Manatee's toughest jobs: Behind the scenes with the bedbug exterminator

pvidela@bradenton.comOctober 15, 2012 

Imagine that it's as hot as a sauna in your house.

Around 140 degrees -- hot enough to melt candles and cosmetics, like the inside of a car with the windows rolled up on a sunny day.

Now imagine rearranging all the furniture in your house in that heat. For good measure, reorganize everything inside your closets and cabinets, too. Once you're finished, do it all over again.

Sound crazy? That's what the bedbug crew at Keller's Pest Control in Bradenton do nearly every day. But they're not redecorating, they're eradicating. Bedbugs.

They're a largely unseen menace, lurking in the dark crevices of places where people normally feel the safest. Once the blinds are drawn, the lights switched off, and we're snug in our sheets or easy chairs, basking in the glow of the television, the bedbug's blood feast begins.

They can be no thicker than a credit card and as small as the tip of a blunt pencil. For those who have been unlucky enough to harbor them -- unwittingly inviting them into their home, carried on clothing, bedding, luggage or furniture -- it can become nothing short of a nightmare.

Rodney O'Quinn, owner of Keller's Pest Control, has seen it first hand. People often call in and break down on the telephone, crying as they describe how they can't sleep at night, or tell of children covered in welts -- allergic reactions caused by the tiny blood-eating insect's bites.

O'Quinn's company has treated a diverse array of local homes and edifices, from hotels and condos to offices and nursing homes. They can be found pretty much anywhere people congregate, and getting rid of them can be expensive and exhausting.

About four years ago, after trying conventional treatments for years with varying degrees of success, O'Quinn invested in a thermal-eradication solution. So far it has been a win-win scenario for both O'Quinn and his customers.

As bed bug infestations continue to rise across thecountry, so does the volume of calls Keller gets from people throughout the Tampa Bay area, including right here in Manatee County.

Keller's Pest Control is unique in that they are the only company within four neighboring counties to provide this method of bedbug eradication. Their work takes them from Charlotte County up to Tampa and east to Orlando.

As O'Quinn explains, all life phases of the insect will perish when exposed to high temperatures for certain lengths of time. But once the temperature hits 126 degrees, it's more or less instant death for a crawling bedbug.

Crank up the temperature to about 140 degrees and heat every surface of every object or structural element inside a living space for at least a few hours and it's a guaranteed no-win scenario for the bugs and their offspring and eggs.

It is meticulous work carried out under adverse conditions. They have to be sure to distribute the heat thoroughly and consistently. That means moving everything -- couches, mattresses, bureaus, china cabinets, closets stuffed with clothing, sheets and bric-a-brac -- all getting shifted and rotated around in those scorching temperatures to ensure heat penetration and bug death. To keep safe from overheating and overexertion, the bedbug crew always works together and try to limit their exposure to the heat for 10 minutes at a time.

Equipment setup takes about an hour and a half, unless there's stairs. For each service call, The Keller's Pest Control crew will route hundreds of pounds worth of pressure-resistant hoses and connect them to portable radiators strategically placed throughout the home or building. The hoses circulate heated fluid pumped from a trailer-mounted furnace.

The radiators crank out heat at temperatures exceeding 140 degrees and work in conjunction with a dozen industrial fans positioned to help create a convection current throughout the rooms being treated.

Remote temperature sensors are placed inside each room and in critical spots, such as bed frames or underneath furniture, and are monitored and recorded by a computer that allows the workers to visualize any problem cold spots and redirect the flow of heat. In one visit they can treat up to 3,000 square feet.

In situations where adjoining apartments or condos may be the source of a bedbug infestation, additional prevention and treatment steps are taken to eradicate the pests, including the use of bedbug sniffing dogs trained to detect the insect's tell-tale sweet and musty odor, which is oftentimes compared to rotting raspberries.

As O'Quinn and his crew work their bedbug mojo, they consume liters of water and sweat through every layer of clothing. Then, hours after they begin, they have to reverse the process -- unhooking and removing all the heavy equipment after allowing it to cool to below scorching temperatures.

Once that's finished, everything inside the home back goes back to its proper place. No easy task itself, as all the contents of the home are splayed about in various configurations. For a mind addled by extreme heat and exertion, it seems like a wicked game of memory: On top of it all, one has to remember where everything goes.

So next time you remark on how hot Florida can get, just think of these guys. Every time they walk outside from their lovingly crafted, honest-to-goodness bedbug killing inferno to take a break, for them, the sultry 90-degree weather feels quite refreshing.

But despite the grueling details of the job, for O'Quinn and his employees, there is satisfaction to be found in a job well done. Bedbugs can wreak havoc on both a physical and psychological level, and getting rid of them goes a long way in helping to return someone's life to normal -- where normal means being able to have a good night's sleep without being tormented by the hunger-driven visitations of the lowly blood-sucking bedbug.

It doesn't hurt that it pays well, either.

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