illnesses.
Farmers would even crop-dust fields all over America without concern for its spread or effect on non-pests.
As we know now, DDT wasn’t the safe, universal solution it was believed to be.
As early as 1947, scientists were noting how DDT harmed all living creatures, not just the pests it wanted to control, devastating ecosystems and the natural balance of regions where it was sprayed.
Not only that, mosquitoes and other pathogen-carrying insects were becoming resistant, calling into question its effectiveness in eliminating illnesses like malaria.
Another unforeseen consequence of the wider use of DDT was the backlash: though initially effective, within shorter and shorter periods of time pest populations would resurge, with numbers higher than pre-DDT application.
This came to be known as target pest resurgence.
On top of this, the short window where the numbers of initial pests targeted for treatment fell, other pests populations would rise to take their place, in what we came to call induced secondary pest outbreaks.
Regulation and ban of DDT still didn’t occur until decades later, with the US banning most usage in 1972 (though still exporting to other countries).
A recommended global ban didn’t come until the early 2000s, but to this day some countries still use it in their agricultural practices.
Alright, that’s it for this article, here are a few hand-selected articles that you might also find interesting reads:
11 Things to Consider When Hiring an Exterminator
Is Pest Control Worth It – Pros and Cons With Real Examples
Is An Annual Termite Inspection Worth It – Key Facts And Numbers
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