News and notes from Reston (tm).

Monday, December 11, 2023

RELAC, Don't Do It: Frankie Finally Goes To Hollywood as Reston Cooling System Shuts Down

It may be the end of an era for one of Reston's most incredible jet-age innovations. No, not key parties and skull-crackin' playground accoutrements, silly rabbits! Instead, Reston's technological marvel, the RELAC air conditioning system that draws from the placid waters of Lake Anne to chill send cold water through pipes in more than 300 homes around the village center, may be shutting down for good. Give us some good nastygram letter blockquote, BFF's at Reston Patch:

We, the owners of RELAC, regrettably and with great difficulty have to announce that the 2023 cooling season will be the last year that RELAC provides chilled water to our customers. 

In their letter to customers, RELAC's owners outline a long litany of reasons why "providing chilled water" (no reference to cooling) is no longer financially viable, including increasing costs, the need for rate increases they say would exceed 30 percent, the Reston Association's promiscuous granting of "health exemptions" (they included the sarcastic quote marks, not us) to 33 of the system's 200 customers, and as much as $120,000 in unpaid utility bills by customers -- and they apparently can't shut off service for nonpayment, unlike other utilities. 

RELAC customers held referenda to CANCEL the system back in ought-fifteen and ought-ought-eight before that, but neither managed to reach the two-thirds majority needed to kick RELAC to the curb. So now it's the owners of RELAC that are doing the kicking, and expressing regret for doing so:

We have been a community-oriented utility for over 50 years and understand the hardship we are generating on our customers. We know that the cost of retrofitting a new A/C system will be expensive. Leaving our good customers is the worse part of this decision and we feel a profound regret. The decision we have made is not an easy way to end our relationship with you, our loyal customers.

For all our jokes, it's actually a bummer to see one of the most unique bits of Reston disappear, with the silent operations that were always the system's claim to fame to be replaced by the clanking and grinding of dozens of AC systems in the summer. It'll be interesting to see if the biggest complainers about the system handle buying a new AC with grace. At least we won't have to listen to strange sucking sounds whenever the water levels in the lake get low, the end.


  1. The "biggest complainers" tried to do this in 2015.. and 2008... so I think they will handle buying a new AC system with plenty of grace. It's too bad Reston Association caused this problem. And it's a shame to lose your only AC and only have a few months to get one.

    1. And how did RA cause this problem

    2. The thing that Reston could plausibly be held responsible for (and the owners made this claim in their letter to customers, as mentioned in the article) would be a failure to adequately enforce the covenant. I think this claim fails for several reasons:

      First, even if you accept the current owners numbers, there are but 33 current exemptions. I'd be interested to know how many there were when they agreed to purchase the system from the previous owners, who were running away from it as fast as they could, and reportedly sold it to the new guys for a dollar. (I'm sure it looked like easy money to the purchasers when they did some arithmetic. A monopoly! "Let's see, ~625 guaranteed customers x our ridiculous rates minus minimal expenses...we'll be rich!" And the process of granting exemptions was well established when they agreed to make the purchase. The reasons people sought them were clear. Did they fail to anticipate that people would continue to seek such exemptions? Did they think that Reston would stop granting them? Are 33 such exemptions out of six hundred and something customers the reason the system isn't viable? I suggest not. But even if it is, the reason that so many people seek exemptions is because the system doesn't provide adequate cooling. It's not very complicated. If it worked adequately, people wouldn't bother going to the trouble to get exemptions, nor the expense of installing a working system once the exemption is received. Think about it. If the system provided adequate cooling, there would not be any need for a health exemption at all. Generic modern air conditioning systems appropriate for our climate provide healthy air for people across a very wide range of health concerns. Such health concerns as are sufficient to justify an exemption from Reston might affect any family at any time. This was all true when they bought the joint.

      Then there's the "without enforcing the rules
      returning homes to RELAC when they change ownership." I wonder how many of these there have been? Notice that they did not say. I am personally aware of two home sales in recent years made by persons who held health exemptions and were not on RELAC at the time they made their sales. In each case, I was told that the purchaser applied for and received their own exemption prior to finalizing the purchase. New home buyers gotta breathe too.

      So, um, no. RA didn't cause this. I think it's fair to criticize RA for not seeing the very obvious writing on the wall that this system was unsustainable, and failing to adequately prepare for its inevitable collapse. I'll be interested to see how they handle the fire dill.

    3. Can the existing electric grid support this large transition over to conventional AC units in the footprint of the customer base?

    4. Newsflash… RELAC used electricity. In fact running it at my old RELAC home was expensive because you paid both for the service and the electricity to run it in your home. DO NOT MISS Relac!

    5. Relac uses a lot of electricity to run. My electricity bill was very high in the summer.

    6. …and that’s not even counting all of the electricity need to run all of their pumps and chillers. Presumably whatever that load is will be removed from the local grid.

    7. Contrary to what this article says, neither referendum effort was aimed at “canceling” RELAC. The intention of each was to give homeowners a choice of whether to stay on it or not. Presumably if it was a well functioning system providing a reasonable value, few would have incurred the unnecessary expense of changing.

    8. As a customer of relac for over 20 years II understand it uses electric. The homes in our neighborhood will need upgraded electric panels because they can’t support the load from an ac unit. So maybe the electric grid can support this transition..maybe not…

    9. Regarding the last comment saying new electric panels will be necessary, that's not true for everyone. I have an original panel and 2 companies both of which have done Relac to traditional AC conversions told me my panel would be fine. It depends on how many large appliances you have in your house. I just have the standard one washer, one dryer, one dishwasher, one stove, one refrigerator, etc. If I wanted to add a 2nd refrigerator, AND an AC the panel wouldn't support the load, but just adding the AC alone is fine in my case.

  2. I can confirm that no special electrical work was necessary to put an individual AC in my house. (I got a medical waiver.) Running the lines was simple and straightforward too. No special drywall work was needed. All in all pretty simple.

    It's fair to note that this might not be the case for every home, but it's wrong to suggest that it's necessarily a big hassle with electrical upgrades and major construction needed.

  3. A lot of folks are out here demanding that RA enforce the AC ban, and I'm just amazed anyone thinks this would work. Think it through. If you bought a house with an AC unit, installed by the previous owner with a medical exemption, and you get a letter from RA telling to you remove it what's your next move? You know the process will take months, you know you're going to lose a bunch of money and your AC unit if you don't do anything, and you know the last person had the unit free and clear thanks to a medical exemption. What would you do in this situation?

  4. The issue with that is that a Real Estate transaction involves all sorts of equities and obligations on the part of multiple parties: seller, buyer, agents, Title Company, Homeowners association. You really can't just stick the buyer with a potential obligation to tear out a perfectly good A/C. It needs to be resolved one way or another at the time of sale.

    I've heard Reston Association tries to facilitate, not get in the way. The thing is, RELAC's functionality is so horrible that anyone who needs to breathe can get a medical waiver, so I think that's how sellers and buyers handle it. (Buyer goes and tells a doctor to sign something saying that their patient likes to breathe. Reston says, "OK, we're covered if some bozo sues us over enforcing the ridiculous rule")


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