Termites or Dry Rot? How to Tell Wood Damages Apart

So you’ve found something fishy in one corner of your house, decaying wood that used to be a solid part of a room. And you ask yourself, is this caused by termites or dry rot?

Identifying dry rots is crucial for every homeowner. Being able to tell them apart from termite damaged wood, not only gets you the proper treatment and services from the right professionals. It also saves you all that worry and a lot of money.

Termites or Dry Rot? How to Tell Wood Damages Apart

Dry rot can appear anywhere, including this door frame right here. CC Image courtesy of David Schott on Flickr

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What’s dry rot?

Dry rot is wood decay caused by specific fungi species, Merulius lacrymans and Meruliporia incrassata. These fungi cling to moist wood and digest parts of it making it rot, crumbly and weak.

According to Do My Own Pest Control, these fungi send small threadlike structures called hypha through the wood. These threads decompose the wood’s fibers. The result is wood with cracked and brittle areas that can sometimes be mistaken as the work of termites.

Often, people refer to “dry rot” as not the effect of these fungi but the fungi themselves. The name also points to how damp wood appears to look like when infected with the fungi, dry and powdery.

How does wood get dry rot?

You’d think that since the name is “dry rot”, it wouldn’t need water. But really, this wood condition is caused by excessive moisture. It pops up here and there mainly because of water.

Combine that with fungi spores (which can be found virtually everywhere in buildings and houses), oxygen, the right temperature and the wood itself, and you’ll have the best recipe for dry rot.

Poor ventilation in some areas in your house also put up the best condition for the fungi to grow.

How can you tell if it’s dry rot?

Most of the time, you won’t ever have to ask yourself whether damaged wood is caused by termites or dry rot because the latter has distinct looks that you can recognize pretty easily.

Do My Own Pest Control and Advanced Integrated Pest Management cite how you can tell the rots apart just by looking at the color and the texture of the damaged wood.

Generally, there are two kinds of dry rot. Here’s what they look like:
  • ​White Rot clings to hardwoods. The wood has a yellow or white appearance, and it’s spongy and stringy.
  • Brown Rot happens to softwoods. The wood is dark brown and is split across its grain. It’s also very dry and powdery.
But we also have these to look out for:
  • Cubicle Brown Rot is a kind of brown rot that looks like a cube. The wood affected by this turns to powder when crushed.
  • Soft Rot has very large root-like extensions.
  • Surface Fungus blooms white lines on the surface of the wood. This rot is mostly found under deck boards or wood used as an underlying or supporting structure.

What’s the difference between termites and dry rot?

By now it’s clear that the two are completely different. But if you need more clues to tell whether that corner in your house was destroyed by termites or dry rot, here are ways to examine the wood.

For Team Nancy Jones, it’s easy to tell them apart. All you have to do is to gently pull off the damaged wood’s surface and look inside. Look for termite tunnels, a small network of tubes that seem like they’ve been pierced by needles. Some termites work along the grain while some work against it. Whatever the case, if these tubes are present, then it’s obvious that you’re dealing with termites. Otherwise, you have dry rot in your hands.

If you can’t remove the top part of the wood, look for frass. For drywood termites, their frass are small brown pellets that pile underneath or inside the infested wood.

Subterranean termites, on the other hand, don’t eat the hard part of the wood. The springwood part of the lumber would have cavities while the summerwood would have very little damage.

Another way of telling if it’s dry rot is to look for square-shaped patterns on the wood’s surface. These shapes are created because the wood expands and cracks as it holds in more water. According to Termite.com, this is called “alligatoring”. That’s because the squares look like alligator scales.

And if you’re really unlucky, you might find that both termites and dry rot present in the same wood. Dampwood termites love moist and decaying wood. So, it’s no surprise that you can find them where dry rot is.

How do you treat dry rot?

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of options for dry rot.

One common way to repair it is by caulking and painting. If the dry rot only claims only a small portion of the wood, you can remove the damage bits, caulk it and apply paint. There are plenty of products in the market that offer fungi killing and fungi repelling qualities.

And if that fails, you can always replace the entire wood. Obviously this is the more expensive option. It’s also more labor intensive. But hey, you won’t have recurring problems on dry rot with that part of the house anymore. It might even be wiser to invest on a permanent solution than to stick to temporary answers.

How do you prevent dry rot?

We’ve mentioned previously that moisture plays a big role in dry rots. So if you want to protect your house from this problem, you have to control moisture. We’ve already had an indebt discussion on this topic in another post. Here are the best ways to get rid of excess moisture in your home.

Being able to tell whether a damaged wood is the consequence of termites or dry rot is a huge deal. With it, you can settle for the best course of action, and you won’t have to do guesswork and spend a lot of money for inspections.

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