Written by Emily Halstead, a senior in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and a communications intern for Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Volunteers in Arlington County are making a difference — one light bulb and toilet tank at a time. With more than 6,000 hours of volunteer service under their belts, these masters of energy efficiency have been helping low-income families improve their comfort levels and reduce 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 collaborative effort 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, Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Arlington County unit coordinator. “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 Thrives — 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 home for the residents. That’s definitely the most exciting thing, and that’s what keeps the volunteers coming back.”
In addition to the retrofits in the apartments, the program now includes one-on-one home visits with people in low-income apartments to provide residents with 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 was able to expand in 2016 to Alexandria with support from a grant from the City of Alexandria. 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,” said Abel.