WAP Corner: Bellingham, Washington Adds Up Weatherization Plus Health

By Rebecca Stewart

There’s an adage that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that holds true, the Opportunity Council in Bellingham, Washington, should prepare itself for a flurry of complimentary imitators. Organizations nationwide are looking to its innovative combination of energy efficiency and home health services for low-income families, called Weatherization Plus Health, as a template for success. In fact, the Weatherization Plus Health program inspired a national Department of Energy (DOE) initiative of the same name. Although the two Weatherization Plus Health programs differ in scope, their goals are similar: increased collaboration between the practitioners of the DOE’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) and the providers of healthy homes services such as lead remediation, mold removal, and radon mitigation.

The DOE’s Weatherization Plus Health initiative is a national effort to enable comprehensive, strategic coordination of resources for energy, health, and safety in low-income homes. Implemented by the National Association for State Community Services Programs (NASCSP), on behalf of the DOE, the project will provide myriad resources including, but not limited to, regional conferences to bring together healthy homes and weatherization providers, a public website mapping healthy homes and weatherization programs nationwide, and technical assistance on best practices for providers of healthy homes and weatherization services.

The Opportunity Council, meanwhile, provides Weatherization Plus Health services at the local level. Using an integrated intake process, a team of weatherization technicians and healthy homes experts assess and fulfill clients’ home energy and health needs. This best practice model’s success showcases their position at the forefront of integrated services and serves as inspiration for the larger framework of the DOE’s Weatherization Plus Health initiative.

TheOpportunity Council’s widely respected training facility, the Building Performance Center (BPC), offers courses on a wide range of issues. They include the National Center for Healthy Housing’s “Essentials for Healthy Homes Practitioners.” For practitioners of both WAP and Healthy Homes, BPC uses props and equipment to provide hands-on experience for activities such as blower door tests, dense-packing insulation, water heater insulation, and mobile home retrofits. BPC courses draw participants from across the state of Washington. Many attendees take a test following the Healthy Homes course for a Healthy Homes Specialist credential—a nationally recognized certification offered by the National Environmental Health Association.

Through local training efforts, the DOE’s Weatherization Plus Health initiative looks to broadcast the importance of healthy homes work and emphasize how WAP and Healthy Homes projects complement one another. BPC training uses compelling data showing that Healthy Homes interventions are crucial to improving the lives of children and families. Research indicates that many home hazards either cause or exacerbate health problems such as lead poisoning, asthma, allergies, and even cancer. Thus, practitioners must focus on the seven principles of Healthy Homes (keeping the home dry, clean, pest-free, ventilated, safe, contaminant-free, and maintained) to combat these public health outcomes.

The Healthy Homes course also promotes the shared goals of WAP and the Healthy Homes service sector. At a recent BPC training session, instructors placed a strong emphasis on the principles of “house as a system.” As WAP practitioners know, retrofits on one part of a home can affect other parts of the home, including impacting health and safety. Understanding these principles is crucial to a successful, integrated approach. Furthermore, in both WAP and Healthy Homes, trainers stress the importance of client education, because a client’s understanding of the work done on his or her home plays a large role in whether the home becomes truly energy efficient and/or healthy and safe. This client education component is a critical piece of the Opportunity Council’s overall approach to Weatherization Plus Health.

The Opportunity Council’s staff regularly makes visits to clients’ homes to provide conservation and Healthy Homes education. Often, families have a child who suffers from asthma or another disease exacerbated by an unhealthy home environment. This visit is a key component of the Weatherization Plus Health program, meant in part to assess the need for weatherization or home repair work and also as an opportunity to educate families about their role in maintaining the health, safety, and energy efficiency of their homes.

An Opportunity Council home visit begins with a series of questions about the home. The staff member takes note of several factors, such as monthly energy costs, how well ventilated the house is, and whether any family members have health problems. The staff member takes a tour of the house, inspecting ducts, possible areas of mold, the building’s foundation, and more.

After speaking with the client for around an hour, the specialist provides recommendations specific to the family’s situation. These are tips that will help families better follow the seven principles of Healthy Homes and lower their energy bills. Examples include changing the furnace filter once a month, running bathroom fans for an hour after bathing to prevent mold, and using pillow covers to protect against dust mites. Following this review, the staff person distributes items to the family that supplement client education. Clients receive, among other items, free vacuums, door mats for wiping off and removing shoes, pillow and sheet covers, cleaning supplies without harmful chemicals, and energy-efficient light bulbs.

This exemplary approach to both training and client education ensures that energy efficiency and health are assessed in tandem and in order to provide the best possible outcome for the clients. And although other programs across the country will surely find different and equally effective ways of tackling the challenge of providing energy efficiency, health, and safety to low-income homes, the DOE’s Weatherization Plus Health program will strongly encourage all such efforts toward service integration, and serves as a resource for successful partnership between WAP and Healthy Homes services.

For more information about the DOE’s Weatherization Plus Health initiative, visit nascsp.org.