Rats can't resist wiring in newer cars: Here's why

Janice Perzigian has a unique evening routine.

But this one doesn't include drinking a glass of wine, taking a long soak in the bath and applying a facial mask.

It has to do with her car.

Every evening, the Royal Oak resident puts Pine-Sol on the ground around her 2017 Ford Mustang.

Dryer sheets go under the front seat and in the trunk. Spray made with essential oils is applied to the tires, the sides and the back.

Why, you may ask? Why does she go through this five-minute routine?

She has a simple answer. It's to avoid another $600-plus repair bill after a rat chewed through wires under the hood of her car, leading to starting problems last month.

Aside from gnawed wires, the rodent — literally — left a trail of bread crumbs. And rat feces and urine on the engine, which she now sprays weekly with peppermint essential oil.

"I’m gonna do everything possible to eliminate this, and make sure this doesn’t happen again," she said.

She's not alone, either here or across the country.

A class-action lawsuit was filed in 2016 in California against Toyota claiming the company should cover — under warranty — damage from rodents chewing through insulation for wiring that is now soy-based versus petroleum-based.

In the same year on the East Coast, AAA car care center technicians were finding a similar problem of rodents chewing through vehicle wires, particularly in cold weather. As of the winter of 2017, a spokeswoman for the group told the Free Press last week, the problem still exists.

“While advances in car construction can be beneficial to the environment, there may also be unforeseen consequences such as making your car more appetizing to rodents,” Tracy Noble, spokeswoman of AAA Mid-Atlantic, said in a 2016 press release.

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As residents in communities throughout metro Detroit try to find ways to battle rat infestations — using everything from poisons and traps to feral cats and owls (one Macomb County city even considered a rat bounty five years ago, but the idea later died) — the one place folks may be surprised to find the rodents is the one place they don't see them.

Under the hood.

But if the varmints have been there, and nibbling away, oh the damage they can cause.

John Pappas, owner of Main & Hudson Service in Royal Oak, said he gets a vehicle about every month suffering from rodent-chewed-through-wire-covering syndrome.

Pappas, whose family business has been there for 53 years, said he's noticed more of this type of problem in recent years.

"They're going environmental on the wires," he said. "There's good and bad in everything. It is a common issue."

Pappas said problems can range from the vehicle not starting, to the check engine light coming on, to the vehicle running poorly. It might take a couple of months or going over a hard bump to spark a previously-chomped on wire problem to the surface.

The cost of repairs?

"That's the magical question," Pappas said, depending on the damage that's been done, whether it's one spot or many. It ranges from "minor to significant."

He said he hasn't noticed that rodents seem to prefer a specific make or model.

"It doesn't discriminate," he said.

Brian Kabateck is taking on Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. over the issue.

The Los Angeles attorney is involved in a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Albert Heber of Indiana, whose 2012 Tundra had its soy-based insulated wiring chewed through by rodents three times, the first in 2013. Total damages were about $1,500 — damages that Kabateck said Toyota wouldn't cover under warranty.

"Our contention, why soy is certainly — it's laudable — they're trying to be more green, at the same time, it's becoming a potential food product for rats," Kabateck told the Free Press, adding that he believes rats find it "delicious."

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Kabateck said once it started its investigation, it learned that Toyota and some other vehicle manufacturers started using a soy-based product as an insulation for wiring under the hood about a decade ago, probably in an effort to make vehicles more green and to get rid of older-style, petroleum-based wiring insulation.

He said he has heard that in the past, rats periodically chewed through wires in vehicles for nesting materials and to sharpen their teeth. But, he said, "we think the addition of soy in the insulation has taken the episode of rats chewing through the wires through the roof."

Kabateck said while Toyota claims this is not more likely to happen with soy-based than petroleum-based products "we continue to have a hard time believing that" based on the number of people calling the firm and its own investigation, including talking to service employees and others at dealerships.

He didn't have a specific number of people impacted, but said it's possibly "tens of thousands affected." The lawsuit is filed on behalf of Heber and owners and lessees of 2012 to 2016 model year Toyota vehicles. A similar lawsuit was filed against Honda in 2016 and dismissed later that year by the plaintiffs, according to federal court records in California.

Kabateck said he's not looking for billions of dollars from the automaker. He wants the people who have paid out-of-pocket to be reimbursed and a change in the policy and plan so that the warranty would cover this type of damage.

Often, this type of damage isn't covered under warranty. Some insurance companies may cover if owners pay the deductible, while others won't, and folks often are left paying out-of-pocket.

Kabateck said the damaged materials are replaced with the same soy-based products the rodents chewed through. He said there is an additive that could be added to the soy that would make it less attractive to rats.

Toyota released a statement when contacted by the Free Press.

“Rodent damage to vehicle wiring occurs across the industry, and the issue is not brand- or model-specific. We are currently not aware of any scientific evidence that shows rodents are attracted to automotive wiring because of alleged soy-based content," the company said.

The Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association — an automotive supplier trade group — said it was unaware of any issues with soy-based products used as coatings on vehicle wiring.

"Quite honestly, we have never heard of the issue you are describing, so I don’t have any information to share with you," Cindy Sebrell, vice president of communications for the association, said in an email.

Jim Stevens, a sales representative at Suburban Ford of Ferndale, said finding rats chewing through wires "is a pretty common thing around here," with two or three vehicles coming in a month.

Though he's been aware of the problem for the last five or six years, Stevens said he doesn't buy the theory of the soy-based coating.

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"it's just like your home, it's pretty common (rodents) just chew on stuff," he said, noting that he lives in the country and has a pole barn, where rodents have chewed on wires in his tractor.

Stevens said rodents can burrow through the firewall that separates the engine from the interior of the vehicle. They can damage every type of wire from headlights to fuel sensors.

"It's a very tedious repair," Stevens said, adding debris from nesting materials could even start a fire if exposed wires get hot.

He said technicians have found everything from peanuts to bread crumbs to chicken bones to dead rodents under the hood. They've noticed more problems during cold weather, when animals hide to get warm, and if a vehicle has sat for a few days.

That falls in line with what AAA Mid-Atlantic region technicians saw in 2016 — and continue to see in vehicles, Noble said.

"We were seeing vehicles coming in with mystery ailments, so to speak. People didn't know why the car wasn't starting," she said. "Typically, it came into play during cold weather months when rodents were seeking shelter and they were climbing into vehicle compartments for shelter and were additionally finding food in the way of vehicle wires."

Noble said that since the early 2000's requirements were made to the automakers to manufacture cars more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly. She said some wire coverings were soy-based wire coatings that were "animal friendly and biodegradable materials."

In the 2016 news release, Noble said that soy-based wire coating is one example along with insulation from natural products such as sisal and flax and seat cushions made from coconut fiber.

She didn't have a specific number of claims, but said the problem came to light during conversations with technicians at the group's car care centers. She said the problem isn't limited to street-legal vehicles, but also off-road vehicles and farm equipment.

Susan Hiltz, spokeswoman for AAA Michigan, said the claims team here "had not heard that there were many, if any, claims like this. Nonetheless, we do not track specific animal-related losses."

How to keep rodents out of your car

Noble encouraged drivers to look under the hood of a vehicle that has been garaged for a long period of time or doesn't get used much. Look for nests or debris that could indicate damage, such as frayed wires or additional twigs and branches used for a nest or bedding.

Some people advocate using moth balls or pepper spray under the hood, but fumes from these products are unhealthy for humans, Noble noted in her 2016 news release. Alternatives include cotton balls soaked in peppermint oil. Other non-toxic, plant-based rodent repellents and copper screening could be used to seal off air intake openings because rats don't like its taste.

Experts urge residents that some of the best approaches to reducing rodents in the community is to improve properties and environments. That includes keeping garbage in cans with tight lids; picking up pet waste; not putting pet food or water outside; keeping garages and properties clean; securing compost in vessels; cleaning up under bird feeders; not throwing food outside; removing wood piles and ivy from buildings, and sealing off holes or other points of entry.

Dana DeBenham, wildlife director at the Howell Nature Center, which takes in hundreds of raptors a year, advises against using glue traps or fly tape to catch rodents. She said songbirds get caught in them both and screech owls can get stuck in glue traps.

If a trap is used, she said, only use it inside a dwelling, such as a house or garage, so other wildlife is not caught. She said owls can also become stuck in leg-hold traps because they can be attracted to the bait.

DeBenham said it is illegal to own a raptor unless you have a falconry or education permit. It's also illegal to purchase an owl, she said.

But attracting owls and other raptors to your property isn't a bad idea as long as they live freely and in the wild.

For example, screech owl nest boxes can be put up. Barn owls are "wonderful natural rodent control for farms," but DeBenham said they are "an endangered species and very very rare in Michigan."

There's also another caveat if one attracts an owl or other raptor — eliminating the other poisons.

"It has to be a community-wide effort to use non-toxic methods of rodent control," she said. "If you attract an owl and your neighbor is using poison, that can be bad."

Last month, a great horned owl found in Ypsilanti was brought to the Howell Nature Center's wildlife clinic. He was showing symptoms that he had been exposed to a rodenticide, DeBehham said. He was weak, his balance was off and he was seizing.

The center administered the only known antidote, vitamin K1, she said, but the owl "was too far gone. He did not survive the night."

Many community Facebook groups, including Royal Oak RATS (Residents Are The Solution) and Ferndale Rat Patrol, work to combat rat problems through nontoxic methods.

Perzigian also wants to use environmentally-conscious, home-remedy approaches to keeping her community — and her car — rodent free.

She steam cleaned the engine from where the rat marked its spot. She's willing to spend a little more for the peppermint and other natural products, forking out possibly $20 a week on products.

While some products might work to deter rodents and others may not, she's just trying everything and plans to continue to do so.

And Perzigian wants community leaders — not just residents — to step up to help combat the rat and rodent problem, saying "personally, I think it should be a combined effort aside from just ordinances."

"It's costing residents, it's costing insurance companies money," she said. "How do you combat that? I don't want this to happen to me or anybody else again."

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