Alleviating Human Misery: The Very Real and Lasting Emotional Trauma Caused by Bed Bugs

Posted by Michael Ferkiss on

January 14th is the birthday of one of my heroes.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer was a humanitarian of the highest order having received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. If you are curious here is a link.

One of my favorite quotes from the good doctor is:

“The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.”

Given world events these past couple of years I have reflected more and more on how simple yet profound the concept of helping, not hurting our fellow citizens can be. Although the initial intent of starting our company was to solve a business problem, we are now very aware of how much human suffering our products actually end up alleviating.

Since our company was founded in 2012 our primary focus has been to provide commercial-grade electric bed bug heat treatment equipment to businesses.  These businesses in turn provide bed bug remediation services to their customers. An example of this would be Terminix using PestPro Thermal bed bug heat treatment equipment to provide bed bug heat treatment services to their commercial customers.

Although we would get the occasional call from an individual homeowner or landlord suffering from a bed bug infestation our equipment was usually overkill for these low frequency customers needing to cost justify the expense of our commercial bed bug heat treatment equipment.

An analogy might be the buying decision one faces of either buying the cheapest tool from Harbor Freight for a one-time project or investing in Snap-On tools because you make your living as an auto mechanic and you value quality, longevity and superior customer service.

The pandemic has changed the ratio of consumer and business customers for us. Where before it was 80/20 in favor of businesses it is now the opposite and 80% of our customers are  currently consumers.

With this change has come a whole new appreciation, understanding and empathy for the havoc, trauma and psychological toll that bed bugs exact upon folks actually suffering through a bed bug infestation and using our bed bug heaters where they live and sleep.

In a recent article sent to me by a university entomologist I learned that folks with mental illness, the poor, the elderly or those that are isolated are most likely to suffer damage to their long-term mental health from the effects of bed bugs. These same groups of people are also most likely to not be able to access nor afford to pay for either extermination or mental health services which makes the horrors of living with bed bugs even worse.

The discussions I now have with customers who are either in the business of eradicating bed bugs using heat treatments or tasked with eradicating bed bugs in their properties is very different than the conversations I have with anyone trying to rid their own personal properties of bed bugs.

Shifting from discussions around things like data points and Returns on Investment to conversations akin to “Please help me. I can’t take it anymore!” has been an eye-opening realization for us here at PestPro Thermal Systems.

What we have learned from this experience, like a lot of small businesses managing the effects of the pandemic, is that what we thought we were in the business of we are actually in the business of something else.  After pulling back the layers of the onion that represent our business, we came to the conclusion that at our core we are providing non-toxic tools for alleviating human suffering.

Pre-pandemic, when people asked me “so what do you do professionally?” my answer went something like this: “I run a small manufacturing company that produces commercial grade electric heaters which we sell mostly to pest control, property management companies and large housing communities.”

My answer today is closer to this: “I spend most of my days speaking with tenants or homeowners who want to know if they can kill bed bugs in their own homes or short term vacation properties like VRBO and Airbnb or rentals. Many of them are at their wits end and I need to take as much time as needed to sympathetically listen to their stories about suffering with bed bugs and try to calm them down so they can take the next step in getting their lives back to normal.”

The stories I am hearing from these customers jive with what I read in the previously mentioned article, primarily that “multiple researchers have documented the connection between bed bugs, emotional trauma and lingering mental health issues. In some cases, side effects like severe anxiety, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, obsessiveness, and hyper vigilance (to keep the bugs away) are severe enough to mimic post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.”

See The American Journal of Medicine article here.

Other symptoms include obsessive or intrusive thoughts and heightened anxiety. There can even be flashbacks, where a person sees a speck of something that looks like a bed bug and that triggers them to re-live the event,” according to Alexis Hansen, a trauma-oriented psychotherapist.

I recently discovered this thoughtful, personal account from a frequent traveler and her experience bringing bed bugs back from a "nice" hotel. Summer Hull is Director of Travel Content for Her article is very personal and  informative but the punchline is she paid at least $5,000 to exterminators to heat treat her home using propane heat which was so hot it destroyed some of her personal items. An electric heater for bed bugs treatment would have served her well. An automatic thermostat will not allow for excessive temps.

A quote from the article states:

"Our battle against the bedbugs stretched for several months, and while I’d do my best to make light of the situation, it was truly awful. It was a mental, physical, emotional and financial drain to have an enemy in your home you rarely see, despite your best efforts. But, not seeing them didn’t stop them from easily finding and biting us (and our kids) while we slept."

Although never officially considered or mentioned in our business plan, I find myself now in the position of serving in the capacity of a pseudo-psychologist doing my best to help this new class of customers to calmly take the steps required to rid their homes of bed bugs using our bed bug heat treatment equipment.

Some other things I have learned about mental health and bed bugs because of this new (I think temporary) market shift towards consumers:

  • The psychological damage that bed bugs inflict on their victims is tied to 2 primary factors. The first is bed bugs bite you inside the sacred, intimate space of your own home and second, they bite you when you are at your most vulnerable – when you are asleep.
  • If someone is feeling helpless and unable to escape (like being able to simply go inside if you are being bitten by mosquitoes) they will start to think and act in irrational ways to escape the terror of a bed bug infestation. They will immediately start throwing out expensive furniture and personal belongings, change their clothes many times a day, spray toxic liquids like kerosene, alcohol or bleach after reading dangerous and unproven DIY posts on the internet.
  • People who have experienced a bed bug infestation firsthand say it has changed their lives forever. “There is life pre-bed bugs and life post-bed bugs which will never be the same”.
  • Like any real or perceived bodily threat victims of bed bug intrusions experience a fight or flight response which is by definition a stress inducing event, not easily forgotten.
  • For those already challenged by advance age, mental illness, poverty or are simply isolated and depressed, like during this pandemic year, bed bug trauma might well be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back.
  • Social stigma: there is a lot of shame tied to bed bugs. Patients traumatized by bed bugs are afraid to tell anyone about it in fear of how they might react. Mental health professionals report struggling with how best to deal with those patients coming to their clinics who might be carrying bed bugs with them. They want to help in a sympathetic way but are concerned about bed bug infestations spreading to their own offices and homes. How do you handle the situation with compassion if you are required to visit your patient’s bed bug infested home?

On a lighter note here is a a very amusing interview Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central fame did with entomologist Jerome Goddard of Mississippi State University. 

For any non-business folks who are reading this and considering if you can rid your home of bed bugs using our equipment and without any help from anyone else here are the top questions and answers that will hopefully help you make the best decision for your situation.

Q: Does heat always kill bed bugs?

A: Heat always kills bed bugs in all their life stages: unhatched eggs, baby bed bugs (nymphs) and adult bed bugs. Insecticides have lost their effectiveness to kill bed bugs because the bed bugs themselves have developed evolutionary resistance in the same way humans have developed resistance to antibiotics due to overuse over time. 

Q: What temperature will the room get up to using an electric bed bug heater package?

A: We set our automatic thermostat to 135F so you will never have to adjust the temperature setting. The room will get up to 135F in about 90 minutes depending on the size of the room and then the automatic thermostat will keep it at that temperature for the entire 5 hour average treatment time that we recommend.

Q: Will I need to throw away any of my furniture that has bed bugs living inside?

A: No, unless the infestation is extreme. This is one of the big advantages of using heat to kill bed bugs. The heat penetrates/cooks all your furniture and other personal belongings including electronics which are not harmed by the heat. The heat will also penetrate baseboards, carpeting, clothes hanging in your closet and loosely stored in your drawers and shelving.

Q: What do I need to plug your heater into to get enough electricity to generate enough heat for your bed bug heater to operate effectively?

A: PestPro Thermal bed bug heaters require you to have access to either an electric stove power outlet or an electric dryer power outlet. Since the heater comes with 4 adapter cables these power outlets can have either 3 or 4 blades (prongs). Power flexibility is a real luxury if you need to use our equipment in your friend's or family's homes or apartments.

Q: Why can’t your heater just plug into my standard wall outlet? This seems like a hassle.

A: Standard wall outlets require you to plug into up to 8 separate 15 amp wall outlet circuits to get enough electricity. Each room typically is connected to just one 15 or 20 amp circuit so you might be plugging 8 separate cords into 8 separate rooms. I have attempted unsuccessfully to help callers’ figure this out after they decided to go with the budget, plastic heaters using this “octopus cord” configuration.

Q: My dryer outlet is in the basement and my bed bugs are up on the 3rd floor in my son’s attic bedroom. Will the cord reach?

A: We offer both 50’ and 100’ long power cords on the website or just call us and we can make any length you need.

Q: Does the separate, high temperature fan also need to plug into a stove or dryer outlet?

A: NO the separate fan plugs into standard 110/120v wall outlets and will be pointed straight up towards the ceiling so you will be creating what is called a ‘torus’ of hot air circulation. See illustration below. 


Bed bug convection torus

Q: I have read or heard that unless I can heat treat my entire apartment or home at the same time that I will just be chasing the bed bugs around my place from one room to the next and never be able to kill all the bed bugs.

A: Only in extreme situations (less than 5% of the time) where bed bugs have been allowed to multiply for a very long time you may need to treat your entire unit (and maybe the ones on either side and above and below you) simultaneously. Well over 90% of our customers who have a light to moderate infestation can successfully kill all the bed bugs in their homes or apartments one room at a time using just our bed bug heater. We are now only recommending fans as an option (primarily for professionals) as the internal fans built in the heaters is proving so effective and air movement.

Q: I already have carpet drying fans. Can I use them instead of yours and save some money?

A: Carpet drying fans have internal components that are not rated to operate in extreme heat. They might work for part of a job or even one entire job but many of our customers who have attempted this have regretted their decision as their fans overheated, failed and were not repairable. Our fan is built using electronic components heat rated for up to 180 degrees Fahrenheit. They are the gold standard in the industry and most of our commercial grade competitors use them as well.

Q: Will I need help from others to use your equipment?

A: No. Our bed bug heater was thoughtfully engineered to be usable by only one person. It is on swiveling rubber caster wheels so you can tip it up on 2 wheels like a roller bag or pull it like a wagon around tight corners.

See Nancy and John's Testimonial Video HERE.

Q: How much prep will I need to do before I turn on the bed bug heater and fan to treat my room for bed bugs?

A: The better you seal off your room from outside air getting in or heat getting out will speed up your treatment time and prevent bed bugs from escaping. The minimum prep we recommend is to cover your windows on the inside using plastic sheeting and blue painter’s tape. You should also cover all the AC/Heating vents with plastic and blue painter’s tape. The gap under the door should be sealed with blue painter’s tape. If the power cord does not fit under the door (it is a pretty thick cord) then use blue painters’ tape to seal the gap created by having to leave the door partially open.

Also need to open drawers, loosen or remove contents so heat can penetrate inside.

Hanging clothes in closets cannot be squeezed together or heat will not be able to penetrate. Space out or remove hanging clothes as needed to ensure good heat circulation and penetration.

Do not treat bathrooms unless you have for certain seen bed bugs there. Bed bugs hate cold hard surfaces but in extreme cases might be forced to go there. If you think bed bugs are in your bathrooms remove the items that have the bed bugs into the room you are heat treating for bed bugs. Wax rings under toilets can melt if you attempt to heat treat the bathrooms. Melted wax rings can create leaking problems. 

Using a bed bug heat treatment package to kill bed bugs is simple, safe and very doable. Having your own bed bug heat treatment package is an enabling tool that can be shared or rented to others as needed. The control you get to handle a potentially horrible situation quickly is priceless.

Call or text 970-443-8119 for meaningful answers to your intelligent questions about our bed bug heat treatment equipment.

We appreciate and thank you for your time.

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