Bedbugged! I shop for a real exterminator

By Theresa Braine  | November 4, 2010 - 6:34AM

Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.

I decided to get rid of quasi-exterminator TC when he said he was going to bomb the apartment to get rid of every critter in it—lots of creatures, from carpet beetles to the occasional roach, come to light once you’re searching—and then focus on the leftover bed bugs, if any. By then I had started reading and other reputable websites and getting an idea of what I was up against. And saw that my instincts were correct: Pretty much every single thing this guy had done was wrong.

On top of that, he didn’t explain that I needed to keep the pesticides down for several weeks so as to take full advantage of their “residual effect”—the ongoing killing power of the pesticide residue once the liquid has evaporated. So I committed another no-no before moving back into the bedroom: I mopped the floor where I planned to put my air mattress. Granted, it was a mess from the bed demolition anyway, so it had to be cleaned up to some extent. And my urge to not sleep lying on a reservoir of poison residue would have been, under most other circumstances, a solid, healthy impulse.

But one has to do a lot of counterintuitive things when sleeping with the enemy. A simple sweeping would have been better, even though I had decided to re-exterminate anyway.

Basically what one is supposed to do, in an ideal (i.e. informed) situation, is this: The second you have evidence of bed bugs (cast skins, sharpie-like fecal traces or actual bugs, which incidentally you must save in order to show as proof), hire a pro who knows how to inspect, so as to confirm your findings/suspicions; let him or her treat, providing the person is well versed in bed bug biology and habits and is not just a “spray and pray” baseboard jockey (i.e. if the person says something like, “They prefer to bite women,” that is a red flag); and follow the coherent, logical instructions that any exterminator worth his or her salt will leave you with.

Since TC did none of that, and his results so far had seemed disastrous, I decided to start from scratch and hire someone myself.

But I had no idea how to find an exterminator who knew what he or she was doing. How did I ensure I didn’t get another TC? I embarked on an extensive research effort, the one I wished I had undertaken at the outset instead of completely losing my cool. Instead, I trolled the Web, googling phrases like “bed bug exterminators NYC” and then checked company names against Better Business Bureau listings, consulted the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Division of Solid & Hazardous Materials Bureau of Pesticides Management for lists of licensed PCOs (short for Pest-Control Operator, which is what exterminators like being called nowadays) and reading reviews (though you never really know who wrote them).

I also found some info on about what to look for in a PCO, and downloaded the New York City Health Department’s long list of PCO criteria--some of which I didn’t even feel qualified to judge, such as asking them how they approach bed bug extermination. Things like making sure they “price a job according to inspection findings, not based on a flat fee,” seemed equally overwhelming. How was I supposed to know what the inspection findings indicated?

Mind you, I was doing this while sleep deprived and hysterical. Although the bites had stopped for the most part, I had found a bug in a glue trap (some PCOs prefer other detection monitors, but I’d thrown down a couple on the advice of TC so decided to leave them) at one point, and another time I saw a younger-looking one (there are five life stages) on the air mattress but it got away—ok, it bounced off when I pounced on the mattress to inspect closer, and I couldn’t find it—so I wanted to start from scratch.

Having selected a few targets, I then, being a reporter, hit the phone.

First call was to a place called Absolute Death, which I picked for both the name and the Web site. What’s not to love about a company whose logo is a scythe-wielding Death figure, complete with glowing red eyes, standing next to a tombstone image bearing the epitaph, “R.I.P., Rat In Peace”?

Like everyone I spoke to, they seemed genuinely compassionate and patient. They spent lots of time on the phone with me, answering my endless questions, even knowing I was not necessarily going to hire them.

Absolute Death’s method involved nuking the things, no questions asked. If it was clear that your place was infested then they would spray the place, apply powders and dusts discreetly in cracks and crevices and inside walls via tiny drilled holes, and give a 30-day guarantee. Mike, the guy I spoke to, rattled off a list of weapons, including something he called “birth control.”

I had questions that today I know to be irrelevant, such as, “Is my infestation heavy or light?” Doesn’t matter, said Mike. He said they treated every bed bug job like a severe case. There were no “levels.”

“The primary objective with bed bugs is to kill all of them,” Mike said. “You cannot leave anything alive.”

He also told me that if my previous exterminator hadn’t given me a detailed list of cleaning instructions that go hand-in-hand with the treatment, then I still had bed bugs.

I told him TC wanted to bomb, and Mike pointed out that pyrethins, a bed bug repellent, are often a main active ingredient in those. It kills many insects but could merely send bed bugs scattering.

“Either he’s not certified or he’s falling asleep at seminars,” he said. “Bed bugs will go in the wall and laugh at you.”

There they would stay, deep in some harborage, until the pesticide had weakened. They can afford to be patient - at least one bug has been known to survive up to 18 months in a laboratory setting, though that could drop to a year or less depending on temperature and other variables - without food. Then they’d emerge to start noshing again.

“You are their food. And water. That’s all they need--you,” Mike said. “So you lie down at night, they’re gonna get their meal and keep it moving.”

Next I called M&M Environmental, which also spent a ton of time on the phone with me. Their methods took longer and involved inspections and a long, intricate prep list. Their personnel sounded extremely thorough and knowledgeable, so I kept them in my "contender" file.

I then discovered New York Magazine’s Best Bed Bug Exterminator write-up of John Furman and his aptly named Boot-a-Pest company. More investigation revealed that he had something of a cult following on as well. (Lots of pros post there, from all over the world, answering bed bug questions and identifying bugs, on their own time, after they have spent long workdays killing and/or examining bugs.)

I figured two reputable sources couldn’t be wrong. Even though he was a one-man show, he called himself a Bedbug Warrior (I suspect one has to be a bit messianic to prevail against such a formidable enemy). He too answered all my questions, with unending patience.

He came by to check my place out. He did not blanche at the enormous amount of built-in wood furniture—desk/bookcases, dresser, closet and a wooden platform built a few inches above the floor over half the bedroom to level it out—and instead immediately formulated a plan of action involving cunningly applied dessicant dust and sprays, copious amounts of laundry and plastic bags, and a Packtite heat-treating machine. But more on that later.

In the meantime, I had to decide whether I could wait the two weeks it would take for him to squeeze me in. I didn’t really want to, but the bites had mostly stopped, and if I had made it this far I figured I could wait another couple of weeks.

Like Goldilocks searching for the perfect (uninfested) bed, I weighed my options: Should I pick the no-questions-asked nukers, the rigorous intellectuals, or the rock star?

In the end I went with Furman the rock star.

Next week: My life in plastic


See all Bedbugged!

Theresa Braine is a NYC-based journalist and bed bug survivor whose work has appeared in the NY Daily News,  PeopleNewsday and other outlets.  Bedbugged! is her weekly column about life in the bed bug trenches and how to climb out with your sanity intact.

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