Nav: Home

Energy efficiency upgrades ease strain of high energy bills in low-income families

June 10, 2015

June 10, 2015--Low-income families bear the brunt of high-energy costs and poor thermal comfort from poorly maintained apartment buildings. To study how energy efficiency upgrades could help these households, researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health surveyed residents in a low-income community in New York City. They found that while energy efficiency upgrades varied significantly by ownership status, low-income single-family homeowners reaped the greatest direct benefits. Results overall showed that respondents experienced improved thermal comfort, enhanced health and safety and reduced energy costs as a result of the upgrades.

This study examines a full range of potential benefits associated with energy efficiency among low-income homeowners, tenants and landlords. Findings are online in the journal Energy Research & Social Science.

"Overall, energy efficiency upgrades are a promising intervention to mitigate the energy and structurally related challenges facing low-income households," said Diana Hernández, PhD, assistant professor of Sociomedical Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health. "However, results also illustrated that weatherization alone was insufficient to address all of the housing comfort and safety issues facing low-income households.

Dr. Hernández and her research team surveyed 20 heads of households as well as landlords of buildings in a variety of housing types that had recently undergone upgrades. Most participants identified as Hispanic or Latino (80 percent), and more than half of participating households had at least one child under 18 years old living in them. Many participating households were also inhabited by elderly residents who often suffered from chronic health conditions exacerbated by energy insecurity.

Results revealed different experiences of low-income renters compared to homeowners. Renters cited greater physical comfort and less economic stress; homeowners realized lower heating costs, an increase in property values, and an improvement in landlord/tenant relationships.

During in-depth interviews, participants reported significant discomfort from uncomfortably cold and drafty homes during the winter months for a variety of reasons, including poor building conditions, high costs of heating fuel, and broken or inactive boilers. More than half expressed worry that they would not be able to pay their energy bills, or had cut back on basic household necessities in order to pay their energy bills. Half of participants said that they had either skipped paying their energy bills or made partial payments during one or two months within the previous year. Financial strains and thermal discomfort presented economic challenges to participants while also affecting mental health and stress levels.

Of the more than half of participants who reported reductions in energy costs as a result of the upgrades, the majority cited savings of 30 percent or $20-60 per month. Landlords reported significant savings from the upgrades, mostly due to lower heating fuel prices, even after accounting for upgrade costs. In addition, homeowners, tenants, and landlords reported an improved sense of safety or wellbeing, reduced stress and anxiety, and positive feelings about an investment in the property.

"While our study showed that the energy efficiency upgrades were largely beneficial, in most cases, the systemic nature of the cited problems are beyond the reach of energy efficiency upgrades and require more intensive housing and policy interventions," noted Dr. Hernández. "Recommendations for addressing this should focus on: regulations that raise minimum indoor temperature standards which now are way below ideal thermal comfort levels, debt forgiveness with the cooperation of utility companies, subsidized energy costs to low-income households through fuel assistance and rate variability for hardship, and increasing consistent funding for the Weatherization Assistance program or similar programs that offer no-cost or low-cost upgrades to low-income households."
Funding was provided by the Provost Office, Columbia University: Provost's Grant Program for Junior Faculty who contribute to the diversity goals of the University.

About Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health

Founded in 1922, Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health pursues an agenda of research, education, and service to address the critical and complex public health issues affecting New Yorkers, the nation and the world. The Mailman School is the third largest recipient of NIH grants among schools of public health. Its over 450 multi-disciplinary faculty members work in more than 100 countries around the world, addressing such issues as preventing infectious and chronic diseases, environmental health, maternal and child health, health policy, climate change & health, and public health preparedness. It is a leader in public health education with over 1,300 graduate students from more than 40 nations pursuing a variety of master's and doctoral degree programs. The Mailman School is also home to numerous world-renowned research centers including ICAP (formerly the International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs) and the Center for Infection and Immunity. For more information, please visit

Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health

Related Public Health Articles:

Public health guidelines aim to lower health risks of cannabis use
Canada's Lower-Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines, released today with the endorsement of key medical and public health organizations, provide 10 science-based recommendations to enable cannabis users to reduce their health risks.
Study clusters health behavior groups to broaden public health interventions
A new study led by a University of Kansas researcher has used national health statistics and identified how to cluster seven health behavior groups based on smoking status, alcohol use, physical activity, physician visits and flu vaccination are associated with mortality.
Public health experts celebrate 30 years of CDC's prevention research solutions for communities with health disparities
It has been 30 years since CDC created the Prevention Research Centers (PRC) Program, currently a network of 26 academic institutions across the US dedicated to moving new discoveries into the communities that need them.
Public health experts support federally mandated smoke-free public housing
In response to a new federal rule mandating smoke-free policies in federally funded public housing authorities, three public health experts applaud the efforts of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to protect nonsmoking residents from the harmful effects of tobacco exposure.
The Lancet Public Health: UK soft drinks industry levy estimated to have significant health benefits, especially among children
The UK soft drinks industry levy, due to be introduced in April 2018, is estimated to have significant health benefits, especially among children, according to the first study to estimate its health impact, published in The Lancet Public Health.
More Public Health News and Public Health Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Teaching For Better Humans
More than test scores or good grades — what do kids need to prepare them for the future? This hour, guest host Manoush Zomorodi and TED speakers explore how to help children grow into better humans, in and out of the classroom. Guests include educators Olympia Della Flora and Liz Kleinrock, psychologist Thomas Curran, and writer Jacqueline Woodson.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#535 Superior
Apologies for the delay getting this week's episode out! A technical glitch slowed us down, but all is once again well. This week, we look at the often troubling intertwining of science and race: its long history, its ability to persist even during periods of disrepute, and the current forms it takes as it resurfaces, leveraging the internet and nationalism to buoy itself. We speak with Angela Saini, independent journalist and author of the new book "Superior: The Return of Race Science", about where race science went and how it's coming back.