Posted inEnvironmental

Fort Worth program helps make homes cool for the summer, warm for the winter

For more than 25 years, multiple generations of the Cummings family have called a two-story house off Morningside Drive home. After her mother died, Rachel Cummings and her siblings were determined to fix up the place. 

But Cummings, who now shares the home with her husband and two young daughters, knew she was in for a lengthy, expensive remodel. 

The building didn’t have a functioning central air and heating system, forcing the family to use six window units for relief during summer and hang blankets to conserve warmth in the winter. Holes in the ceiling and floor allowed air from the window units to escape, costing the family hundreds of extra dollars in utility bills. 

“When we were starting and working on the big projects, we wondered how we’re going to get funding and work this into our budget,” Cummings said. “How could we get loans to do these things? What can we do ourselves?” 

Her sister suggested that the family apply for help through Fort Worth’s weatherization assistance program, which provides repairs to make homes more energy efficient, ranging from caulking walls and repairing doors to replacing HVAC systems and installing insulation. 

For more than 30 years, Fort Worth’s neighborhood services department has used federal and state funds to fix the homes of people who make up to 200% above federal poverty levels. 

How does the government define high energy costs?

Any energy bill above 6% of household income is considered unaffordable, according to the threshold set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

A 2016 report ranked Dallas in the top 10 cities for the average energy burden, with low and middle income households spending 8.8% of their income on energy bills

With growing stress on the state’s electricity grid and concerns about the lack of energy efficiency in Texas homes, the program is often the only path for families to lower their long-term energy use and find relief from high electricity costs. 

“We see anywhere from 30 to 50% savings, depending on what kind of units they have,” said James Armstrong, who leads Fort Worth’s weatherization assistance team of six employees. “If their house is all electric, and they have an electric furnace that’s not a heat pump, then they’re going to be saving at least 50% when it comes to the heating season because (a new) heat pump is a lot more efficient.” 

A 2021 report by the Texas Energy Poverty Research Institute and Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance found that about 20% of homes across the South have “poorly insulated” attics. About 53% of all residential buildings in the South were built before developers were required to meet energy codes, which established minimum standards for comfort and efficiency, according to the report.

“There’s a huge number of homes out there that cannot hold a [set temperature] for even a minute – if the AC shuts off, that house is getting hot,” Doug Lewin, an Austin energy efficiency expert and consultant, told Texas Climate News earlier this year. 

During the summer and winter, those factors make it more difficult for residents to keep their homes at livable temperatures. Fort Worth’s weatherization assistance department, funded by state and federal agencies, hopes to ease that burden.

Homeowner Joseph Sanders, left, speaks with Todd Lorch, a city of Fort Worth weatherization technician. Sanders and his wife Rachel Cummings applied for financial assistance to make repairs to their home that increase energy efficiency. (Haley Samsel | Fort Worth Report)

More funding will come from federal infrastructure law

Between January 2019 and July 2022, Fort Worth’s weatherization assistance department served 665 households across Tarrant County, according to a September informal report to City Council members. 

The majority of clients are Black, followed by white and Latino residents respectively. Most clients are also classified as “moderate income,” meaning they make at least 80% of the area’s median income. That statistic is explained by the fact that the program primarily serves homeowners, according to the informal report. 

How is Fort Worth’s program funded?

Three sources fund Fort Worth’s weatherization assistance program that provides home repairs and appliance replacement: the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, the Texas Association of Community Action Agencies and the U.S. Department of Energy. The last contract for annual funding came out to about $1.8 million.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused the number of households to drop during 2020 and 2021, according to the report. Nearly 160 single-family and multi-family homes were served each year during that time frame. Armstrong said he hasn’t seen a drop in demand since joining the department in the mid-2000s. 

“It’s always been busy,” Armstrong said. “We’ve never had a problem getting applications ever since I’ve been here.” 

However, funding for the program changes from year to year, he said. While the federal infrastructure law plans to add $3.5 billion in U.S. Department of Energy funding for weatherization assistance, Armstrong doesn’t expect to see any of those dollars until next summer. 

“The last couple of years, (funding) has been a little bit lower than it has in the past,” Armstrong said, attributing the drop to an increased emphasis on programs that help residents pay electricity bills. “I’m thinking by next June, we’ll have a new contract from the (Department of Energy) and that would be a heck of a lot more money and help more people.” 

How homes receive new HVAC systems, major repairs through program

The city accepts applications from single-family homes and multi-family complexes in Tarrant County, he said. Once the department determines that the household qualifies for repairs, residents may wait six months to a year before receiving service depending on how many people are ahead in the process. 

A weatherization technician visits the home to conduct a thorough energy assessment, including pressurization tests that determine where air is exiting and entering the home. Armstrong’s other top priority is to identify any health and safety concerns. 

James Armstrong, who heads Fort Worth’s weatherization assistance program, points to caulking on the walls of Rachel Cummings and Joseph Sanders’ home in Fort Worth. (Haley Samsel | Fort Worth Report)

Technicians ensure that carbon monoxide and smoke detectors are installed, along with fans and other provisions to ensure that the house is properly ventilated once it’s sealed. Older homes often have gas heaters that vent carbon monoxide within the house, Armstrong said.

“It’s OK right now, because their house may be really leaky, and if it’s really leaky, then fresh air is flowing through there all the time,” he said. “But once we go in there and we seal it up, it’s almost 50% sealed, sometimes more than that. Once we seal up a house, we need more fresh air.” 

The city works with a contractor that carries out the actual construction and appliance replacement. Weatherization assistance averages $8,000 per household, according to the September informal report. 

What kinds of tests do technicians conduct?

Weatherization technicians often conduct a blower door test. “A blower door is a powerful fan that a trained energy professional temporarily mounts into the frame of an exterior doorway in your home. After calibrating the device, the fan pulls air out of the house, lowering the air pressure inside. The higher outside air pressure then flows in through all unsealed gaps, cracks and openings such as gaps, cracks, or wiring penetrations.” – U.S. Department of Energy

The weatherization program can’t fund major repairs to the foundation or roof of a home, Armstrong said. If a home has large holes in the floor or roof, the technician can’t move forward with the project because those holes would render any air sealing useless and keep energy bills high. 

The technician can refer the resident to Fort Worth’s priority repair program, which offers up to $5,000 to homeowners in need of emergency or mechanical system repairs. Those repairs include inoperable water heaters, unsafe heating systems, electrical system failures, unstable bathroom flooring and roof repairs. 

After finishing her family’s application in the summer of 2021, Cummings was approved for assistance late last year. A construction crew spent three months this spring replacing their central HVAC system, caulking walls and ceilings, sealing ducts and installing insulation and carbon monoxide detectors. 

In previous years, the home’s electricity bills in July and August would range between $400 and $500 each month, said Joseph Sanders, Cummings’ husband. The highest cost they saw this year was no higher than $230, he said. 

Todd Lorch, who conducted the initial energy assessment for the family home, called it “kind of a miracle house.” 

“We always get good results, don’t get me wrong. We do hit our targets,” Lorch said. “But this house, just given the age of it and what we were able to do, is pretty amazing.” 

Cummings recommends the program to other homeowners looking for home improvement assistance. She’s excited to see the house transform even more over the next year. 

“My siblings all grew up in here and are calling and asking, ‘So, how is it? How does it feel?’” Cummings said. “Foundation, roofing and all those big, major things are done, so now we can move on to the aesthetically pleasing.” 

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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