Energy Masters Program energizes Arlington County

An Energy Masters Program volunteer caulks a window to prevent drafts and keep moisture from rotting the wood around the window.

An Energy Masters Program volunteer caulks a window to prevent drafts and keep moisture from rotting the wood around the window.

Volunteers in Arlington County and Alexandria are making a difference — one light bulb and toilet tank at a time. With more than 6,000 hours of volunteer service, these masters of energy efficiency are helping low-income families make their homes more comfortable while reducing their water and energy bills.

The Energy Masters Program, funded by the Arlington County Community Development Fund, has made strides in improving energy efficiency for residents living in affordable housing units in Arlington County neighborhoods. The program is a collaboration between the Virginia Cooperative Extension Arlington County Office and two county nonprofit organizations — Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment and Arlington Thrive.

“Training teams of volunteers to go into low-income apartments and do energy- and water-saving improvements helps lower the utility bills of both the residents and the property owners, ultimately improving the environment by eliminating the amount of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere,” said Jennifer Abel, family and consumer sciences Extension agent in Arlington County. “Since starting the program in 2011, we’ve trained 152 volunteers, and we’ve made improvements in 591 apartments.”

The impetus for the program was a phone call to Abel from a board member of Arlington Thrive — a nonprofit organization that provides emergency assistance to low-income residents who are struggling to pay their rent or utility bills — regarding the costly utility bills of those living in affordable housing units. Arlington Thrive collaborated with Virginia Cooperative Extension and Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment on applying for a grant to fund the energy efficiency improvement program.

Some of the improvements include:

  • Sealing gaps and holes around windows and door frames.
  • Inserting foam gaskets behind light switch plates and outlet covers to prevent air leakage.
  • Replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent and LED bulbs.
  • Installing low-flow faucet aerators and shower heads.
  • Mounting a Toilet Tummy in toilet tanks, which reduces the amount of water used.
  • Cleaning the coils under refrigerators to help improve cooling efficiency.

“The sense that I get from the volunteers is that they see the real, tangible results of the work they’re doing,” Abel said. “After they see this huge gap in a wall and seal it up, they can immediately feel that they’ve stopped the air leakage that was occurring and therefore have improved the overall comfort of the residents in their homes. That’s definitely the most exciting thing, and that’s what keeps the volunteers coming back.”

Energy Masters Program volunteer Guillermo Ortiz got involved with the program and immediately recognized its value to the community.

“In addition to the educational aspects, improving energy efficiency in low-income communities was something that really piqued my interest and prompted my involvement,” Ortiz said. “The Energy Masters Program offered me the opportunity to pair my interests in climate change, energy efficiency, and civic engagement, while allowing me to make a difference in historically underserved communities.”

In addition to the retrofits in the apartments, the program now includes one-on-one home visits with residents and more education on steps they can take to improve their energy efficiency. Many of the volunteers also provide education in local elementary, middle, and high schools to teach students about energy efficiency and the importance of energy conservation.

The program expanded to Alexandria in 2016 with support from a grant from the city. Volunteer teams conducted retrofits in 38 Alexandria apartments and are looking forward to doing many more. “Hopefully this program can expand to other parts of the state and ideally to other parts of the country as well,” Abel said.

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