Homes ravaged by termites hidden behind spray foam insulation

Spray foam. It's been around for decades. You've probably used it to patch holes under the sink or to seal gaps in your home. But it's taking on a much bigger role these days. Contractors and homeowners are using it as home insulation in attics and basements.

New construction goes so far as to use it in the walls in the interior of the home. And that energy efficiency is a selling point. It's a money saver -- unless something goes wrong. How wrong? Some homeowners are losing the fight with termites and losing their pest control contracts.

"I opened the door and I saw thousands of termites actually flying, swarming. It was like a scene from "The Birds," homeowner Ronald Fleming told the Fox 5 I-Team.

His home had a termite bond, yet it became infested with termites, Formosan termites, known for their voracious wood-eating appetite.   

Leslie Echols, another homeowner with a termite bond who used spray foam as insulation said, "We've lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, literally."

These coastal homes are insulated with spray foam. Back here in metro Atlanta, pest control operators tell the Fox 5 I-Team that spray foam used as insulation has exploded in recent years.

In a suburban Atlanta home, the spray foam is in the interior walls and so are termites.

According to the pest control operator who provided the Fox 5 I-Team with video of this case, the spray foam in this two-year-old house is now home to termite tunnels going 15 feet up.

Everyone of these homeowners did it to lower their heating and air costs. And, no one is suggesting that spray foam caused their termite infestation, but the attorney representing the coastal families says
when termites get in, the spray foam is like a super highway in your walls.

According to a lawsuit coming from the homeowner of a now-gutted tiny house, termites foraged through it randomly and caused more damage than they otherwise would.

Rick Bell from the Georgia Pest Control Association says it sure makes them harder to detect.

"It's like drawing a curtain around the wall that we need to look at."
Georgia's Agriculture Department just released a warning writing that "spray foam" could "hide termite damage and/or the presence of live termites.”

Even in the best of conditions, termites can be tricky to find.

Pick up a two by four. It's something to support your home and it seems solid enough, right? Well, termites can eat their way inside, creating tunnels sight unseen.

Attorney Tom Campbell shows us what's left of the Orange Beach, Alabama tiny house. It was a retirement dream for Leslie Echols and his wife. The water is a 30 second walk away. Their RV was parked and ready to roll at anytime. But while the Echols were setting up house, the termites were building homes in their walls.  

"They can travel unseen. They don't eat the foam but mine through it. They'll go to the wood in the structure and go all over the house very quickly and that's what happened here," said Campbell, an attorney who has special knowledge of homes insulated in spray foam.

According to the Echols lawsuit against the pest control company for deficient "prevention services," the house is a "total loss."

"Our place has absolutely been destroyed front to bottom, top to back," said tiny home owner Mr. Echols.

His lawyer adds, "It's catastrophic to the homeowners, and homeowners insurance doesn't cover termite damage."

But the pest control company, in a response to the lawsuit, contend "they provided professional advice and service on the prevention and elimination of termites." And, they assert that there are "no severe construction defects" to this home.

Down the coast in Pensacola, you see the Flemings' stunning home sitting on waterfront property. But if you look more closely you see spray foam.

"It covers the ceiling," Ronald Fleming shows us.

It's all over his home. When he first saw termites, he said his pest control company got to work trying to kill them.  

"Well, the next year we got termites again, coming through the bathroom wall eating up the back of the house."

The Fox 5 I-Team saw a few dead ones in the windowsill. He can't get rid of them. He is waiting for arbitration with his pest control company to fix the damage.

"It's our home and we can't do anything with it. I'm 73 and we want to downsize."

After facing mounting lawsuits, the pest control industry is pushing back. It has put out a "Consumer Alert" that says property enhancements like "applying spray foam insulation" can "void your termite coverage."

The Spray Foam Coalition writes that their foam "does not attract or provide a food source for termites." It recommends more intense inspection techniques like moisture meters, infrared cameras - even specially-trained dogs to sniff out termites.

Leslie Echols' coastal dream is now in his rear view mirror.  He's gone back to work to pay for a retirement he can't enjoy and a house he can't live in.

"It's not over with yet," he said.

To see the devastating pictures and to learn more, please watch the video.