Column: RELAC—A Museum and Environmental Problem

Last Saturday the new owners of Reston Lake Anne Air Conditioning, RELAC, held an open house at their plant, a first in living memory. The event is part of a PR campaign by the new owners to persuade RELAC users to vote to continue RELAC’s 50-year-old monopoly in the RA referendum coming in January. I took the tour and found it interesting, like a visit to a museum. The guys had obviously cleaned it up, but you just cannot hide old. The centerpieces of the plant are the four giant water chillers, which look like small submarines. They are the originals, 50-plus years old. The RELAC President assured us they were built to last forever. He also acknowledged that they are less than half as energy efficient as their modern equivalents. Replace them? The cost would be at least $250,000 each; one million for all four. They don’t have the resources to make the investment needed. The plant also has a dozen powerful pumps—four large lake water intake pumps, originals with recently rebuilt motors. In addition, there were more large distribution pumps, also originals, to move water through miles of underground pipes to all 343 townhouses and two condominium associations. The new owners have done some restoration work on the motors of the old pumps. Still, the pumps are not up to modern efficiency standards and waste a lot of energy. Then there is the chemical coolant to chill the thousands of gallons of water. That coolant is FREON, a CFC banned by international treaty about twenty years ago. RELAC’s use of Freon is grandfathered until they replace the equipment handling it. You guessed it—an expensive change not in sight. Freon was banned because it harms the environment, but it is OK for those locked in to the RELAC monopoly by RA covenant! Then there are the miles of deteriorating original underground pipes which spring leaks—such as the one in front of our home. Replacement should have begun way back. At a cost of millions, replacement is nowhere in sight. Two giant cooling towers occupy the far end of the site. If updated to meet allowable noise levels, and properly installed, they could enable the plant to operate when Lake water levels drop too far. They have never been used by RELAC and there are no plans to do so—both too noisy and too expensive. Summary: RELAC is an inefficient, outdated chilled water system and an environmental nightmare. Most commercial units at Lake Anne switched to reliable standard A/C and many residential users have been granted health exemptions to switch as well--because standard A/C is better for their health. For some, this museum piece delivers adequate cooling most of the time, especially for homes getting less direct sunlight or having high power pumps in apartment buildings (including a couple of RA Board members). Others are not so lucky, and simply cannot get reliable cooling on warm days. After 50 years of monopoly and a failure by earlier owners to maintain and update outmoded equipment and technology, it is time for some fairness, time to allow all residents the basic right to comfort in their own homes—be it with RELAC or standard A/C that better meets their needs. Yet the Reston Association proposes changing rules of the upcoming referendum to make it more difficult for a free choice outcome. Now, they want to require a two-thirds vote of all users rather than two-thirds of those actually voting as called for in the Reston Deed and applied in the 2005 referendum. Go to for frequently asked questions, more info.