This old house: fall maintenance tips

Editor’s note: Tom Ellis retired from MSU, but his advice on home maintenance for the fall is being reprinted for your information.

It’s time for the fall inspection of the old homestead. Winter weather will only exasperate the problems you have now. Any repairs you do will also reduce the numbers of insects and other critters that "magically" appear during sunny winter days and early spring.

Many insects and similar creatures seek out houses to spend the winter. Put yourself in the bugs place. Would you rather spend the winter under a rock or bark flap of a tree, or would you rather curl up and take a five-month snooze in an attic or wall void? This is natural selection in action. Your household offers them a better deal.

Let’s use my house as an example. We’ll take a walk around, in, and on top of it and inspect the structure for possible minor maintenance needs. Every repair that I make will dissuade one or several species of insects from becoming a member of my household. Also, any repairs that I make will totally astound my spouse and friends!

Keep in mind that no house in this day and age will ever be 100 percent insect proof. In fact, insect proofing, other than a termite barrier, is never a consideration when a house is designed or constructed. Probably the last (and maybe only) insect proofing innovation in new home construction was the invention of wire window screen!

My house is a basic ranch style with 1,300 sq. ft. It was built in 1957. It has three bedrooms: one for my wife and I and two for our cats. It has a basement, attached garage and scuttle-access attic. The basement is finished. There is a fireplace in the basement and living room. The siding is vinyl over wood (probably cedar). The insulation under the siding is Styrofoam. The insulation in the wall and ceiling is fiberglass batting. The house had new asphalt roofing put on in 1986. The house has an attached deck in back running approximately two-thirds the length of the house. The back of the garage has cabinets built in for storage of screens, storm windows and miscellaneous junk.

So, grab, or borrow, an extension ladder and let’s take look at the gutters, roof, chimney and vent pipes.

Gutters

Gutters should be cleaned out every fall after most of the leaves have fallen. At least three or four species of mosquitoes will lay eggs in and on gutters. In addition to the mosquitoes, we can find several other species of aquatic fly species in my eave troughs.

Some are biting species, and some are not. While we’re here we’ll check fascia and soffits. Wasps, carpenter ants and even carpenter bees will be attracted to fascia and soffits that are not in good repair.

Roof

Up on the roof, we’ll check for loose shingles and rotted boards. These areas are especially attractive to carpenter ants and a variety of insects that overwinter as adults. Prune back branches of trees and tall shrubs that hang over or touch the roof.

Carpenter ants actively scavenge for food on these plants and will move on to the roof if we provide a "branch bridge."

Chimney

While we are up here, we’ll check flashing around the base of the chimney and consider whether it should be tarred soon. Check for loose bricks in the chimney. Both areas are great spots for various wasp species to overwinter. Make sure there is a screen covering the chimney opening. This will discourage squirrels, birds and raccoons. If you have a fire place, you don’t want to be roasting a dead raccoon with your first romantic fire of the fall season!

Vent pipes

One more stop and we can go back to terra firma. Let’s check to see if the vent pipes are clear of debris. Check the flashing around the vent pipes too.

Siding, windows and doors

Back on the ground we can now inspect siding, windows and doors for cracks, holes, and weather stripping that needs replacing. Check boards for rot. Probe boards, especially around door and window casings, with a pen, knife or an ice pick. Rotting boards will puncture easily. If they are rotten, check for termite and carpenter ant damage. If you discover termite damage, fall is a good time to find it. You really don’t need to take corrective action until spring. This will give you ample time to select a pest control company and make the most favorable deal (economically) for you. Be wary of companies that will try to pressure you into taking quick action and those that do not find termites, but offer to sell you a "protection" contract.

If you find an area that you suspect was an active wasp or hornet nest, note where the exit/entrance hole is and wait until March to caulk the hole. This will ensure that it has been vacated for the year. Do not plug the entrance if you think there is any chance of activity this fall. Wasps and hornets can chew there way out on the other side and into your living area.

Insects commonly found making their way into wall voids and other suitable areas by way of cracks and crevices in the siding and through improperly sealed doors and windows include: cluster and house flies, wasp and hornet queens (and an occasional worker that has not yet died), honey bees, box elder and leaf-footed pine seed bugs, elm leaf beetles, various ants, mosquitoes that overwinter as adults, crane flies, and spiders.

Basement foundation and windows

As we look at the foundation and basement windows, we will be checking for cracks, holes, cracked and loose mortar, and weather stripping that needs replacing. The same critters that attempt to enter through siding, windows and doors will also try to make their way into your basement. Basements are favored habitat for pill and sow bugs also. While you are at it, get rid of cardboard boxes and other items that hold moisture and attract these beasts. Check the outside foundation for gypsy moth egg masses. They should be removed and destroyed.

If you store birdseed or dry pet food in the basement, keep it in a sealed metal container. This is a good place to get a whole raft of pantry pests started.

If you have a crawl space, be sure that there is plenty of air circulation through it. This will discourage rotting and the buildup of various fungi and molds.

Attic

Check the attic vents. This can be done by going into your attic or with the extension ladder. From the outside, the screens should be in good repair. If they have holes, check the attic for bird and rodent nests. They will probably contain bird mites, bat bugs, and carpet beetles that will eventually find their way into the house after they’ve run out of feathers and other goodies to feed on. Also, remove nests from house eaves, gutters, etc. for the same reason.

Attached garage and out buildings

We can’t quit yet. The procedure here is the same drill as the house proper.

Over the course of the next month or so, insects like boxelder bugs, lady bugs and cluster flies will accumulate on house siding and on the outside surface of windows, sometimes in large numbers before finding their way under siding and into wall voids. This will be especially conspicuous on the south side of buildings. Routine removal and disposal of these insects is an appropriate pest management action.

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