After Texas’ catastrophic winter blackout, a county program helps weatherize a South Dallas home
Ruby Young huddled around a portable heater with her grandson after a catastrophic winter blackout knocked out power to her home in South Dallas’ Cedar Crest neighborhood for about a week.
“It was very, very cold,” the 74-year-old homeowner said. “It [the heat] would come and then it would go off for two or three days and we didn’t have any.”
Extreme weather events — hot and cold — have become much more common. And experts say weatherization could help reduce overall energy consumption and prevent the overloading of Texas’ power grid. The Dallas County Weatherization Assistance Program, a federally funded initiative that helps low-income residents in the county weatherize their homes for free, is designed to help.
After last year’s winter storm was over — like many other Texans — Young wanted to avoid that experience of helplessness and cold. She also wanted to know what had happened to her application in 2019 to the weatherization program.
Weatherization is the process of protecting buildings from the elements and improving energy efficiency.
The program was put on hold in the early stages of the COVID pandemic but resumed in 2021 and received a surge of applications after the blackout. Lowering energy bills has been top of mind for many Texas after the record-breaking heat this summer and ERCOT’s warnings to conserve energy because of the strain on the power grid.
The weatherization program helps Dallas County residents like Young who have a high “energy burden,” which is defined as the proportion of a household income used to pay electricity bills. Dallas is one of the top 10 cities in the U.S. with the highest energy burdens for low-income residents.
In 2022, Dallas County has received $2.9 million in funding and weatherized 69 homes so far.
Young was particularly vulnerable to the drastic temperature drop during the storm because her home hadn’t been renovated in over 50 years. That meant that the little warmth being generated from her portable heater was quickly escaping her house and the frigid air from outside was seeping in.
The Cedar Crest resident waited patiently for nearly three years before work began on her house. She said without the program, she wouldn’t be able to afford weatherization.
“I was able to take care of everything when my husband was alive, but my husband passed away,” she said. “After he passed, one income just doesn’t make it. So that's when I began to understand that I could not take care of this [house] by myself, but then it's cheaper than rent.”
The cost of electricity bills tends to weigh more heavily on low-income residents in the U.S. , especially in the South. In fact, the energy burden for low-income households is nearly three times higher than that of high-income households, according to research from the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance (SEEA) & Texas Energy Poverty Research Institute.
High energy burdens also disproportionately impact communities of color like Young’s Cedar Crest neighborhood, which is predominantly Black.
The weatherization process took a little over a week and included everything from caulking, weather stripping, new paneling, pipe insulation, and sealing and installing new windows. Contractors hired by the county also wrapped the water heat er with a blanket and covered the windows with solar screens to prevent overheating.
Jorge Alvarez, a program supervisor, walked through Young’s house for a final inspection to ensure all the work orders had been completed successfully. Starting in the living room and wrapping around to the kitchen, he snapped photos as he worked his way through a checklist of work orders. Alvarez carefully inspected a window A/C unit that was sealed.
“It’ll stop working so hard to try and cool the room because the more you seal, the more the air stays inside,” he explained. “You want to stop the window unit from working so hard because it consumes too much electricity.”
To wrap up his inspection, Alvarez used a device called a blower door — essentially a powerful fan — to measure how much air was escaping from Ruby’s house. He had measured the air leakage before weatherization had begun and it was time to see how much improvement had been made.
“When we turn it on, it's going to suck air out of the house,” he said. “And by sucking air out of the house, it reads how much infiltration by square inches are in the house.”
He sealed the device onto the edges of the front door and then walked through the rest of the house to check that all other windows and doors were closed. Then, he turned the device on as it made a loud whirring noise to depressurize Young's house. The blower door test number showed roughly a 60% reduction in air leakage.
That improvement is expected to translate to savings for Young when it comes to future electricity bills. Clients of national weatherization programs have seen an estimated 10-20% reduction on average in electricity costs, according to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
Even simple changes can make a difference, according to Alvarez with the weatherization program.
“We do replace refrigerators because sometimes you find some of these refrigerators they're too old and they consume too much electricity,” he said. “So it's going to save the client some money right here on the electric bill.”
Beyond the financial benefits, weatherization has health benefits for Young who’s a survivor of lung cancer. Older people are uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of extreme heat or cold. In the case of an event like the winter blackout, extreme cold can lead to a heart attack, kidney problems, liver damage and more. But research shows older people who face long-term health issues are disproportionately impacted by high energy burdens. That means those who need to protect against poor health outcomes from extreme weather often face a greater financial toll to do so.
Weatherization can also have widespread effects in efforts to conserve energy. In the South, residential homes have the greatest potential to lower energy usage compared to the commercial or industrial sectors. Weatherization demand is also growing in the rest of the country and has become part of the president’s agenda to address climate change. In his $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, Biden directed funding to a federal home weatherization program.
For North Texas residents like Young, weatherization can have a noticeable impact on day-to-day life. As Alvarez and county contractors finished their last day on the job, Young said she could already feel a difference.
At night it gets chilly, but she says “it’s a lot warmer in here since they had insulated the house. So I know that is an improvement of the work that they did.”
Whether it's freezing temperatures in the winter or a blazing hot Texas summer, Young is hopeful that weatherization will help protect her against extreme weather.
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