Ithaca, NY installs heat pumps in mobile homes

This story was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Technically, Holly Hutchinson lives in Ithaca, New York, a college town in the Fingers Lakes region in the northern part of the state. But she also lives at an important interface between two national crises: affordable housing and the race to avert the climate catastrophe.

She can tell you from experience that the housing dilemma is driving more and more Americans into RVs; she lives in one herself.

“Like many other places around the country, home buying has become out of reach for so many of us,” she said. “What’s the alternative? Well, mobile homes are relatively affordable.”

Mobile homes may be cheaper, but their energy consumption is enormous.

This is where Hutchinson’s main job comes in. She is a coordinator at the Finger Lakes Climate Fund and Sustainable Finger Lakes. She leads a program that puts heat pumps in RVs – one of the first in the United States.

Hutchinson has one in her own mobile home, which was installed after her propane stove broke down last year.

Mobile homes are an often forgotten segment of the affordable housing market.

“We’ve had a lot of discussions about housing in this county for a long time, but no one ever talks about mobile homes,” said Gay Nicholson, President of Sustainable Finger Lakes. “We feel like there’s a population there that’s becoming increasingly vulnerable.”

The hope is to have heat pumps installed in 50 mobile homes in the area by the end of this year. The program is funded by a grant from Tompkins County, the county that includes Ithaca, and will help offset the cost of installing these heat pumps. Sustainable Finger Lakes will also help owners find other financing options to meet remaining costs or, in some cases, access low-interest loans from the state. The goal is to make heat pumps as affordable as possible, says Nicholson.

“I’m really grateful that New York State has finally accepted the reality that we, as tariff or taxpayers, need to help low-income people make their energy transitions,” Nicholson said.

The heat pumps could have a massive impact on energy efficiency — Nicholson estimates that RV owners use 70 percent more energy than people living in other types of homes.

“So that means there’s a lot of energy poverty in those homes for low-income people, and a lot of them are seniors who may have had to downsize their homes because they couldn’t afford it,” Nicholson said.

According to Linda Shi, professor of urban and regional planning at Cornell University in Ithaca, mobile homes make up a large portion of affordable housing in the United States, surpassing all other types of affordable housing.

Mobile homes fall broadly into two categories: older homes and newer prefab homes, where the components for those homes are all manufactured in factories and then built on site. The difference is significant and has implications for how resilient RV owners could be to climate change.

“For the older units, the quality of housing and infrastructure can be significantly inferior,” Shi said. “And that can mean they’re less well insulated and therefore more exposed to heat and cold.”

Newer mobile homes are often better insulated and built, but they too are vulnerable to various climate events, including extreme heat and cold. Heat pumps can make a world of difference for homeowners.

“As the climate warms, we experience hotter summers or longer heatwaves – having a heat pump that can both cool and heat is simply the biggest benefit,” said Hutchinson.

Mobile homes are more vulnerable to almost every type of climate event that can occur, from flooding to extreme heat to hurricanes and tornadoes. After tornadoes leveled mobile home parks in Mississippi earlier this year, RV owners were once again reminded of their vulnerability to extreme weather conditions caused by climate change.

As the country begins to move away from fossil fuels, Hutchinson hopes mobile home renters and owners will have priority.

“The ideal is that the transition to that clean energy future that we’ve been talking about leaves no one behind,” Hutchinson said.


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