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The Breathe Easy Study: Air Quality, Health, and Energy Impacts of Ventilation Retrofits

This paper was presented at the 2022 ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings.

The interconnections between health, housing, and energy consumption are increasingly apparent, especially as COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of indoor air quality (IAQ) in homes. Furthermore, these connections are interwoven with, and contribute to, health disparities for communities of color and low-income communities, who experience higher rates of asthma alongside barriers to accessing energy efficiency and healthy home upgrades.

Energy efficiency has a well-documented positive impact on household health including decreases in asthma and cardiovascular disease and improvements in IAQ, comfort, and well-being. In particular, mechanical ventilation systems can enhance healthy homes and improve IAQ, especially when combined with energy efficiency measures. This paper (1) shares insights from the literature on energy efficiency and its ability to address disparities in health and energy insecurity; (2) discusses the Breathe Easy study in Chicago-area homes that tested approaches to improving IAQ and reducing asthma symptoms with ventilation; (3) shares results of the health, energy, and IAQ outcomes from installing mechanical ventilation systems in existing homes; and (4) presents novel data on the relative benefits and trade-offs for three common approaches to mechanical ventilation retrofits in terms of IAQ and asthma outcomes.

Integrating health improvements such as ventilation into energy efficiency programs will recognize and expand the benefits for vulnerable communities. Building and health experts should explore opportunities to increase their impact through innovative programs that reflect the established connections between energy, IAQ, and health.

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