Why 'Crazy Ants' Swarm Inside Electronics

By Douglas Main | June 25, 2013 01:08pm E


Exterminator Mike Matthews got the call because the home's air-conditioning unit had short-circuited. Why an exterminator for a problem with an appliance? Because of the crazy ants.

Matthews has seen crazy ants disable scores of air-conditioning units near Austin, Texas, where the invasive creatures have been a real headache. The ants swarm inside the units, causing them to short-circuit and preventing them from turning on. Often the switches inside them need to be replaced, thanks to the ants, said Matthews, who works for the Austin-area pest control business The Bug Master.

"When you open these things up, you see thousands of the ants, just completely filling them up," Matthews said.

The ants first appeared in the United States in 2002 but have become more of a menace in the past few years, spreading to many areas of the Gulf Coast, particularly Texas and Florida. The ants are obnoxious because they reproduce in large numbers, sometimes outnumbering all other ants 100-to-1. That's a problem since ecosystems depend on a wide variety of ants to perform different tasks; domination by one species is highly unusual, said Edward LeBrun, a researcher at the University of Texas. As the ants have advanced into new habitats, they've had the annoying habit of swarming inside electronics, like air conditioners and farm equipment likes pumps and occasionally destroying them, LeBrun told LiveScience.

 But why are these insects attracted to these devices in the first place? [Image Gallery: Ants of the World]

Destroying electronics

One reason is that crazy ants are always looking for cavities to nest in — unlike most ants, they don't excavate their own holes and tunnels, beyond minimal expansion, LeBrun said. That is also the reason they move into people's houses, nesting in any area with protected holes and cavities, such as the insides of walls and in basements and crawlspaces. Their small size, less than an eighth of an inch in length, allows them to crawl inside cellphones, computers and appliances, which all are home to protected cavities and are "just great" for these ants, Le Brun said. Most commonly, they swarm inside sheds and pumps in rural areas, which has been a problem for industries in Texas and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, he added. When the crazy ants enter these devices their bodies can create connections between electrical contacts, which can lead the circuits to short out and electrocute the ants. This causes them to release an alarm pheromone, a scent ants use to communicate that they are "under attack," likely attracting the ants' kin to come and fight, LeBrun said. This creates a vicious cycle that can leave appliances broken and full of dead (and angry) ants.

Their sheer abundance also adds to their destructive power. In one case, the ants quickly spread to 90 out of 150 air-conditioning units in an apartment building in Waco, Texas, Matthews said. That infestation took about two months to control, he added.

They're commonly known as the tawny crazy ant, so-called because of their color and their "herky-jerky" pattern of foraging — or "going everywhere at once," as LeBrun put it. This makes them extremely annoying for homeowners. It also doesn't help that the ants aren't attracted to one commonly used ant bait. So exterminators have to use different kinds of baits, as well as liquid insecticides, Matthews said.

Tawny crazies

Crazy ants first showed up near Houston in 2002, but they weren't indentified until last year as Nylanderia fulva, a species that hails from northern Argentina and southern Brazil, according to a study in PLOS ONE. Their identification took so long in part because their workers are identical to a related species called Caribbean crazy ants, which showed up in Florida and were initially confused for the tawny crazy ants. They were previously known as Rasberry crazy ants, named after the exterminator Tom Rasberry who first recorded their presence near Houston.  [Alien Invaders: Destructive Invasive Species]

In perhaps a good bit of news for Southern residents, the crazy ants can't spread quickly on their own, and rely on humans to spread them via infested materials like rotting wood, LeBrun said.

But in areas where crazy ants are found, they often drive out native ants, leaving only other invasive ants behind. That's because most native ants tend to have larger bodies, whose tunnels the crazy ants can more easily invade (ants can't penetrate ths nests of ants with smaller bodies).Most invasive ants tend to be smaller.

In some places, the crazy ants have also driven out invasive fire ants, which are slightly bigger. In many areas where this has happened, residents actually miss the fire ants, which have painful stings but generally leave people alone unless their large mounds are disturbed, LeBrun said. But not so with the crazies. Luckily, the tawny ants don't sting, and their bites aren't very painful, he added.

What is short-cycling?
When an air conditioner turns on and off rapidly over a short period, it is known as short-cycling.  This bad news for an air conditioner for a numbers of reasons:

  • Since the air conditioning system consumes the most power when the system starts up, short-cycling will increase the operational cost.  Modern air conditioning systems are designed to run for extended periods of time so they may remove the humidity.  By short-cycling, the system may temper the air but not remove enough humidity.
  • Because the compressor won’t stay on long enough, cool air will be poorly distributed through the house.
  • The heavy stress on the AC components from short-cycling will lead to numerous repairs.
  • The additional strain will shorten the system’s service life.

Why does poorly installed equipment often cause short-cycling?
Many different errors in AC installation can trigger short-cycling, but the most common mistake is that the AC company failed to accurately engineer the proper size of the new system and put in one too large for the house. 

Why thermostat location makes a major difference
A thermostat is where the comfort system in a home registers the average temperature of the building so it knows when to active the fan, compressor, burners, heating elements, etc. that provide conditioned air to the rooms.  If the thermostat is registering temperatures that do not accurately reflect the average temperature of the home—what are called “ghost readings”—it will cause the HVAC system to behave oddly.  The result will be a home that’s too hot or too cold, as well as a spike in the homeowner’s energy bills.

The 3 most common thermostat placement mistakes

  • Exposure to direct sunlight: It can be a cool day outside, but direct sunlight falling on the thermostat will create radiant heat that will cause it to register a much warmer temperature.
  • Too close to drafts:  Thermostats that are near exterior doors or windows will be exposed to drafts, and they will read the house temperature as colder than it really it.
  • Too far from the center of the house:  To read the average temperature of a building, a thermostat needs to be close to the center of it.  Placed too far away, thermostats will read outlier temperatures.

Signs Your Air Conditioner Is Leaking Refrigerant:

It’s easy to mistake AC refrigerant (also called Freon, which is a brand name) for a type of fuel, like the gasoline in a car.   Refrigerant is not an energy source the air conditioner consumes to run since an AC’s energy source is electricity.  Refrigerant allows the air conditioner to move heat from inside your home and then exhaust it outside.  To do this, the refrigerant goes through a cycle of evaporating and condensing.  It doesn’t dissipate as it switches between liquid and gas stage, so an air conditioner should use the same amount of refrigerant, which is called its charge, for its entire service life.  Your air conditioner shouldn’t “run out” of refrigerant under normal conditions.   The only way for the refrigerant level (its charge) to drop is from leaks.  Many ACs may develop leaking along the copper refrigerant tubing as a side effect of the amount of VOC's in the air or discontinued drywall products.  The important thing is to recognize the signs of this occurring and call for repairs right away.

  • Ice on the evaporator coil:  Although there are a number of reasons for ice to form along the indoor evaporator coil, the most common is lost refrigerant. The remaining refrigerant in the coil will lose heat absorption and stay so cold that moisture along the coil’s surface will freeze. But no matter what is causing the freezing other than changing a dirty filter, the system must be professionally repaired.
  • Hissing sounds: The escaping of the high-pressure refrigerant gas will give off a noticeable hissing noise. Don’t ignore this!
  • Drop in cooling power: If the AC’s components all seems to be working fine, but it isn’t keeping your home as cool as it should, leaking refrigerant is a major possibilities.

Leaks along the refrigerant lines or at connection points will permit the refrigerant to escape, and the charge of the AC will drop.  This is bad news!  Not only will your air conditioner be less effective at cooling your house, but it will eventually lead to damage to the compressor.  This is where you’ll need our professional HVAC help.   We’ll use special tools to locate the leaks and then seal them. After that, we’ll take care of adding refrigerant to the system to make up for what was lost. It’s vital that you let our trained and licensed professionals do this:  we’re certified by the EPA to handle refrigerants, and we’ll make sure your AC has the right refrigerant level, since  overcharging an air conditioner is just as bad as one with too little refrigerant.

You might think that a thermostat is “just a thermostat,” and it doesn’t really matter which one you have installed in your home because they all pretty much work the same, but the type of thermostat you have controlling your home’s heating and cooling system can make a significant impact on performance, affecting both household comfort and energy bills.  When you are looking for a thermostat installation, you need to give the choice some thought. We have advice to help you locate the ideal thermostat for your home.

First, Get Rid of the Manual Thermostat
Manual thermostats (sliders n’ dials) were the standard for years, but they are outdated today—especially since even no-frills digital models are competitively priced. A manual thermostat is much less accurate than a digital one, has no additional features for convenience or energy savings, and can cause accidental short-cycling.

Digital Thermostats
You can choose a non-programmable digital thermostats (set it and forget it), or a programmable digital thermostat, which is a critical way to ensure that you save energy and don’t have the AC or heater running when it shouldn’t be.

Wi-Fi Is a Great Feature
A Wi-Fi thermostat allows you to control your home’s comfort system from a smart phone, laptop, tablet, or other Wi-Fi enabled device.  This gives you even more control over conditions in your home.  Imagine going on vacation and thinking you left the AC on: you can find out if did right on your smart phone and then turn it off if necessary.

What About a Self-Learning (“Smart”) Thermostat?
The newest technology in thermostats offers some amazing capabilities, such as the self-learning NEST thermostat that will program itself based on your patterns. Ask an HVAC technician about the options available to find the best possible recent advances that will fit within your budget.

(225) 788-2211

Why Does My Air Conditioner Freeze Up?
When we see ice or frost on something we automatically think “cold”, so this must be good thing for an air conditioner, right?  Wrong!  If your air conditioner is freezing up, or you see frost or ice on parts of your AC Unit, usually on the compressor or lineset, there is a problem and you need to call someone for air conditioner repair.  Note that coils start freezing the interior evaporator coil, travel down the lineset and to the outdoor compressor, so if you see your outside lines frozen, it is 10 times worse inside. 

The most common reasons for an air conditioner freeze up are:

  • Your AC Unit Is Low on Refrigerant (Freon):  When an air conditioner develops a leak in the refrigeration system, it becomes undercharged.  The evaporator coil or “indoor coil” will collect moisture from the air which will quickly freeze on the cold coil.  If the unit is allowed to keep running more moisture builds and more ice forms.
  • Restricted or Lack of Airflow:  When there is insufficient air moving across an air conditioners evaporator, the moisture buildup described above will cause the coil to freeze. Things that cause a lack of airflow across a coil are a dirty air filter, a non-functioning or “slow” indoor blower fan motor, restricted or undersized air ducts, or long-term dirt buildup on the coil – usually due to infrequent filter changes or using cheap air filters.
  • Malfunctioning Metering Device:  If your ac unit is less than 15 years old, it probably has a metering device known as a TXV (Thermostatic Expansion Valve).  Think of a TXV as a traffic light for refrigerant – it controls the flow of refrigerant through the system.  A malfunctioning or “sticky” metering device can cause frost to build up on components of your HVAC system.
  • Ambient Temperature Too Low:  While most modern air conditioners are equipped with sensors that can automatically shut-off the compressor if the outdoor air temperature is too low (below about 60 degrees Fahrenheit), not all do, or the sensors themselves can malfunction. Running your A/C when it’s too cold outside can cause a freeze-up; we run into this issue a lot during the evening hours in the Spring and Fall seasons when your home is still warm from the heat of the day or cooking the evening meal but night-time temperatures are low outside.

What Should I Do When My Air Conditioner Is Already Frozen Up?

  1. Turn your thermostat to the Off position to allow the ice to thaw and prevent damage to other components – specifically the AC compressor.  Depending on the ambient temperature of our home, it will take anywhere from 2 hours to 24 hours to thaw.
  2. Check/Replace Your Air Filter: A very clogged air filter can cause your air conditioner to freeze up.
  3. If you can hear the indoor fan running but no air is coming out, turn your thermostat Fan's setting from AUTO to ON. This will act like a whole house ceiling fan to push air over the frozen indoor coils and thaw them.  It will not cool your home but will only move air.  If you have a vertical unit (usually in a closet), verify there is a pan or bucket under it to collect the water dripping from the coil to protect your flooring; If you have a horizontal unit (usually in an attic, a pan is required by code to be placed under the evaporator coil or air handler. 

AC is Making Grinding and Clicking Noises When It Starts:

Odd noises coming from an air conditioner are a way that the system warns the homeowner that it needs immediate service.  There are many different abnormal sounds that can indicate you should call a professional air conditioning technician:  clanging (a bent fan blade), screeching (worn down bearings in the motors), lights dimming when unit starts, excessive heat coming off the outdoor unit, or clicking sound probably from the contactor, which is the component responsible for sending voltage to the compressor motor to start it running.  

Although your air conditioner may still turn on and provide you with some cooling when it is hard-starting, it is something you want repaired as soon as possible.  A hard-starting AC will cost more to run, and the extra stress placed on the motor and compressor will soon lead to damage.  Damaged motors will need replacement.  If the compressor becomes damaged, it often means that the whole air conditioner needs replacement.

If your AC needs to be replaced, now is the best time to have it done so you can beat out the coming heat. Below are times to consider air conditioner replacement:

  • The AC is more than 15 years old: In general, air conditioners will last between 10–15 years if they receive regular maintenance. Once your AC ages past this point, replacing it before it starts to decline or puts your summer comfort at risk is a wise idea.
  • You experienced multiple repairs last season: Did you need to repair your air conditioner more than once last summer? Were the repair bills greater than $500? If so, you’re spending too much for AC repairs… plus you’re receiving a warning the system is starting to fail and is at risk of suffering a sudden breakdown.
  • Electrical bills are rising: Look over your electrical bills during the summer for the past two years. Is there is rise in costs, even if you haven’t been running the AC more than usual? This upward trend is a sign of an air conditioner in decline. If the AC is more than 10 years old, start planning putting in a new system.
  • Home remodeling: If you have plans to do some major remodeling on your home, replacing a conventional AC with a ductless model is a very good idea that will benefit both your remodeling and your air conditioning.

Team  Poteete  Mechanical  LLC

Air Conditioning Installation, Service and Repair in East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston Parishes

My AC isn’t keeping my house cool - why won’t my AC keep up?

While there may be a problem with your AC that requires diagnosis and repair from a licensed HVAC Contractor, it may surprise you to learn that the problem may or may not be your air conditioner’s fault. 

Here are two problems that YOU may be creating:

  1. Thermostat Settings –  A good way to save energy over the course of the day is to increase the temperature setting from the time you leave until shortly before you return home, which generally is not a problem on mild days since the AC doesn’t have to work too hard to bring the temperature down to somewhere between 72-78 degrees (where most homeowners set their thermostat) on mildly hot days, but on hotter summer days, we recommend you just let that unit run so it can “keep up” .  You will not save money on these really hot days by turning your AC up when you leave for work. In fact, it will most likely cost you more money because the unit will work much harder, and all the components will run much hotter trying to “catch-up” vs. “keep up”, since the humidity level rises in your home when the AC is not running, and it takes so long to remove and lower that humidity from all the fabrics in your home (blankets, mattresses, carpets, curtains, couches, etc.).
  2. The Greenhouse Effect – Solar heat gain through windows, especially South and West facing windows play a huge role in where heat gets into your home in the first place.   We all want our home to feel bright and inviting, but there’s a cost – both financially and to your comfort. We recommend solar shade screens for the summer which will allow you to keep your blinds or curtains open while blocking as much as 90% of the solar gain, so you don’t have to feel like you’re in a cave.  If you’re going to be gone for the day, close your blinds (with the blades facing up) as well.

Problems with the AC unit itself that prevent it from keeping up:

  1. Refrigerant Leak – While refrigerant never wears out or evaporates, a refrigerant leak can cause an AC unit to be unable to keep up and will eventually stop working all together.
  2. Overheating Fan Motor or Compressor – A failing fan motor or compressor can sometimes overheat and stop working, then after cooling down, start operating normally for a while until it overheats again.  When this happens, it can be tricky to catch because the problem is intermittent.  The temperature in the home will creep up every time the motor shuts-off but then start producing cold air again when it turns back on.
  3. Dirty Condenser Coils – An air conditioner doesn’t actually make cold air, it removes heat from the air reducing the temperature. The outdoor unit known as the condenser is where this magic takes place.  If the outdoor condenser coils are clogged with dirt and debris the unit cannot expel the heat it needs to cool your home down.  Dirty Evaporator Coils – Evaporator coils, also known as the indoor coil need to be clean in order for air to pass across the coils freely.  When these coils become plugged up with dirt, they begin to freeze up making matters worse.  When you stick your hand up to a register (air vent) and feel no air movement, this is often the culprit. 
  4. Faulty Metering Device – A faulty metering device can cause the unit to not run properly and therefore can lead to an AC unit that just can’t keep up with the summer heat.

Problems with your home that can prevent your AC from keeping up with the heat:

  1. Inadequate Attic Insulation – Heat moves from hot to cold. The greater the temperature difference, the faster it moves.  Your attic is about 30-40 degrees hotter than the outside air . Without a good “thermal boundary” between your attic and the conditioned part of your home, that attic heat will find its way into your air-conditioned home. The higher the “R-Value” (Resistance Value) of your attic insulation, the higher the resistance against heat penetrating it.
  2. Attic Fans (Solar or Electric) –  Attic fans can be a good thing if your ducts have been tested and sealed, and your home and attic (infiltration and exfiltration) have been tested and sealed for air leaks.
  3. High Solar Heat Gain – As discussed above, one of the fastest ways heat enters a home is through sun-struck windows. Keep in mind we’re not talking about heat getting in through poorly sealed windows (that’s infiltration), we’re talking about the heat coming through the glass itself, and yes, while better windows will slow down that heat transfer, the key is to stop it before it hits the window with solar shade screens on every window  which is different than from regular bug screens.  These screens are mounted outside over the glass so the solar heat never gets to the glass in the first place. 
  4. Air Duct Leaks – Leaky ducts will cool your attic instead of your home.  Ducts and plenum connections must be sealed.