Thursday, March 30, 2023
March 30, 2023

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Energy Adviser: Weatherization also cleans air, benefits health

The Columbian

When the grant-funded county weatherization program works on a low-income house, its main goal is to make that home more energy-efficient. As it turns out, sometimes the county fixes more than the house — upgrades can improve the residents’ health, too.

“The county’s low-income weatherization program has always been about three things; energy efficiency, building safety and health,” said Mike Selig, program coordinator for Clark County weatherization and building safety.

Since 2008, the county has weatherized about 120 low-income homes each year. The program stopped air leaks, added insulation to crawl spaces and attics and made them energy-efficient. Sometimes it can replace an inefficient heating system and deliver a huge energy savings.

In the process, contractors sometimes found safety issues and fixed them as well. They have repaired furnace vents that did not work properly. They repaired holes in outside walls that exposed insulation. They cleared pests from crawl spaces. They installed smoke alarms and carbon monoxide monitors.

Selig said the county has weatherized a great number of the low-income houses that needed run-of-the-mill upgrades. The county still makes low-income homes more energy-efficient, but it has widened efforts to include making them safer and healthier too. Often this means improving indoor air quality, because concentrations of some pollutants are two to five times higher inside a house than outside. One significant indoor air problem in some housing is fiberglass.

Many homes built during the 1980s put flexible Mylar ducting in the attics. These tube-like ducts have a net-like core to hold fiberglass insulation in place. Air turbulence in the ducts breaks down the netting and releases fine fiberglass bits that blow into homes. Slowly the ductwork fails. Often, the outside Mylar splits. As the Mylar ducting fails, its efficiency declines. That raises the homeowner’s utility bill.

Meanwhile, for anyone with breathing problems, fiberglass in the airstream worsens the condition.

Harmed by the heater

One local mother discovered the harmful effects after she and her asthmatic son moved into a home with Mylar ducting in the attic.

Whenever the forced-air furnace kicked on, her son began coughing. At the time, she didn’t know why. Turns out, the furnace was blowing tiny fiberglass shards that can cause throat inflammation, breathing problems, skin rashes and eye irritations into her house.

She’d heard about the county’s weatherization program and wanted to have her home weatherized. After the county qualified her, contractors discovered Mylar ducts in her attic and a high fiberglass particulate level inside the house. They replaced the ducting, plugged all the air leaks, added insulation, installed a ventilation fan and a hybrid water heater. The fiberglass in the air disappeared.

Over the next year, the mother noticed her son’s asthma flared up less often. In part, she credited this to his age. As his condition improved, she realized the removal of the fiberglass from the house also contributed to his improvement. (According to the Center for Disease Control, the body slowly expels fiberglass naturally.) Today her son is off asthma medication.

With most of us in our homes much of the day, removing irritants like fiberglass from them is a growing health concern, one important enough that utility companies, builders and health care professionals are banding together to solve the problem.

“The cost for treating low-income people living in unhealthy homes falls on taxpayers and anyone paying health insurance premiums,” Selig said. “By making homes safer and healthier, this kind of weatherization work can ultimately reduce the burden on our health care system and on taxpayers.”

Low-income weatherization is funded by federal, state and utility grants and is administered by Clark County, but the Clark Public Utilities Community Care department can pre-qualify customers to determine eligibility and help to coordinate participation in the program. Call 360-992-3000 to learn more about income parameters and other eligibility requirements.

Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.