News and notes from Reston (tm).

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Frankie Says RELAC: Don't Do It (Or What Happens When The Price of Tepid Lake Water Goes Up 56 Percent)

800px-Reston,_Virginia_-_Lake_Anne_plaza.jpgNow that we've gotten our obligatory '80s pun out of the way, let's revisit everyone's favorite "alternative" cooling system, which pipes tepid Lake Anne water through tubes to "cool" various Lake Anne homes, much like that other passing fad, "air conditioning." But hey -- it's silent, which means you can sweat in peace and quiet!

Anyhoo! Aqua Virginia, the cleverly named company that runs the series of tubes, has applied to the State Regulatory Commission for a 56 percent rate increase. People in the clusters surrounding the lake are not happy, and the Reston Association facilitated a public meeting a week or so back for affected residents. Here's what they learned:

The average increase Aqua is asking for RELAC customers is about 56% over existing tariffs, which have not been changed since Aqua bought the company. The documents filed with the SCC indicate that RELAC is steadily losing money and a significant increase is needed to keep RELAC solvent. We were aware of their intent to file for an increase, as the General Manager of Aqua VA, Greg O'Dell, had met several times with a group of affected cluster presidents during the past year and mentioned that they were planning to request a “long overdue” rate increase.
A different cluster board had this to say:
We plan to appeal on the basis that the 56% increase is unreasonable for service that is less that satisfactory. The County will present technical objections to the financial aspects of Aqua's case. There will be a hearing before the Commission in Richmond at 1000 AM on April 20, 2010 and then, nearby thanks to our Supervisor, Cathy Hudgins, at the Government Center on May 3, 2010 at 700 PM.
With its well-intentioned attempt to revolutionize a basic amenity, RELAC is classic '60s Reston, idealistic if not always practical. While many grumble about its lack of efficiency, or actual ability to cool buildings, some people truly like the fact that they can sit out on their decks in the summer without hearing the drone of dozens of air conditioning units. Still others find ways to get medical waivers and put in classy window A/C units and whatnot.

Apparently Aqua Virginia hasn't had any luck finding a buyer for the system, which is a bit of a problem. As much as people may grumble about the service, they'll grumble more if it goes completely out of business.

Update: Following three days of way-above-average temperatures, the natives in the RELAC-intensive clusters around the lake are getting restless. Here's a taste of what's being said on their fancy "list-serv" machines:
I will report that I got two hours of "half-sleep" last night. Our house was 88 degrees with all the windows open and fans on upstairs and downstairs. I was joking with my wife that we should go "tea party," install some window units, and see if a court would enforce a covenant that makes it illegal to air condition your home on a 93 degree day. (And even if they did, hey, we'd have a comfortable house for a few weeks while the lawyers fought about it:)

Again, that was just a household joke, but this week makes it clearer than ever we need new alternatives. This situation is untenable, and the huge pending rate increase just adds insult to injury.


I am close to certain that the contract states that in instances where the temperature is 80 or above for three days in a row, they will turn it on. That being said, they have rarely done so in my 11.5 years here.


I'm not sure Aqua could turn the system on early this year. I just walked by their plant near North Shore (on my way somewhere else, I wasn't planning sabotage ;) and they have a back-hoe working near the water intact area dredging that area out. From my observations, they tend to do work like this before the start of each cooling season and it lasts several days.
Awesome. Can't wait for that cool sludge to get flowing!


  1. I'm just wondering whether Aqua Virginia will file for bankruptcy protection if the proposed rate increase, or an agreeable rate increase isn't approved by the SCC. It would be sad for the Lake Anne residents if AV decided that they didn't have enough cash to continue operations and ceased operations of the plant in July or August.

    You have to think like the Russians dealing with the intransigent Ukranians about the West European pipeline in order to appreciate the possibilities.

  2. I believe the parent company, Aqua America, would be sought out officially if that happened. Aqua America is very healthy financially, their primary business being water delivery facilities across the country.

    They are listed on NYSE: WTR

    They serve 3 million people in 14 states. Had operating revenues in 2009 -- $670,539,000.

    From their 2009 Annual Report to Shareholders:

    "...As environmental stewards, it’s our duty to not only protect our water sources, but to ensure the quality of our drinking water.
    That’s why Aqua invested a record $283.6 million in 2009 in infrastructure improvements. These improvements included water
    distribution system upgrades — many of which are eligible for state infrastructure rehabilitation surcharges — as well as
    improvements to our treatment facilities. Infrastructure improvements like these improve the quality and reliability of service
    to our customers and are consistent with the $335 billion the Environmental Protection Agency estimates is needed to improve
    America’s water infrastructure over the next 20 years.

    2009 marked Aqua America’s 10th consecutive year of net income growth. Aqua also successfully completed 18 acquisitions,
    received $37 million in annualized rate awards, controlled costs to improve margins and maintained our position as the most
    efficient water utility in the country. Aqua’s regulated business model and growth-through-acquisition strategy allowed the
    company to grow net income through top-line growth despite unfavorable weather conditions and the housing slowdown.

    In 2009, Aqua’s Board of Directors increased the quarterly cash dividend to $0.145 from $0.135 per share. This represented a
    7.4 percent increase and was effective with the December 1, 2009 dividend payment. This increase was the 19th increase in the
    past 18 years. Aqua was once again cited as a “Dividend Achiever” by Mergent, Inc., which recognizes companies that have
    displayed consistent dividend growth over the last decade.

    Revenues for the full year 2009 rose 7.0 percent to $670.5 million from $627.0 million in 2008. Net income in 2009 exceeded
    $100 million for the first time in the company’s history ($104.4 million from $97.9 million in 2008). Corresponding diluted earnings per share for the year were $0.77, compared to $0.73 for 2008 on 1 percent more shares outstanding. Management was
    able to realize earnings growth in 2009 despite unfavorable weather and a weak economy..."

    The RELAC system is way outside their standard business model... and they know it. But they have money and resources.

  3. It is a shame that RELAC can't be bought by a geo-thermal company as a showcase piece and have some real capital improvements to the system.

    As Restonian noted, some of us like it for the silence.

    But as many at the meeting pointed out, this rate increase seems to be Aqua VA forcing the issue so the residents vote in a referendum to end the restrictive covenant thereby spelling the doom of RELAC forever as everyone leaves the system and then Aqua VA can put that part of their company out of business.

  4. Reston can go after a geothermal project. US Dept. of Energy has appropriated close to $10 Billion in Grants and Loan guarantees. Municipalities all over the country are doing it.

    Click link below, and go to the Geothermal section:

    We just need the will, and the desire to make it happen. The existing, or new, board needs to take the lead and move the conversation along. Reston can be a model example for the County and the State, and it is in the Administration's back yard as a successful showcase.

  5. Where the heck would you install a geothermal plant?

  6. Use the lake and existing RELAC chiller facility

  7. I wonder if the person who commented "use the lake ...." is sitting in his/her fully functioning AC right now. For those of us on Relac - our homes are 80+ degrees today.
    We are being held hostage by a system that should have been retired years ago. This is painful since some of us did vote years ago to get rid of relac but others held out hope that a corporation would actually invest in a system that was losing money. Wishful thinking : ((

  8. It's 90+ degrees and we are without air conditioning, and in fact, it is a violation of covenant and we face civil liability if we install AC. (Unless we have a doctor's note. It's kind of like medicinal marijuana). This requirement is so the neigborhood can stay quiet, even though the neighborhood has overhead planes, cars, helicopters circling several nights a week and barking dogs. It's ridiculous!!!! All respect to the Restonian for running this blog but the Washington Post, FTC or DOJ is who really needs to find out about this scam. All I want is the right to outfit my home with a reasonable AC system like any other American. No more lake chilled anything and no more relying on a utility to make decisions about our home's climate.

  9. Regarding "use the lake" -- what was meant was to install the piping for geothermal on the lake bed, or drill the necessary wells in the lake bed, and pipe to the existing RELAC facility.

    Yes, this does not solve the immediate problem, but it provides a solution that could easily be implmented by next year's cooling season -- if the conversation started now.

    Was just responding to the person who thought geothermal might be an interesting idea.

  10. The problem is that Aqua VA has no interest. There are no potential buyers of the system.

    Things like getting Aqua VA to operate the system earlier than May 1 are issues that should be addressed the the VA SCC.
    There is a April 20 hearing in Richmond in front of an SCC examiner, and will present the County's views on the requested increase. The County has also arranged with the SCC to hold a second hearing in northern Virginia for the convenience of residents unable to go to Richmond. That meeting will be on the evening of May 3 at 7pm in the Fairfax Count Govt. Center.

    There is also an opportunity to write letters to the SCC and address these issues as well.

  11. The silence is a real issue. In a town-home development with all of the condensers going on and off it makes quite a racket on top of all the other sources of noise you mention. Though the occasional plane is hardly comparable.

    I understand a lot of people really dislike the system, but I think it could work much better.

    From what I've heard the company before RELAC ran the outfit much better. It is a shame Aqua VA was allowed to run RELAC into the ground.

  12. Yet another legacy of failed Reston---especially Lake Anne.

    Get rid of the dinosaur!

  13. Asshole 12:51, what is your problem with Reston?

    Do you even live here? if you don't STFU and if you do, please GTFO.

  14. HKCD

    Trolling for the boys again eh?

  15. Like it or not, a rational argument can NOT be made for restricting an individuals right to choose how one cools their abode. The many cons of RELAC far outweigh the one pro. That pro being the ability to listen to the birds and the bees. However, we live in a high density residential area. Sounds such as airplanes, automobiles, people and air conditioning units come with the territory. If you do not like that you live in a high density residential area you are free to move to the mountains and enjoy your peace and quite. Virginia has wonderful mountains where your intellect (assuming you support the birds and bees argument) will fit in well with the hillbilly folk. RELAC does not provide adequate service to it's customers. Let's repeat that, RELAC does NOT provide adequate service to it's customers. It is about as reliable as a Yugo. In fact I'd be willing to bet that the Kremlin would have been extremely interested in installing such a reliable system as RELAC (Russia's Extremely Loony Air Conditioning?). The last time I checked though the USSR's time has come and gone. Much like RELACs time has come and should have gone a long long time ago. We do not live in a State that restricts an individuals right to choose between a system that works and makes sense and one that does not. It is time for Restonian's to realize their unalienable Rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of EFFECTIVE Air Conditioning.

  16. Who wants to revive the "change the covenant" movement we had a few years ago? I'm ready.

  17. I'm with Sandra Burrer. Bring down RELAC.

  18. Ironic name Burrer :)


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