Property: Doctor on the house: Talking rot in any language

Don't be fooled - you can deal with anobium and serpula without chemicals - or a Latin dictionary, says Jeff Howell

OK, hands up those who understood the Latin in last week's column. Praestat sero quam nunquam - "Better late than never". Don't worry if you didn't; I only know it because I used to have it on my letterhead. Latin's a dead language, only taught in public schools and seminaries. Strange, then, that the rag-bag of ex-plasterers and double-glazing salesmen who call themselves timber infestation surveyors so love using it to describe the state of your floorboards.

Woodworm, madam? - oh yes, that's Anobium punctatum that is, very nasty. And the dry rot under the bath? Serpula lacrymans, good job you called us in, sir, that'll spread all over the house, that will.

So these chancers, some of whom can't string together three words in English, pepper their surveys with Latin, as though they misspent their youth in the natural history museum. They do it because it sounds like both a scientific diagnosis and a serious medical condition, justifying the drastic chemical cure they want to sell you.

Woodworm and dry rot are actually best dealt with by traditional building practices - fixing water leaks, providing good ventilation and making sure the heating works. But most timber treatment "specialists" have only one aim - to peddle chemicals.

Several readers have reported that their homes, having been sprayed with pesticides, are still infested with dry rot. This can only be because the original conditions that allowed the fungus to flourish - wet timbers and high humidity - are still present. If this is so, chemical treatments are pointless; the moisture will eventually dilute them.

The name dry rot is unfortunate, as it gives the impression that the fungus grows without water, which is not so. True, it can spread some distance, and thus grow across dry timber sections and even masonry, but it still needs water at its source - a great deal of water, in fact - so that dry rot is normally caused by leaking rainwater pipes or plumbing leaks. It also needs at least 75 per cent relative humidity - which can only occur where there is no ventilation.

So dry rot thrives in enclosed spaces with water leaks - such as under baths and under timber ground floors. Remove the source of water and increase the ventilation and the fungus cannot survive; it's as simple as that. And then there is no need for poisonous chemicals.

It would be nice to report that timber-treatment firms that belong to trade associations offer a more objective service, but unfortunately this is not so. In my experience they are all after only one thing - to sell chemicals. In fact, these "reputable" firms can be the worst, because they are driven by performance targets and sales commissions - and, of course, they are sent on courses to learn the Latin names. Oh well, as Nero himself might have said: Die dulci fruere. ["Have a nice day."]

q You can contact Jeff Howell at the Independent on Sunday or by e-mail: Jeff@doctoronthehouse.demon.co.uk

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