Helping customers eliminate bedbugs

Vacuums and steamers can help do the job

Bedbugs have long plagued humans in their living environment. This pest has substantially increased in importance as a result of the public’s fear of this insect, particularly because of their characteristic odor and feeding behavior. Bedbug feeding on human hosts can cause serious physical distress, which is mainly persistent, intense itching, which varies with each individual.

There are neither precise nor detailed records of the costs of bedbug control efforts or of any of the related costs to people bitten
in residential, commercial or institutional housing. The costs for the hospitality industry include:

  • Increased laundry expenses.
  • Replacement of bedding and furniture.
  • Structural cleaning and physical modifications.
  • Lost revenue from negative publicity.
  • Insurance claims and lawsuits.

Bedbugs have become a major pest problem in places with multiple occupancy, such as hotels and motels, group and nursing homes, schools, libraries and offices, just to name a few.

According to a survey of pest control operators, more than 90 percent of bedbug infestations occur in mattresses and box springs, as well as nearby carpeting and base boards. In fact, bedbugs thrive in areas where there is an adequate supply of available human hosts and plenty of cracks and harborage areas within about 4 ft. of the host.

Bedbugs are very small, nocturnal, transient and elusive. They seek cryptic harborages, and can detect and avoid many chemicals, including cleaning agents. In the absence of human hosts, adults can live without feeding for several months to more than a year, and nymphs easily survive for three months or longer. This makes the common bedbug difficult to control without a fully integrated approach.

Getting rid of bedbugs is even a greater problem because sleeping areas and other sensitive locations are not conducive to the use of conventional pesticides. Spraying the mattress with insecticide is undesirable as the room must be suitably ventilated and sufficient time must be given after application before the mattress can be used again. More importantly are concerns over the possible health effects of pesticides on people and pets, including allergic reactions to the chemicals, and other possible health risks such as cancer and acute neurotoxicity. Therefore, non-residue methods are preferred to insecticides.

Control methods other than toxic chemicals are demanded by the customer, which can create an opportunity for equipment rental stores that stock the right tools to help eliminate bedbugs. Among the best of these alternative treatment methods is the effective use of vacuuming combined with directed steam treatment and followed by exclusion.

Bedbugs can be physically removed from exposed resting sites, such as edges of a box spring or mattress seams, by sucking them up with a vacuum cleaner. Any vacuum used in a bedbug elimination program should have a HEPA filter on its exhaust to prevent redistribution of bedbug eggs and fecal pellets. A HEPA-filtered vacuum removes more than 99 percent of all particles greater than 0.3 micrometers in diameter, which is about the size of a bacterium. This would ensure that allergens associated with bedbugs or their debris was being removed. Vacuuming usually will kill a large portion of those bugs and can be done at the same time as using steam, thereby immediately eliminating a significant portion of the pest population.

While vacuuming helps reduce bedbug infestations, it does not eliminate bedbugs hidden inside of materials or in cracks and crevices. To reach bedbugs in these areas, a heat treatment is necessary. Bedbugs are rather difficult to dislodge with vacuuming alone because they hide in places where normal housecleaning efforts do not reach.

Adults and nymphs cling tightly to surfaces and each tiny translucent egg is affixed with a cement-like substance. Vacuuming will dislodge many bedbugs. However, some individuals and especially their eggs will be left behind. Removal becomes difficult if not impossible when bugs and eggs are located deep within crevices of wood, fabric or upholstery. To reach the pests hiding in these areas, additional treatment using dry directed steam can help.

Steam treatments are effectively used to quickly eliminate live bugs and their eggs from the seams of mattresses and other cloth items. Effective use of this technique requires practice and care. The manufacturer’s instructions about the steam generating devices’ operation, maintenance and safety precautions must be followed carefully.

Steam treatment can effectively kill all stages of bedbugs. If bedbugs have a weakness, it’s elevated temperature. Temperatures of about 120 degrees Fahrenheit are lethal to most insects provided they cannot escape to a cooler location. Steamers work by delivering lethal temperatures to where bedbugs may be hiding. Dry steam is quite effective when bedbugs are on the surface of items and up to ¾ in. into fabric surfaces. In cracks and crevices, dry steam will kill bedbugs up to 2½ in. into a gap.

The advantage of steam is that heating is intense and immediate. Vapor that is too hot to touch is what’s needed to kill bedbugs and eggs on contact. To be effective, steamers must be capable of delivering a minimum of 150 degrees Fahrenheit to 180 degrees Fahrenheit for a sustained period. When targeting bedbugs, though, the less moisture emitted the better, especially when treating mattresses and other slow-drying materials where mold growth is a possibility. Therefore, low-moisture, commercial-grade steamers are preferred.

Steam can be used to treat almost any area where bedbugs are found or suspected. Logical places include beds, couches and recliners, baseboards and carpet edges, beneath and within nightstands and dressers and floor areas, especially under and around beds. Avoid treating finished wood surfaces or delicate items that might be damaged by high heat.

Steam treatments are even more effective when used diligently and carefully in conjunction with vacuuming. Effective treatment requires repeated and very thorough steaming of the mattress, box spring, bed frame, bed covers, pillows, not to mention other materials and objects within the infested room, such as carpets and curtains.

Steam requires following the manufacturer’s instructions concerning the steam generating devices’ operation, maintenance and safety precautions. The steam emission tip must usually be about 1 to 1½ in. from the surface being steamed. If the tip is too far away, the steam may not be hot enough to kill all the bedbugs and eggs that it contacts. If the tip is too close, excess moisture may be injected into the treated material, particularly if the steam is not hot enough. This may lead to other problems, such as dust mites and the growth of surface molds in addition to causing damage to varnished wood finishes. Immediately vacuuming the areas after they are treated by steam will increase the efficiency of the bedbug control program by removing the dead insects, eggs and fecal pellets.

While steam is effective, there are several precautions to take when operating this equipment. When renting this equipment,
always make sure the customer reads and understands the manufacturer’s instruction manual that came with the equipment.

  • The steam will be hot, as high as 212 degrees Fahrenheit to 240 degrees Fahrenheit. This can cause burns, so never let children use the machine and always direct the steam away from you.
  • Larger brush heads usually work best. Small diameter pin-point tips are less efficient and frequently emit too much pressure, causing bugs and eggs to be blown off the substrate. While some of the dislodged bedbugs may die, others could be scattered and survive. Make sure you use a nozzle to distribute the steam at lower pressures, such as a floor or upholstery attachment.
  • When using steam on a surface, always test on an unseen area as some fabrics may be damaged. With microfiber fabrics, always steam with the direction of the microfiber.
  • Steamers will sometimes spit out hot water when you start up or after the steamer has not applied steam for some time. Pointing the wand at a towel when you first start will allow you to capture this water.

The best steamers for treating bedbugs also are the best units for commercial cleaning and sanitation. The ideal units are quiet, professional steam generators that feature an integrated HEPA-filtered vacuum for recovery of waste materials. Like all mechanical equipment, commercial steamers/vacuum units require periodic maintenance, such as descaling of the boiler and changing the high-efficiency air filter. Look for units that do not require outside service or specialized tools to keep the steamer/vacuum system in top running condition.

There is one additional step in the integrated control of bedbugs. After the steaming and vacuuming of the areas in which the insects live, the cracks and crevices as well as the mattresses and box springs need to be sealed. Sealing access to harborages
can effectively isolate bedbug populations.

Bedbugs have specially adapted piercing–sucking mouthparts and three-segmented, structurally primitive terminal leg segments with claws. Both their mouths and legs make them incapable of chewing or clawing through even a very thin layer of sealant or caulking, or an unbroken layer of paper or cloth. Sealing a layer of almost any material in place, so that it completely covers the opening of any harborage, can stop bedbugs from passing through.

If any bedbug is sealed inside a void or harborage, it is permanently removed from the pest population; even if it continues to live for another year or two. Just sealing most of the known openings between a harborage and the bugs’ usual host access sites will restrict the bugs’ movements and help temporarily reduce the intensity of their feeding.

Enclosing clothes and other items in plastic bags and similarly tightly sealed containers can greatly reduce the availability of harborage sites. In addition, commercially available plastic covers, at least 0.8 mm thick and usually having a zippered edge, can completely encase a mattress or box spring and stop any bedbugs harboring in either of them from further access to bite a host using that bed.

An integrated pest management system that includes steaming, vacuuming and exclusion will significantly reduce a bedbug infestation and the intensity of their feeding without the use of harmful chemicals.

Robert W. Powitz, Ph.D, MPH, RS, is a forensic sanitarian and principal of R.W. Powitz & Associates, PC, Old Saybrook, Conn. He may be reached at 860-388-0893 or email


Useful references and references cited:

  • National Center for Healthy Housing, 2010. What’s Working for Bedbug Control in Multifamily Housing: Reconciling best practices with research and the realities of implementation.
  • Wang, C., Saltzmann, K., Bennett, G.and T. Gibb, 2012. Comparison of Three Bedbug Management Strategies in a Low-Income Apartment Building. Insects 2012:3, 402-409.
  • Pereira, R. M., Koehler, P.G., Pfiester, M. and W. Walker, 2009. Lethal effects of heat and use of localized heat treatment for control of bedbug infestations. J. Econ. Entomol. 102(3):1182-1188.
  • Harrison, R., and B. Lawrence, 2010. Pulling Back the Sheets on the Bedbug Controversy: Research, Prevention and Management in Hospitals & Long-Term Care Facilities. American Society for Healthcare Environmental Services.
  • Gangloff-Kaufmann, J.L., 2008. Guidelines for Prevention and Management of Bedbugs in Shelters and Group Living Facilities. Cornell University.
  • Armed Forces Pest Management Board, 2006. Bedbugs — importance, biology, and control strategies. Washington, DC: Armed Forces Pest Management Board Technical Guide No. 44.
  • University of Kentucky, 2007. Killing Them Softly: Battling Bedbugs in Sensitive Accounts. PCT News.
  • Shindelar, A. and S. Kells, 2011 University of Minnesota. Using Steamers to Kill Bedbugs.
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),