Let’s Celebrate National Weatherization Day by Figuring Out What “Weatherization” Means

RTA_blog_2012_1030_BlowerDoorThe Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) was created by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in 1976 to assist low-income families who can’t afford to improve the energy efficiency of their homes. Increasing energy efficiency helps families reduce their energy costs (lower utility bills) while improving the health and safety of their homes.

Trying to find a common sense definition of “weatherization” is a bit of chore because there’s so much overlap between U.S. federal government websites, webpages and publications. The most concise place for a consumer to start is the Weatherization Assistance Program Technical Assistance Center website – not only did the government manage to get the word “assistance” in the name twice, it also got a catchy acronym: WAPTAC.

Essentially, “weatherization” means you conduct an energy audit on your home to determine where you need upgrades to make your house more efficient. For example, the blower door shown in the image is a temporary door fastened in place of an existing door. It pressurizes your house so you can find leaks in the exterior enclosure of your house and seal them. An energy audit may also reveal that you don’t have enough insulation in your floor, walls or ceiling. Whatever the audit discovers should be added to a task list of improvements.

The increased efficiency often comes from passive systems like insulation. That means that you pay for them once and realize lower utility bills each month even though the systems have no moving parts and no operation or maintenance costs. It’s always a good idea to look at the cost-benefit of any investment in a property to be sure you’re not trapping equity though the WAP funding is not the same as an owner investing in his|her own home – some people look at it as free money.

Each year, the Senate and House Interior Appropriations committees decide how much funding WAP will receive. Since 1976, more than seven million homes have been weatherized with federal funding. The WAP facts suggest that for every $1 invested, $2.51 is returned to the household and society. Moreover, low-income families save an average of $437 in reduced first-year energy costs (at current prices).

The program was pretty simple until 2009 when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) began pumping billions of dollars into the DOE and thus, the WAP. You may remember “cash for clunkers” was followed closely by “cash for caulkers” as people struggled to find ways to consume the money made available through the program. That seems to have yielded a collection of resources, oversight efforts and even some local training centers like Atlanta’s Southeastern Weatherization and Energy Efficiency Training (SWEET) Center that opened in October of 2010.

While the WAP was more “shovel ready” than lots of other touted opportunities for stimulus funds, we should be careful about investing tax payer funds in real estate. The WAP tries to do that through two levels of safe guards: 1) It has standards for the professionals who can evaluate (audit) the properties and those who can make improvements, and 2) It has an oversight program intended to prevent fraud. Still, it’s a monumental challenge to track the results from billions of dollars invested in millions of homes.

In the end, we hope education is one of the key WAP benefits. Each property has unique requirements though helping home owners appreciate the importance of energy efficiency will help them make better decisions about maintaining and improving their properties. We hope that leads to better investments by owners living in healthier homes.

Photo by Jane Hogbin used under a creative commons license.

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