Wood Rot vs Termite Damage

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This article covers nearly everything you need to know about wood rot and termite damage, including the similarities and differences between the two. It also explains the major distinguishing factor between wood rot and termite damage and will tell you which is worse. 

What Is Wood Rot? 

Wood rot is a generic term that refers to a type of damage sustained by wood. 

In nature, when wood dies, moisture and fungi collaborate to break down the fibers of the wood and turn it into soil. This is a natural and desirable part of the life cycle. 

When we kill trees by cutting them down, then use them to construct homes, garden beds, path liners, and furniture, we are attempting to interrupt this natural process. When moisture and fungus start to degrade wood we’re using in our yards or shelters, we call this decay ‘wood rot’. 

The fungi that feed on wood live in the soil and air around us, but they can only grow in moist places. The most important thing you can do to prevent wood rot is therefore to keep wood dry. 

In wet interior environments such as bathrooms or exterior decking and furniture exposed to the elements, this is easier said than done. 

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How to Prevent Wood Rot

There are several ways to help prevent wood rot.

There are advantages and disadvantages to all the methods for discouraging wood rot, and they all have a tendency to degrade over time.

Not only that, wood rot often hides beneath the surface, growing silently and invisibly. It is therefore important to plan not only for how to discourage wood rot from occurring, but how to check on the efficacy of your solution. 

How to Check for Wood Rot

Rotted wood cannot be repaired, and must be removed and replaced. The risks of unchecked rot in structural supports are dire. Rot dissolves the structural integrity of wood, making it liable to collapse. 

Certain areas of the home are more susceptible to wood rot than others. Wet rooms, basements, bathrooms, windows, exterior doors, and decking are the most likely culprits to be hiding wood rot beneath the surface. 

At least once per year, homeowners should probe the wood in these areas with a screwdriver to check the integrity of the wood. Wood should feel firm and hard. Any softness is a problem and should be investigated further. 

In areas that are covered by materials other than wood, such as linoleum or tile, wood rot is harder to spot. Mildew or mold is a definite warning sign. Unfortunately, you’ll need to remove the material to check the wood underneath. 

Wood Rot Characteristics

Rot is categorized not by the fungus that caused it, but by the way it affects the wood. Dry rot, also called brown rot, is caused by fungi that target cellulose. It can be recognized by it’s brown color and the cube-shaped bits of wood it leaves behind

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White rot is caused by fungi that target lignin. It’s white or yellow color comes from the light-colored cellulose that remains. Soft rot is the third type of wood rot. It is less commonly found in homes, but leaves a telltale honeycomb structure in its wake as it chews through cellulose in the wood. 

No matter what kind of fungi has caused the damage, all rot must be removed and replaced. However, removing dry rot is the most urgent, as this kind of fungus spreads quickly. Preventing wood rot from reoccurring requires additional waterproofing measures or ventilation solutions. 

What Is Termite Damage

Termites perform a similar role in the ecosystem as fungi – breaking down materials so that the elements can be used for something else. In nature, this is desirable and even necessary. At home, it is equally desirable and necessary to protect wood from termites and to recognize termite damage as quickly as possible. 

Termites are small insects that feed primarily on wood. There are two kinds of termites that homeowners need to be concerned about; subterranean termites and drywood termites. 

Subterranean Termites

Subterranean termites build their colonies in the earth. They use their saliva and feces to create mud tunnels in search of food.

Subterranean termite colonies are found near the foundation of the houses they infect, and can tunnel through many different materials when seeking wood to feed on. 

The signs of subterranean termites are easily confused for water damage. A moldy or mildew smell, buckling wood, and swollen walls or floors are all signs that termites might have taken up residence. 

Drywood Termites

Drywood termites build their colonies in dry wood. Walls and old furniture are frequent targets of drywood termites. The termites feed aggressively on the wood, leaving behind only maze-line tunnels.

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They do not feed on paint or wood finish, which means that the exterior surface of the wood remains intact until the damage is severe, hiding the infestation from sight. 

How to Prevent Further Termite Damage

The first step to dealing with termite damage is to stop further destruction by exterminating the pests. Then, the damaged wood must be removed and replaced.

Termite damage requires the additional effort and expense of exterminating the pest that caused the damage, as well as sealing off any entry points.

While it is not possible to prevent every case of termite damage, there are some steps you can take to make it less likely to occur. 

  1. Keeping plants, wood, mulch, and cardboard away from the foundation of your home will make it a less inviting area for termites to visit.
  2. Dead trees and rotting leaves are termite snacks – clear them away quickly.
  3. Good drainage and water management around your foundation is also crucial. 

Termites can enter your home through any crack larger than 1/32nd of an inch. Some cracking is natural as the home settles. A yearly trip around the house to caulk or patch any gaps that have appeared is an excellent way to defend your home against termites. 

If you’re working with an exterior piece of wood such as a deck, you’re probably working with pressure treated wood. You still want to use a high quality deck sealer even though the wood has been treated.

Wood Rot vs Termite Damage

Now that you understand the basics about wood rot and termite damage, take a look at the similarities and differences. 

Similarities 

Both termite damage and wood rot are seriously destructive issues that affect wood underneath the surface. 

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Destructiveness

Wood damaged by termites or decaying due to wood rot is unusable and unsafe. It must be removed and replaced quickly to prevent further damage. 

Invisibility

Both termite damage and wood rot occur out of sight, under the surface of wood. This makes it difficult to detect. 

Differences

Wood rot and termite damage both affect wooden structures and furniture, but have different causes and effects. 

Cause

Termite damage is caused by termites; small insects that eat wood. Wood rot is caused by wood-digesting fungi. 

Color

Termite infestation does not change the color of the wood. Rotted wood becomes dark brown, white, or yellowish, depending on the fungus responsible for the rot. 

Appearance

Wood affected by termites will have a maze-like appearance, due to the many tunnels created as the termites worked their way through. Rotted wood may appear crumbly, powdery, soft, or wet. 

Major Distinguishing Factor

Wood rot is entirely preventable, but termite damage is not. 

To prevent wood rot from taking hold, all you have to do is keep the wood dry. Fungus can not grow in dry environments. 

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Termite damage, on the other hand, can affect even dry wood. While steps can be taken to discourage termites from infesting your home by keeping your foundation clear of temptation and entry paths, you can never entirely termite-proof a wooden structure. 

Which Is Worse, Wood Rot or Termite Damage?

The worst kind of damage is whatever is currently affecting your home, be that wood rot or termite damage. The inconvenience and expense of encountering either is considerable.

Ellenkate grew up on job sites run by her family’s construction company. She earned her theater degree from The Hartt School, a prestigious performing arts conservatory in Connecticut. Her design and DIY work from her Chicago loft was featured in the Chicago Reader and on Apartment Therapy.