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Biting back against bed bugs

Bed bug ‘saunas’ promise big savings, potential revenue for social housing
Camas Village
The bed bug zapper room in the newly completed Camas Gardens on Humboldt Street. The room

The idea is simple: fry the nasty little buggers before they get in the door.

Or at least, that’s the goal.

Mechanical “bugs” in Pacifica Housing’s new bed bug sauna prevented the facility from working on time for the grand opening of Camas Gardens.

During its media launch two weeks ago, the new social housing project publicized being the first facility on the Island to use the anti-pest technology. Since then, a handful of tenants have moved in without the benefit of the sauna room.

The room wasn’t getting hot enough, explained Phil Ward, team leader of housing services with Pacifica. The heat is supposed to eradicate bed bugs at any stage of their life.

Once the doors of the sauna are properly insulated and mechanics fixed, new tenants will place all of their belongings into the small room for a two-hour session in the cooker. Furniture, clothes, and even electronics can withstand the 50 C.

Ward admits he’s worried the mechanical failure might open the door to bed bugs in his new facility, but other measures will prevent the bugs from establishing themselves. New buildings, such as the 44-unit Camas Gardens on Humboldt Street, come with sealed baseboards and diatomaceous earth, a material used to control pests, between the walls.

Pacifica is not the only organization taking this new approach to bed-bug management. The Vancouver Island Health Authority and the Cool Aid Society are also jumping on board.

In May, Cool Aid opens its new social housing project in Saanich, called Olympic Vista, complete with a bed bug sauna room.

“If bed bugs do get into your building, it’s very, very, very, very difficult to get rid of them, mostly because they have a tendency to get into the walls,” said Don McTavish, manager of shelters.

Once the bugs have taken hold of a building, the only option is to dislocate the tenants to spray the entire building, he said. “Where do you put those 40 people? It’s a huge inconvenience.”

It’s happened at Sandy Merriman house.

“We had three rooms that had gotten infested and we just kept trying to do it (spray) room by room but it wasn’t working,” he said. “We put everybody in our gymnasium at the Downtown Activity Centre for the night. We ordered pizzas and we made a party out of it,” he said, adding the intervention cost thousands of dollars.

At one of Pacifica’s 48-unit buildings, pest control companies are called in to spray infested units three or four times per month, costing $600 to $800.

More than just bringing savings, however, the bed-bug saunas have the potential to generate revenue, Ward said.

Staff at Pacifica discussed offering the service to private customers at a cost, he said. Once all the tenants have moved in, the non-profit organization will likely examine the idea more seriously.

The health authority is exploring a different model of cooking bed bugs. Rather than a room, it’s testing a mobile unit.

“Our Mental Health and Addictions Residential Services purchased a portable high-power electric heating unit on a trial basis. However, we had it inspected and it needs some additional components to meet CSA (Canadian Standards Association) standards,” wrote Shannon Marshall, VIHA communications officer.

“This unit is intended to be placed in an infested room and heats the room up enough to kill bed bug adults, larvae and eggs,” she said. “We’re continuing to test units before we finalize a purchase.”

On the surface, heat seems a better option than chemical sprays, but the concept hasn’t won over hoteliers.

“I know It’s being touted as one of the next successful ways to deal with these little devils,” said Scott Hoadley, president of the Hotel Association of Greater Victoria. “The thing with it is that it has to be a high-quality machine.”

Bugs can scatter, he explained.

Bed bugs can be a frequent problem at high-end hotels because the pests can arrive with international travellers. For that reason, most have aggressive protocols to prevent any infestations.

Hoadley, manager of Victoria’s Inn at Laurel Point, employs a pest-control company for both proactive and reactive bed-bug management. The company brings in a bug-sniffing dog for targeted treatment.

“Do we want to use chemicals in our guest rooms? No,” said Hoadley. “When we use a chemical in a guest room, there is a lot of product (for instance, bedding) that is destroyed, in some cases.”