weatherization: overview
Goal: Meet the Housing Needs of Older AdultsAARP logo
Role: Provide Accessible, Safe, and Affordable Homes

Weatherize Homes to Improve Energy-Efficiency and Reduce Utility Costs

What is weatherization?

Weatherization is a term used to describe small-scale, typically low-cost changes made to an existing home to improve its energy-efficiency. Weatherization measures include, but are not limited to:
  • Installing or improving attic and wall insulation
  • Sealing gaps around doors, windows, and in other areas with weather- stripping and caulk
  • Replacing old, drafty windows and doors with energy-efficient models [1]
While these upgrades may seem relatively minor, they can result in significant reductions in energy consumption and utility bills. Evaluation of the national Weatherization Assistance Program indicates that low-income families can achieve an average annual savings of 21 percent on their energy bills, or some $400 per year, by undertaking modest home improvements to increase energy-efficiency. [2]

Why is weatherization important?

Reduced energy consumption
- Residential buildings account for roughly 20 percent of our nation's energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. [3] Newer homes tend to be much more efficient than older ones, largely because of new building technologies and more stringent code requirements in recent years. As households age, however, so do their homes: According to the American Housing Survey, among householders age 65+, more than 70 percent own or rent homes built prior to 1980. [4] Weatherization can help to reduce energy use in these older structures, advancing the nation's climate change objectives while also resulting in other important benefits for older adults.

Reduced energy cost burden - Low-income older consumers, many of whom may be living on a fixed income, tend to use less heating fuel than their higher-income neighbors but, because of their financial situations, are nonetheless burdened by these lower costs. [5] When the household budget gets stretched too thin, older adults may be faced with difficult choices and forced to make trade-offs between paying the utility bill and paying for other essentials.

A recent survey found that in the preceding twelve months, nearly 29 percent of households with older adults had to choose between paying for food and paying for utilities or heating fuel. [6] While many older adults benefit from programs that provide assistance making monthly utility bill payments, these are only temporary fixes and often depend on the availability of government funding. When done correctly, home weatherization promises to lower home heating and cooling costs for years to come.

Improved health outcomes
- To avoid high bills in homes that have not been weatherized, some families rely on unsafe methods to heat their homes. The use of kerosene heaters and stoves to provide warmth, for example, can produce gases that may cause asphyxiation. Electric heaters that have not been properly insulated can result in burns and fires.

There is also evidence that cold indoor temperatures and drafts in unweatherized homes may contribute to asthma and other respiratory diseases. Inadequate cooling can also be hazardous, with extreme heat resulting in death in some cases. In addition to freeing up money in the budget for food, medication, and other essentials, weatherization can help to remedy these conditions and create a healthier indoor living environment. [7]

Where is weatherization most applicable?

Solutions in Action
Vincent House

In 2004, Vincent House, a federally-assisted senior complex in Seattle, WA, received a $6.3 million HUD Section 202 rehabilitation grant to undertake a significant renovation including energy enhancements that are expected to save tenants nearly $100 a year in utility costs.

On top of the federal assistance, the city agreed to donate nearly $40,000 to make certain energy enhancements, including adding energy-efficient lighting, thermostats, and refrigerators to all of the units. Residents also received four Energy Star lightbulbs from the City of Seattle and City Light, the public utility company, as part of the Change a Light, Change the World campaign, an effort of the EPA, Department of Energy, and HUD to promote energy-efficiency and conservation throughout the nation.

Case study and image courtesy of the National Housing Trust.
While the specific interventions may vary, households living in all parts of the country
may be able to benefit from home weatherization measures. The Midwest and Northeastern states tend to have the coldest winters; not surprisingly, older adults in these states tend to have the highest heating costs and may be able to achieve significant cost savings from improved insulation and caulking, new windows, and other related improvements. [8] Nevertheless, weatherization can help households living in older or poorly-insulated homes in all communities to enjoy lower utility costs and a healthier and more comfortable indoor living environment.

Historic Elk Park SchoolLearn more about challenges associated with weatherizing homes and resources available to address these challenges

Fall Creek PlaceGo back to learn about other tools that help to provide accessible, safe, and affordable homes

[1] Energy and Telephone Assistance in the States: Public Programs that Help Low-Income Households. [PDF] 2007. By Ann McLarty Jackson and Neal Walters. Washington, DC: AARP Public Policy Institute.
[2] Weatherization Assistance Program Briefing Book. 2008. "Chapter 6: Questions and Answers." Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Energy.
[3] Carbon Cap and Trade. 2009. Residential Energy Services Network.
California became the first state to include energy requirements in its building code in 1978. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, more than 40 states and the District of Columbia have since adopted energy codes for residential buildings.
[5] Need for Low-Income Heating Assistance Continues Despite Recent Drop in Some Home Heating Costs. 2009. By Ann McLarty Jackson and Neal Walters. Washington, DC: AARP Public Policy Institute.
[6] Hunger Study - 2006. "Table 15.5.2: Having Seniors or Children and Household Trade-offs." Prepared for America's Second Harvest by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.
[7] Home Health Hazards for Older Adults: Keeping Your Home Healthy and Comfortable [PPT]. 2005. Washington, DC: Alliance for Healthy Homes.
Need for Low-Income Heating Assistance Continues Despite Recent Drop in Some Home Heating Costs. 2009.

The views expressed herein are for information, debate and discussion, and do not necessarily represent official policies of AARP.