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Pest Management heads for a New Generation

A Santa Maria company could change the bug-killing business - and the industry giants have noticed


Tuesday, August 13, 2002. A house in Torrance, Calif., that had been tented for fumigation accidentally fills with natural gas and explodes when a furnace kicks on. The blast levels the house, damages 20 others, and injures 10 people. But now, because of the vision of one Santa Maria business owner, the need to tent a house for fumigation may be drastically reduced.

Ken Van Corbach, President and CEO of Santa Maria's New Generation Pest Management, has developed a process that could lower the amount of home fumigations by 60 percent. And along the way, it could bring about a huge change in the multibillion-dollar extermination industry.

"The potential is just phenomenal," Van Corbach said of his two new products. "It's absolutely revolutionary, and it is going to change the industry as we know it today."

A normal termite job begins with a visual inspection. Company employees look at the baseboards of a house, the attic, and outside. If they find evidence of the animal's fecal matter-it looks like little pellets of sand-they almost universally recommend fumigation. The owner then pays about $1,200 to $1,500, and has to leave the house for up to four days and take any plants and/or pets. A giant tarp is pieced together over the house, and up to 12 pounds of Vikane is pumped into the home- effectively killing any termites within the residence.

Vikane is also known as sulfuryl fluoride, a poisonous gas that dissipates into the atmosphere after the tarp is removed. Van Corbach said the homeowner must also deal with trampled vegetation outside and any damage done to the roof, since these are not the responsibility of the exterminator. Extermination companies are always looking for the next big thing to make the job easier. For the past seven years, as the industry concentrated on trying to find a better way to kill the termites, Van Corbach tackled the problem from the other side -- the termite inspection. He feels a more precise inspection can lead to an exact location of the termites, and therefore treat the problem locally, instead of through an entire home fumigation. So he developed two products that make up what he calls the Predator. One is a portable x-ray machine that can see into the wood where the termites live and eat, and the second is a highly sensitive acoustic emission device that can actually hear the termites chewing. The two products, Van Corbach said, make it possible to locally treat an area of the home instead of enveloping the entire building in pesticides, and still guarantee complete success.

With Van Corbach's two products, if a visual inspection finds termite droppings, an 8-inch by 17-inch picture -- or X-ray -- is done above those droppings to see what's in the wall. It's a still picture, so the acoustic emission device is also used to tell if the termites are still alive.

If so, a 1/8-inch hole is drilled into the wood, and four ounces of a topical product called Termidor is applied to the surface. Termidor is a toxinate like any other pesticide, but Van Corbach said because of its application inside the wood of a wall, it's much less harmful to humans. The product dries on the wood and the termites continue to pass over it. However, any termite that comes into contact with the product -- as well as any termite that comes into contact with that termite -- will be dead in seven days. And no fumigation is needed. The owner can return home in four hours.

Van Corbach said the entire operation is faster, easier, and better for the environment than the current methods. "When you're using alternative methods, you're only doing one area of the structure," Jim Fortelny of Leadership Fumigation said. "You could have areas where termites are hidden that nobody can see." He said he prefers to tent the house and fumigate it to ensure that all termites, seen and unseen, are dead.

Fortelny said he does see some positive aspects of using x-rays and localized treatment. In the future, he said, tent fumigation might be phased out because of the health risks involved in using those chemicals. He also thinks the Van Corbach's acoustic emission device has a future in the industry. "I could see where it would work for fumigators like us because if [after fumigation] a homeowner is still seeing evidence of termites, we can probe the walls with a device like that and see if there is activity."

With all those concerns and the possibilities, people within the industry have noticed that this product could be a big hit, and they all want to be the one that has it.

Van Corbach said he's been contacted by national and international companies like BASF, Terminix, Orkin, and Syngenta, who would like to know more about the product Van Corbach said has the potential to turn any one of them into an industry leader. He's met with representatives from these companies and said they are all very interested in the Predator. But Van Corbach isn't interested in just selling the rights to the Predator to another company. He wants to become partners with one of them in order to help him distribute the product globally and stay in the business. He plans on coming out with some more industry-changing products in the future and to create a powerhouse company that's based right here in Santa Maria.

Sun Staff Writer Matt McBride can be reached for comments or story ideas at mmcbride@santamariasun.com.