Pack Rats and Keeping the Water Running, by Sunflower of Kansas

Thursday, Mar 24, 2011

Background: 
You might say to yourself, I have no farm, I have no pump house, and I surely have no rats. My response to this is, “yet.” If and when the Sunflowers hit the fan (SHTF), you surely may have a rodent problem. Rodents can impact whatever integrity you may still have in regard to your utilities. That utility may be communications, electric, or as discussed in this article, water.

This is a true account about my dealings and responses to confronting troubles with Pack Rats. The purpose is to provide a few tips, not to dictate any exact method for dealing with pack rats. Pest control of these particular rodents has shown to be very important to keeping the water running at our farm house. I hope that by sharing a few of my experiences, that you will be less intimidated when confronted with an urgent task like getting the water, telephone, or backup power on line again. I have personal experience with rats impacting each of these areas. I have selected “water” to discuss, because I can address maintenance and preventative maintenance in a manner that you might be able to transfer to your own rodent dilemma someday. May you also take a little humor with you when dealing with these critters.

I have had several occasions with dealing with pack rats. My pack rats can grow bigger than the neighbor’s runt dog. Most of the time, the barn cats do a pretty good job with combating the spurts of pack rat population on our farm. There are, however, times when a structure is not suitable to opening for cat access. I must deal with the rats in other ways.

When I was still new to my pack rat troubles, I tried traditional research to seek out professional remedies. Most of the research summarized what I was already practicing. I visited the county noxious weed office for ideas, and the local hardware store for recommendations. I am also known for chatting off the ears of anyone that may have anything to offer from sharing their own experience.

In regard to other people’s experiences with pack rats, I have pretty much concluded, that there are more pack rat stories about safety hazards and costly repairs, than about remedies. Most of the stories included accounts about farm trucks catching fire, tools disappearing, electric wiring being molested, leather seats being turned to mush, and the list goes on.  

Several folks have suggested shooting the rats. (I do carry, daily.) For safety reasons, space constraints are not conducive gun fire. I carry a multi-tool type knife with me when working in the pack rat infested structures, but so far have not had the opportunity to use it as a weapon. My best plan of defense for the potential of a rat jumping at me, was to use my gloved hands and my stomping boots to crush them. So far, I have not actually stomped on any rats, it is a back up plan for personal protection, in the event the folding knife is not the best option at the time.

You might ask, why not just toss a cat into my pack rat troubles? For logistic reasons, and due to concern to exposing the cat(s) to toxic chemicals, tossing in the cats is not an option. I don‘t know about your pack rats, but mine are persistent. Even if I could make an area safe and accessible to cats, the rats would figure out the schedule and return in short order. 

Structure:
I will present my encounters and resulting maintenance solutions about pack rats by reporting upon one structure - a pump house. I have yielded some success with other structures when utilizing some of the same applications, namely: use of mothballs, and strategically placed rat poisons (under hood of trucks, under seats, near battery cables, and squeezed up in the visor).  However, the pump house turns out to be one of the most important structures to preserving the welfare of our water supply.  

Our pump house is located about a quarter mile deep into a pasture. The pump house is structured around an old hand dug well. The well is laid up with stone and covered. A modern pressure pump and other plumbing components rest nearby and  are assisted by electricity from a nearby breaker box. The walls are constructed of cedar blocks, and the roof is laid with galvanized tin. Now you have a picture of the interior of the pump house.

How I approach the exterior of the pump house is also worth describing. Basically, I approach the pump house at about waist level, remove the entry door in the metal roof, lift my leg and begin to climb in. There is a ladder that I usually bypass by just leaping in once I can clear the entry port down in.  However, when exiting the structure, I must utilize the ladder. 

So this is what happens and keeps happening when I do not keep up with needed maintenance. The pack rats get in the pump house by eating through the metal walls, eating through the wood supporting the roof, and eating through the spray foam and other  insulation. Those pack rats are awful. They like metal objects and haul in all sorts of stuff,  and pack it into the crevices of the roof and joints of the interior. Their favorite spots are stuffed into the breaker box, in the cabinet where the electric fence box is held, and around the heat lamp. Those bums even eat the hard plastic cover of the switch to the pressure tank. Last Christmas, I caught them just in time, the wiring to the Double D switch was fully exposed, but not fully chewed through.

When dealing with a switch box, or any electrical application, care must be taken. Get professional instruction. As a hint, keep a plastic insulated standard screw driver around, and seriously consider removing the breaker/fuse before handling anything that might even look like it might have electricity associated with it. This is such a serious safety issue, I will not comment on the details to how I go about the task, as your needs may be quite different. - While I am on a topic of safety, I try to remember to wear a vent mask to help lessen my exposure to harmful illnesses like the hantavirus. I usually forget the mask, and end up utilizing a piece of cloth.

Other items I utilize to help lessen hazards are the use of hand held radios. These serve as suitable communication between my husband and I. Due to his disability, he can not take the actions I am able body to do. Fortunately, he is very experienced and has a good brain. He talks me through trouble shooting tasks, and provides the guidance to reduce risk to shock and other potential accidents that I might other wise experience. During hazardous weather, electronic communications are a must. Other folks might prefer a cell phone for outside contact. At times, when I must walk to the pump house due to inaccessibility with a vehicle, I usually carry a cell phone too.
 
About every two to three months, I usually go down to check on things. To check on the pump house, all I have to do is remove the lid at the roof, and peek in. Most of the time, there is something going on as evidenced by the appearance of nests. So then it is time to hop in if I am prepped for it, otherwise, I return with the proper clothing, mask, etc.

I have tried the usual pesticide offerings for rats such as D-CON, loose bait trays, anchored bait blocks, traps, and bug bombs. For a variety of reasons, the results tend to be limited. Sure the rats eat the bait. It seems, I can hardly keep enough poison available. It is like a smorgasbord for rats on blood thinners. Now for those lovely boxes of Moth Balls. The bigger the box the better. One 24 ounce box of Enoz brand moth balls seems to work fairly well for our pump house interior measuring approximately 5x8x6 ft high. Yet, I am sort of the overkill type. I use two boxes. One of them I fully sprinkle out. The second I open and anchor down. The smell of the room is very strong and toxic, so I try to limit my exposure. 

The pack rats on our farm here in Kansas do not seem to favor moth balls, and this is good. I must caution you, that the moth balls need to be sprinkled. When I have left the moth ball box open and sitting neatly unanchored, it becomes the next big toy. On one occasion, the box was found in the process of being relocated. Don’t ask me how they do it.

Additionally, I might add a short note about snakes. I have not had that problem. A few of my neighbors have. Perhaps, I am just lucky, and perhaps the moth balls have something to do with my luck. Granted, if I had snakes, I probably would not have the intensity of pack rats to deal with. But, if I had to pick between snakes and pack rats, I would pick the rats.

Prevention:
This is a good time to present the topic of rat prevention maintenance. Basically, keep the pump house closed - don’t walk away and leave the entry door open to run back to the shop for another tool. Check the side walls, corners, overlaps and any other place you can think off for possible entry sources. Don’t get too far behind with repairing insulation. Insulation is another term or rat dessert. Also, keep an eye on the roof with layers that may begin to lift during high wind.

Now for what happens when I do not keep up with pack rat prevention and maintenance.  One fine day the water just stops running to the house. Shortly before Christmas, such a thing happened one more time. At first I misdiagnosed the problem- I thought it was an air pressure issue due to the cattle drinking from the stock tank. The real problem ended up being a ruptured line buried someplace between the pump house and the shop. Yet, when following up on the water issues, I got to inspecting the pump house. Down I went. I hauled off two 5 gallon buckets of rat waste and nesting supplies. I also hauled off a variety of plumbing supplies, some of which  I learned later were suppose to remain in the pump house for adding air to the well. I ended up tossing the contents of the buckets and was unable to retrieve them successfully. So off I went to the hardware store for more supplies and I returned to add air. The husband was not happy (note: husband is paralyzed due to stroke).

No Water:
A loss of water pressure or a loss of running water is often a sign of problems in the well house. Shortly after the Christmas event with the water line, the pipe was repaired. Two weeks passed and we were off line on water once again. Down to the pump house I go. I notice the rat trays have been reshuffled, and not much more. The temp gauge inside showed 13 or so degrees. Oops. Not good. Compared to the 8 degrees outside, the temp problem was not obvious to me until I looked at the gauge. I could feel the cold air blowing in from where the rats has chewed. I began bending my head and peaking around. Light was coming in, and some rather large holes where providing ample access to the bitter cold wind. The pressure tank was freezing up. 

Our neighbors came to lend a hand. They arrived with a propane tank and hand torch. The pressure tank is made of plastic. CW climbed in and warmed the nearby iron bench, as well as the ground around the unit. He took care to avoid a fire by removing the loose dry grasses and brush  that I had not fully emptied out prior.

After the propane heater went to work, a 1,500 Watt electric heater was carried in and turned on high. I stuffed the holes with a pair of pants that were in the car. The battery on the farm truck was froze. The 10 inches of snow that had fallen during that night and morning was varied due to drifts. I was concerned about getting the Toyota Yaris stuck. I asked the neighbors to keep an eye on me and make sure I cleared the pasture gate.

Later that day, I drove down again. It was still bitter cold. I opened the door and climbed into check the temp. The temp showed 20 degrees. Ouch. Still too cold. I take my scrap bag of quilt batting from the vehicle and begin stuffing it in anywhere I could. My multi-tool came in handy. Before leaving, I checked the heat lamp to be sure is was the right bulb - 200 watts. It was, but when the tank began to thaw earlier, it had trouble - off and on. The bulb had started to break due to the violent shaking. It was barely hanging on. Fortunately, I had one along just in case. I changed it out and hoped for the best for the temp to rise. Back at the farm house, I had every faucet on at a line trickle. Drip-drips don’t cut it when it gets too much colder than 10 above with howling wind.

Overall, the water to the farm house did ok in the days to come. The sinks and toilets kept working. The wash machine however had its issues. It is positioned on a North wall and our home is not insulated the modern way, just old dirt that blew in during the dust bowl days. Waking up to icy water in the pet’s bowls and our toilet bowls is not unheard of.

Patching Up and Wrapping Up:
So it finally warms up. I get the spray foam out. I prefer “Geocel” brand expanding foam sealant to other brands. It just handles better on metal application. I did not heed the warning label about wearing gloves this last time. The residue left the skin blackish for a few days. Avoid getting it on your face and hair too. Next time, I might consider latex free medical gloves. I keep a box on hand in the shop.

This about wraps up my story about pack rats in the pump house. I would like to  close with a brief snapshot of what happened in the Spring. Like always, I made a bunch of noise and rattled a tool on the galvanize tin roof before entering. I like to give the rats enough notice to leave if they can manage. I then paused a moment so nothing ends up jumping at me, and then preceded to enter cautiously.

It was a full house that day in the pump house. I was so aggravated, and thankfully dressed for the occasion. I could hear and see the rats at eye level once I landed in. My mouth was covered, and I wore a scarf around most my face. My clothing was thick. The gloves I wore were leather, the heavy winter type. A quick glance inside, and it was obvious that a fire hazard was in the making. Thick nests of grasses and other soft materials were snuggly stuffed between the stringers, walls, and electric outlets. The protrusions came inward as much as two feet. I was fearful as I slowly grabbed at the piles. I then took a few steps to the opening, stepped up on a metal object within, and tossed. I repeated this action 8 to 10 times.

Finally, I had had enough. There were still two rats running here and there as I moved about in clearing the debris. They remained at eye level along the top of the wall. I was ready to leave, and one of the rats wouldn’t budge. It stayed positioned on the wall ladder that I wished to climb to get the hood. I stepped around it, and gave care to where I place my hands. I’m out! I’m mad. So I lean over and grab the pest by the tail. The tail falls off in my hand, and I think to myself, “Now what?” I leave, and then later start to feel little bad about the rat’s tail. It was my intention to toss the pack rat out, not pack out with a rat’s tail. 

I hope you enjoyed this little story about my experiences with pack rats, and why they can become a serious implication to keeping the water flowing. I now try to keep extra pump house supplies on hand, such as, 200 watt bulbs, a heater, rat bait, moth balls and spray insulation. And, I can usually pick up the spray insulation on the cheap after the winter cold spell. 


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