Watts-to-Wellbeing: Does residential energy conservation improve health?

Project Funder: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)

Project Partners: Center for Neighborhood Technology; Action for Boston Community Development, Tohn Environmental Strategies, Enterprise Community Partners

Project Contact: Jonathan Wilson, jwilson@nchh.org, 443.539.4162

Project Description: Energy conservation efforts in residential structures are increasing in size and scope, because one-fourth of the nation’s energy consumption is associated with building operation. While early efforts to improve energy conservation may have inadvertently resulted in mold, moisture and other indoor environmental problems, more recent energy conservation studies suggest that health actually may be improved by energy upgrades to buildings.

This project provided a unique opportunity to compare data on occupant health status in housing before and after energy conservation retrofits. This study is particularly important now, as many local governments are accelerating energy efficiency programs as part of climate change initiatives.

Why We Did This Research:

This project determined if modern energy conservation measures improve the health status of the occupants. NCHH measured these self-reported health outcomes:

  • general health;
  • respiratory health;
  • cardiovascular health; and
  • mental health

What We Did:

We did a telephone interview adapted from the National Health Interview Survey. The interview was done before the work and again after it was completed in:.

  • 248 households total
  • 106 buildings with 1-3 apartments in Boston
  • 142 buildings with more than 3 apartments/building in Chicago and New York City.

The energy conservation typically included insulation, heating equipment and ventilation improvements. We obtained approval from an Institutional Review Board.

What We Found:  

  • Adult respondents reported a 0.29 point improvement in the mean general health score (1=excellent, 2=very good, 3=good, 4=fair, 5=poor) (3.07 to 2.78, p<0.001);
  • Sinusitis, hypertension, overweight and reduced use of asthma medication during asthma attacks showed 5%, 14%, 11%, and 20% differentials between improvement and worsening (p=0.038, p<0.001, p<0.001, p=0.077, respectively);
  • Reduced use of asthma medication;
  • Increased number of days with problems sleeping due to asthma and increased frequency of symptoms, such as cough, wheezing, and shortness of breath increased; and
  • Nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide levels were low and showed no significant changes from baseline to followup.

What It Means:

This study shows that residential energy conservation work conducted by trained professionals that balances energy efficiency and indoor environmental quality generally improves health. Further research is needed to understand asthma-related outcomes.