Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Getting Serious About Weatherization

Weatherization Assistance Program in Northern New England

Air sealing keeps the cold air out in winter and cool air in in summer. It makes your heater burn less fuel and your air conditioners work easier. It is one of the fundamental parts of weatherization. (Community Environmental Center/Flickr)

By Michael Daley and the G.E.T. Team

The recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Law authorizes the spending of $3.5 billion on weatherization, a roughly 6% increase over previous levels. These funds will have a positive impact on sate programs in our region to button up homes and fight climate change. Coupled with the grim windfall from COVID assistance through the American Recovery Act, states are taking this opportunity not only to expand weatherization funding but to move from the traditional focus on low-income families to include moderate-income people as well. For example, according to the Maine Jobs and Recovery plan, Governor Mills proposed an additional $50 million investment in energy efficiency and home weatherization. In Vermont, bills were introduced to double the pace of home weatherization – a $129 million yearly investment that includes middle income families in the program for the first time.

The United States has had an effective building-weatherization assistance program since the Great Society of the Johnson Administration of the 1960s. The program is often referred to as “WAP” (https://bit.ly/Energy_gov_WAP). The program’s purpose is to reduce the energy costs for low-income families by increasing the energy efficiency of their homes. The necessary weatherization evaluations and remediation activities are provided at no cost, or extremely reduced costs. In most cases heating or cooling needs are reduced by at least 30%, resulting in about $300 in typical annual savings. WAP is available to income-eligible home owners, businesses, renters, landlords, municipalities, schools and other public qualified buildings, though this can vary somewhat by states.

According to LIHEAP (https://liheapch.acf.hhs.gov/), the official information clearinghouse for the WAP, since 1977 the federal government has spent an average $300 million per year subsidizing weatherization for low-income families. About 35,000 homes per year were weatherized, benefitting over 7 million families. Seems impressive, yet that represents just 2% of all eligible households.

WAP is structured with federal funding grants allocated to the states which then administer and deliver weatherization services to their citizens. The states in turn delegate these programs principally to Community Action Agencies (CAPS) which typically cover large regional territories and deliver a wide range of public assistance programs. For those interested in a global picture of the WAP program, visit this website: Weatherization Assistance Program | Department of Energy.

Organizations performing weatherization cover most if not all of G.E.T.’s areas of circulation in Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and Maine. Vermont has five regional agencies, and four of them operate under or within CAP agencies, one is independent. In New Hampshire there are six agencies; among them a sizable one covering all of Coos, Grafton, and Carrol Counties, which together comprise most of the northern area of the state.

Services are rendered to income-eligible homeowners, occupying most types of homes one might think of, including “stick built,” mobile homes, and manufactured homes. WAPS also join in efforts to assist multi-family housing development (renovation or new construction), often working hand-in-hand with general contractors performing the majority of any given project. Vermont has been particularly successful in making these arrangements work. At least some regional WAP activities are done through landlords for the benefit of tenants.

Whether the weatherization work is to be done for the benefit of homeowners, project developers, landlords, or whomever, there is an application process that varies depending on the type of beneficiary or recipient of the work. Rather than attempt to cover this topic here completely, we suggest you contact your regional agency for current information, including facts about, and criteria for, income-eligibility and related factors.

How do you find which agency serves your area and if you are eligible for assistance? G.E.T. found that visiting the primary state website for the WAP provided the necessary information and links to the area agencies quite efficiently. Across the board, from federal to all state websites, the weatherization navigation pathways were clear and simple – quite a nice discovery. A complete listing of each state’s primary access point follows:

Maine Weatherization Assistance Program: https://bit.ly/Maine_WAP

New Hampshire Department of Energy Weatherization Assistance Program: https://bit.ly/NewHampshire_WAP

Vermont Department of Children and Families Weatherization Assistance Program: https://dcf.vermont.gov/benefits/weatherization

New York State Weatherization Assistance Program: https://bit.ly/Vermont_WAP

A note for non-income-eligible parties: Some regional agencies provide assistance on a fee-for-service basis to non-income-eligible homeowners, tenants, or developers. These regional agencies will sometimes have a ‘branch’ of their operations providing work in these situations.

WHAT HAPPENS AT YOUR HOME

Weatherization activities in our region aim to improve the thermal efficiency of buildings, but in the process make cooling easier to achieve. The services and tasks performed, often called “measures,” vary, but it is safe to say that all are based on evolving, sound building science, analyses for cost effectiveness over time, and incorporate years of practical experience.

Once an application is accepted, an energy evaluation is done to determine what measures will be required. This includes a structural inspection for needed carpentry and construction repairs. Lots, maybe most, buildings leak air due to faulty, sloppy construction (whether new or old!), deterioration such as missing basement windows or large gaps in foundations or walls, modifications for utilities and services, and any number of other reasons. A lot of that can be addressed with carpentry, even crude fixes if it is out of sight, but it must be done before other weatherization measures can be effective. Some programs offer assistance with such repairs.

We should note that some weatherization activities and work is done by agencies that are not regional WAPs. A notable example of an organization dedicated to overall or general home improvements is COVER Home Repair of the Upper Valley of NH and VT (https://coverhomerepair.org/). The agency uses staff and volunteers to help with roofs, access ramps, grab-bars, stairways and weatherization work up to a certain level. They are based in White River Jct., VT and serve people within a 45-minute radius and with incomes up to 60% of the area median income ($3415/month for two person households).

Next, typical activities, in a rough sequence, will include blower-door testing; air-sealing (which is all-important), and improvements to the whole heated or conditioned volume of the house (the “thermal shell”) with appropriate insulation types. Under some regional WAP agencies, some buildings can receive new mechanical systems particularly heating systems.

The measures done to a building, following WAP’s methods, have varied and generally improved over the many years WAP has been in operation. To some extent these measures vary by region, because the regions have different climates and conditions.

In the Northeast, some examples of measures that have changed would include the following.

Materials, especially insulation. Over time, insulation materials have changed, mostly for the better. Once, fiberglass was king, but that is long past; it is uncommon to use it now. Instead, spray-applied foam is used, along with blown in (or on) cellulose. Foam-board insulation products are often used. Spray foam is common to use in basement interiors and crawl spaces (including on the ‘floors’ of the latter). Spray foam can also be used to seal an attic floor, to make it almost completely resistant to air (and moisture) leakage from the heated area below. Rock wool or Roxul ™ (batts, or semi-rigid boards) is often used where suitable. Insulations perform differently, and are suited to varying degrees to different locations and installations. There is no one ideal insulation for all situations.

Unfortunately, in light of its benefits, some foam insulations can be a cure worse than the disease due to the use of certain gases in manufacture or application that carry potent global warming potential – in some cases 1,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide! Without careful attention to this issue, applying foam can lead to a global warming impact that negates any value from the entire fuel savings over the lifetime of the house. Please see the article following.

Foundation treatments. In the past, fibrous insulations were used a lot, including between floor joists. This is rarely done now; fibrous materials in general don’t go in foundations and basements. A quarter century ago, moisture resistant sacks were used to enclose loose insulation on basement walls, but you rarely see this done now. Currently spray foam is the option of choice, and it has to be treated to be ignition-resistant (typically by a paint, sheet goods, or an admixture). If a building is new or excavated, foam boards can be used effectively.

Attic treatments. As mentioned above, sometimes attic floors are sealed with spray foam. This seals most or all of the many gaps that are common at this level of a building. Once sealed vast amounts of cellulose are blown on top. With air and vapor leakage greatly reduced, the necessity of extensive attic venting is lessened; resulting in far less use of gable end louver vents, ridge vents, and other fixtures.

Buildings increasingly have many different and innovative configurations and assemblies, and so what is used, and where and how applied, can vary per the desires of the designer or the evaluation of a weatherization staff. These professionals will work closely with you to make the right choices for your particular home or building that will lead to a fatter wallet and a significantly reduced impact on the planet.

Michael J. Daley is a life-long renewable energy educator and advocate, except for a brief time in high school when he though nuclear power was cool. He lives in a tiny off-grid cabin in Westminster, VT with his wife, Jessie Haas.

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