Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Avoiding Health Pitfalls of Home Energy-Efficiency Retrofits

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Avoiding Health Pitfalls of Home Energy-Efficiency Retrofits

Article excerpt

Housing consumes 40% of our nation's energy use, (1) making it a prime target for energy-efficiency measures. Steps such as adding insulation, installing high-efficiency HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) systems, and tuning furnaces rank high as simple ways to lower utility bills and improve comfort and indoor air quality. But an energy-efficiency label attached to a product is meaningless if that product is installed incorrectly, and when it comes to green building techniques, the devil is in the details. The complexities of high-tech equipment and the subtle and usually invisible movement of air and moisture in homes mean even experienced and well-intentioned contractors do not get things right in every instance. This can result in health problems for occupants and installers alike.

Such concerns have arisen in relation to recent activities conducted by local community action agencies through state programs funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Weatherization Assistance Program. This program, created under the Energy Conservation and Production Act of 1976, provides the means for basic weatherization of the homes of low-income families. Since 2000, federal funding for the Weatherization Assistance Program has averaged around $225 million per year, (2) sufficient to weatherize approximately 95,000 homes annually. (3)

In 2009, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the federal government awarded the states $5 billion with the goal of weatherizing 600,000 homes by 2012. (4) But the sudden influx of cash and the short period of time in which to spend it has spelled trouble for many state weatherization programs.

Missed Steps

No health problems are reported to have resulted from ARRA-subsidized energy-efficiency retrofit activities. But inspections have uncovered several instances of hazardous conditions created or worsened by retrofits, which serve as reminders of the need for care to ensure that home renovations don't cause more problems than they cure.

For example, in Cook County, Illinois, 12 of 15 homes audited by the DOE Inspector General after receiving retrofits were found to have substandard work, and 5 of 6 furnace tune-ups had not been correctly performed, allowing the heating systems to either improperly fire or exceed maximum allowable carbon monoxide (CO) emissions. (5) CO is a colorless and odorless gas that, if drawn into the living space of a home, can sicken or kill the occupants. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that non-fire-related CO poisoning results in an estimated 15,000 emergency room visits and 500 unintentional deaths in the United States per year. (6)

A similar review conducted in Nueces County, Texas, showed the community action agency performing weatherization under ARRA failed to install or document installation of CO detectors in 11 homes inspected, a requirement for any unit with a combustion appliance. The agency also failed to administer and/or document required CO testing of combustion appliances in each of 13 homes inspected. Appliances in 5 of these homes were later found to exceed CO emission allowances. (7)

In Alaska the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported mold cropping up in houses that had been recently weatherized, explaining, "Homes in cold climates are susceptible to mold because of the extreme temperature differential between inside and outside. Mold needs water to grow, and moisture develops in homes when water vapor inside hits cold surfaces such as windows and outdoor walls and condenses into liquid." (8) Evidence to date suggests mold spores in indoor air can cause asthma symptoms, respiratory infections, and upper respiratory problems among susceptible persons. (9)

Critics say problems of poor workmanship in state weatherization programs over the past year are often the result of the programs' hiring of large numbers of new contractors, not all of whom are properly trained or supervised. …

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