Friday, Feb. 10, 2006 | 12:34 p.m.
A few years ago, Bill Earl saw an escalating trend in his roof and gutter repair business - rat damage.
He was overwhelmed with customers complaining that the creatures were getting inside their roofs and were chewing through wires in attics, creating fire hazards. And the homeowners' efforts to control the rats weren't working.
"It just didn't make any sense - the pests were not supposed to be beating us," Earl said. "For so long we have poisoned them, trapped them and even shot them, but nothing has worked."
So he and business partner Michael DeGinto embarked on an attempt to build a better mousetrap and created a high-powered blinking light, designed to annoy rats and send them packing.
The Pennsylvania men came to Las Vegas, where they're introducing the device at a wildlife control conference this week. They beat a path to the right place.
Las Vegas has a widespread roof rat population that continues to increase.
During the last few years rats have quickly become a major pest issue in upscale neighborhoods such as Scotch 80s, Spanish Trail and Summerlin in Las Vegas and Sun City Anthem in Henderson. The rats, believed to have come to town with imported fruit trees, love the lush vegetation of golf courses.
Last fall roof rats were found in three public schools.
The Clark County Health District is slated to conduct a study of rats next month, following up on a 2003 study in which it found plenty of healthy rats.
"We expect the study will document what has been known for quite a while - that it has become widespread," said Daniel Maxson, the Health District's environmental-health supervisor. "That is a fair assumption we can make at this time based on the calls of complaints we've received."
Maxson said roof rats are clever and resourceful. They can adapt to extreme conditions and avoid poisonous bait and even capture.
"During our last surveillance project we had a challenge just catching them," Maxson said.
Ed Foster, a pest specialist with the Nevada Agriculture Department in Reno, said devices that drive rats away or trap them are preferable to those that poison them.
"If you poison the rats (in the attic) and they die there, you are talking about eventual odor problems," he said.
It's not clear if the Pennsylvania men have the right answer. The device, which starts at $225, merely drives the rats some place else. The only scientific study is 25 years old. That study says rats are initially repelled by bright lights but then get comfortable with it.
Foster, however, questions whether the blinking lights of 25 years ago can hold a candle to the one Earl and DeGinto have invented.
"I do not know if a rat could acclimate to a blinking light of such intensity," Foster said. "These two guys could be on to something."
Ed Koch can be reached at 259-4090 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.