(NewsNation) — With heating and energy bills spiking an estimated 17% this winter, keeping warm is one more thing for homeowners to worry about.
And it could have serious consequences. Even mildly cool temperatures can cause hypothermia or exacerbate chronic illnesses.
“You can see homelessness, you can see someone who is standing in line for a food bank and trying to get assistance for their family. What I think most of our homeowners are dealing with is private and behind a lot of doors,” Lynnea Katz-Petted, of Revitalize Milwaukee, told ABC 10.
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If you’re looking for help keeping the heat on, here are three evidence-backed solutions communities are using to keep people in their homes.
Get an audit
Step 1 for many homeowners is to get a home energy audit, which can save homeowners as much as 30%. While private inspections often cost upward of $400-700, many nonprofits offer it for free or at discounted rates.
For example, the Home Energy Squad in Minnesota will inspect everything from doors and windows to HVAC systems and water fixtures for $100 or less. They also can install energy-saving thermostats or other materials on the spot.
Even if a large project isn’t in your budget, there are many “low-hanging-fruit” fixes anyone can take on, Beatrice Nathan of the Energy Savers Network in North Carolina told Mountain Express.
One such fix is custom inserts that fit inside window frames — and cost just $20 per window.
“It works about as well as totally replacing your old window with a double pane,” she said, adding the homeowners they work with save an average of $200 over the course of a year.
The future: Green efficiency
While year-to-year fixes can save in the short-term, others are looking to the future. Think solar panels on apartment buildings, and “jackets” that can wrap around entire historic buildings.
These long-term solutions are particularly important as our housing stock ages and temperature extremes due to climate change continue to put pressure on older systems.
One example is the Wisconsin-based business Couleecap, which is piloting the installation of higher-efficiency pumps and solar panels on low-income homes and apartments to study how that affects long-term savings.
“Some people, $150, oh that’s another meal, but that means a lot when you’re that low income,” Couleecap’s Tom Mayne told ABC 10, which reported the efforts may save the state’s energy assistance program $34,000 over the next 10 years.
Still, the U.S. has a lot to learn from Europe, where the average historic building is centuries older than ours. Dutch companies are applying factory-built “skins” to public housing, essentially wrapping the equivalent of a winter coat or a beer koozie around energy-efficient buildings, Scientific American reported.
The façade is made of affordable, lightweight materials that are both precise and mass-produced. The project was partially funded by the Dutch government, and many landlords are reporting significant energy savings while reducing the buildings’ carbon footprint.
Check on neighbors
Despite technological improvements, tens of thousands die each year due to cold in the U.S. Elderly people, people with disabilities and those living in rural areas are most at risk — which is why many local governments and community groups work together to check in on their neighbors.
In Maine — where more than 60% of the population lives in rural areas — the Friendly Caller program does short, daily check-ins with shut-in residents. “In a rural area, you might have a house that your nearest neighbor is a mile away,” 911 dispatcher and Friendly Caller Andy Cardinale told NPR.
Volunteers can connect elders to community services that keep them in their homes, like furnace maintenance or window winterizing. Many groups even provide transportation to warming centers during the coldest days.
Organizers of the program say it has not only prevented cold deaths, but other types of medical emergencies. It has spread to at least 24 states across the country.