As solar technology and LEED certification have gained traction in the residential building industry, opportunities for small builders and existing-home owners to implement simpler, but still effective energy-efficiency measures have received less attention. Weatherization, the time-proven process of making houses weatherproof and more energy efficient, remains a relatively inexpensive way builders and homeowners can improve their homes' performance.

The Weatherization Assistance Program
Through the Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), income-eligible building owners can receive financial aid ranging from free to reduced-cost energy audits to full retrofits funded and implemented by a number of local nonprofit community agencies and contractors.

New York's Community Environmental Center replaces insulation to a weatherized home.

New York's Community Environmental Center replaces insulation to a weatherized home.

Credit: New York's Community Environmental Center replaces insulation to a weatherized home.

Under the program, single-family homeowners and multifamily building owners can choose budget-conscious weatherization upgrades based on available funding through the Weatherization Assistance Program subgrantee organizations and their structures' energy-efficiency needs. Income eligibility varies by state and general guidelines available from the Department of Energy site. Some of the core home performance upgrades include replacing windows and insulation and changing out oil-burning boilers for electric or natural gas systems.

Although WAP has faced several challenges, including a loss of funding at the Federal level that may not be reinstated in annual contracts and lack of nationwide standardization, there are still hundreds of subgrantees administering the program in all 50 states, with thousands of homes weatherized each year. According to the Department of Energy, the average weatherized home saves approximately $400 a year on utility costs.

Bonus Benefits
Beyond the obvious financial and environmental benefits, weatherization provides health and safety advantages, as well.

"Weatherization does more than improve the efficiency of homes; it measures and reduces the health and safety risks [posed by their] appliances,” says Nathan Magsig, energy director for programs at the subgrantee Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission (EOC) in Northern California. Doug Hairgrove, director of housing and community services for the Community Action Corporation (CAC) of South Texas, concurs: “The program also focuses on health and safety [issues] such as carbon monoxide, acceptable air-exchange rates, and smoke alarms.”

The Fresno EOC and South Texas CAC are two of several dozen California- and Texas-based community organizations administering WAP. Other key weatherization benefits of the program, Magsig says, include reduced utility usage because of shell sealing and insulation.

In addition to noting repairs that can make homes more airtight, the WAP audit process tells owners how their building is currently performing. Hairgrove says that in South Texas, programs funded by the Department of Energy are more comprehensive than any other local utility or privately funded weatherization program.

For homeowners interested in increasing their house's energy efficiency without performing a full weatherization, WAP can serve as a guide whenever individual home improvements are called for, such as when replacing a washer and dryer or repairing a leaky roof. Other simple changes, such as updating or adding to the home's insulation can greatly improve a house's efficiency, keeping the home warmer in winter and cooler in summer.

WAP and other home performance programs often install cellulose insulation made from recycled newspaper, which, at a higher R-value than fiberglass, makes for a significant sustainability measure. Recycled industrial denim is another ecologically responsible, highly effective home insulation. And some brands of insulation take sustainability one step further, using natural resources like fungi to act as an outer layer of the home.

In addition to WAP and other federal weatherization programs, building owners can look to national and state programs offering support and incentives for upgrading the energy efficiency of existing infrastructure. For a list of programs by state, click here.