LEWISTON — Ron LeBlanc has been dealing with bedbugs for three years.
As a Lewiston landlord, he's seen the tiny bloodsuckers invade single bedrooms, entire apartments and whole buildings. The bugs bit tenants and made their lives miserable. LeBlanc spent thousands on exterminators to spray his units with poison. But bedbugs are notoriously hard to kill.
Sometimes, the spray worked. Other times, it didn't.
The problem has gotten worse.
"I'd say 80 percent of Lewiston is infested," LeBlanc said.
The bedbug situation has become so bad that LeBlanc and business partner Rick LaChapelle recently traveled across the country and spent $65,000 on a machine designed to superheat infested homes and kill the bedbugs inside. Since the pair got the machine a month ago, they've superheated about 20 homes — both their own apartment buildings and those owned by others.
So far, superheating seems to have worked where spraying failed. At least the men, their clients and their tenants hope so.
Bedbugs are in Maine and the desperation to get rid of them is growing.
"In the past two or three months, bedbugs have totally exploded," LeBlanc said. "It's gone crazy."
Bedbugs are apple-seed-sized insets that feed on human blood. They tend to infest beds and bedrooms, but they also hide in walls, under floorboards, in piles of clothes and inside couches. Because bedbugs are so tiny, it can be difficult to see them. Some people don't realize their homes are infested until they find themselves covered in itchy red welts or discover that their bare mattresses look like they've been sprinkled with pepper — dried blood-waste left behind from the bedbugs' previous meals. Although bedbugs don't spread disease, they can make sleeping nearly impossible and their bites can cause itching.
Nationally, bedbug infestations have been on the rise. The insects have increasingly been found in hotels and department stores, as well as homes and apartment buildings. The problem has become so common that the website BedBugRegistry.com has popped as people tell their horror stories and track bedbug infestations in hotels and apartments.
Bedbugs have been creeping into Maine for the past five years and into Lewiston-Auburn for the past three or four, hitching a ride on clothes, in suitcases and in used furniture. Infestations have nothing to do with cleanliness.
"We did one old guy and his apartment was spotless," LeBlanc said. "It was the worst infestation I've seen."
Housing officials in Lewiston and Auburn have seen a rise in bedbug complaints in recent years. Jim Dowling, executive director of the Lewiston Housing Authority, estimated that his agency spends in the low tens of thousands each year trying to kill the bugs with chemicals.
"Our experience in dealing with various pest-control companies and in attending educational workshops on how to deal with bedbugs, it does seem like this is an expanding problem and the best way to eradicate bedbugs is still developing," Dowling said. "In other words, there's no magic bullet. No one knows what works best, exactly how to do it."
But landlords must try to deal with the problem. A new Maine law, effective this month, requires landlords to inspect a building within five days of tenants reporting bedbugs. If bedbugs are found, the landlord has 10 days to contact a pest control agent to treat the problem. Before renting a unit, landlords must tell a prospective tenant if any adjacent units are infested or are being treated for an infestation. And if a prospective tenant asks, the landlord must tell when the unit was last inspected for bedbugs. Landlords are prohibited from renting apartments they know or suspect have bedbugs.
Bedbugs can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars to eradicate from a single apartment unit. Chemical sprays are among the most common ways to get rid of them, but sprays have strict preparation guidelines, including washing, drying and sealing away some belongings, and residents don't always follow those guidelines. Even when they do, the spray can take several applications. And it may not kill every bug.
Atlantic Pest Solutions, which has offices in Brunswick and Arundel, likes other methods, including using dogs to sniff the precise location of the bugs. If the company finds bedbugs have infested a piece of furniture, it has a mobile heat truck that can superheat that piece of furniture. Bedbugs are attracted to heat — such as the heat of the human body — but they die in temperatures higher than 113 degrees.
For more widespread infestations, Atlantic Pest Solutions superheats whole homes. But superheating takes some preparation and has its own challenges.
"It's not as easy as rolling in heaters and cranking up the temperatures," said owner Ted St. Amand.
Although residents don't have to seal away any belongings, they do have to remove medications, aerosol cans, paintings, cosmetics and other items that could be harmed by the heat. They and their pets must stay away for much of the day, then deal with an overly-warm home as the place cools down. And superheating can be slightly more expensive than spraying — $1,200 for a single apartment unit compared to $1,000 to spray two.
But while there are some challenges with superheating, and its full effectiveness is still being judged, it seems to do in one application what chemical spraying can't guarantee in several — kill bedbugs.
"I would tell you, if it was my house and I had bedbugs, I would definitely go with the heat. No doubt about it," St. Amand said.
LeBlanc and LaChapelle went with heat for their buildings. After spending thousands on spraying, they did some research and decided to give superheating a try.
With a 1.2 million BTU propane heater dubbed "The Oven," the men can heat rooms, apartments or whole buildings to 140 degrees or more. They pump the superheated air into the building through vents attached to the windows. The building is pressurized to ensure the heat seeps into walls, floorboards and other cracks and crevasses. And to make certain the building gets hot enough without getting too hot, workers constantly monitor temperatures using wireless sensors and computers.
It can take a furnished apartment three to five hours to get up to temperature. Workers keep it there for another three to five hours to ensure all bugs are dead. It then takes about 30 minutes to cool the building enough to re-enter.
LeBlanc recommends people launder fabrics and vacuum to get rid of the dead bugs. He also tells them to be careful about returning items to the apartment, since a backpack, for example, can harbor the bugs and reintroduce them into the space. But aside from that, he said, there's little else residents need to do.
He has so far been impressed by the heating. It's done what he hasn't been able to do for three years.
"It feels so good," he said. "Right now, we're bedbug-free."