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Unusual Cooling System Steams Some Lake Anne Homeowners

By Carol Morello
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page C04

Richard Speier bought his Reston townhouse seven years ago in the winter, when he wasn't thinking much about air conditioning.

He has been sweating it ever since.

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Speier is one of 529 homeowners around Lake Anne hooked up jointly to an air-conditioning system unique in the annals of residential cooling.

RELAC, an acronym for the company that operates it, pumps water from Lake Anne, chills it and runs it through underground pipes to coils in each house. Fans in the houses then pump the air.

When it was created four decades ago, RELAC was touted for its cutting-edge technology.

On the plus side, the system has the virtue of being almost silent, so it does not drown out the sound of chirping birds.

But residents complain that it is difficult to maintain, prone to mold and often useless during summer droughts when the lake level falls. And there are no individual controls. So every home follows the same schedule, with the system turned on in May and off in October. It often leaves Speier and other homeowners feeling too warm in spring and too cold in fall.

On balance, many would like to get off of RELAC and install central air or add a window unit.

But Reston won't let them. Restrictive covenants prohibit personal air-conditioning units in homes linked to the system.

"RELAC was a beautiful idea," says Speier. "It's just an idea that didn't work out over the long term."

Whether to update the RELAC system or disconnect it is a matter of growing debate among Lake Anne homeowners. As summer approaches, some residents are lobbying to amend the covenant so they can put in their own units.

The Design Review Board, which typically presides over such issues as the color a homeowner might paint his shutters, is considering a separate proposal that would improve the efficiency of RELAC, as the Reston Lake Anne Air Conditioning Corp. is called.

Aqua Virginia, the water utility that bought RELAC a year and a half ago as part of a package deal, has proposed installing two 15-foot water towers. The towers would use city water during droughts, ensuring that the air conditioning would not be held hostage to the water level.

The cooling towers would be a backup system and might be used for a month or longer during dry summers, said Greg Odell, a division manager for Aqua Virginia.

But the towers make noise -- as much as 90 decibels, or the equivalent of a heavily trafficked road. A 16-foot wall would surround them, but that would muffle only some of the noise. Many residents are reluctant to give up the peace and quiet they say only RELAC can provide.

"Most neighborhoods in the summer are filled with the sound of air conditioners," said Charlie Saunders, who has lived in two Reston homes serviced by RELAC. "It sounds like the buzz of the 17-year locusts. Here, you can sit out on your back porch without hearing any of the humming of individual units. For many residents, that's something worth retaining."

Some believe the towers would make more noise than a pack of locusts. At a meeting of the Design Review Board last week, praise for RELAC was scarce. But most homeowners who spoke urged the board to turn down Aqua Virginia's proposal for the cooling towers.

"What we'd be getting is what everyone doesn't want," said Patricia Broderick, who lives near the site where the towers would go up and worries it could cause hearing loss. "When we're strolling around, we're going to hear some very loud air conditioning."

Though the review board's authority is limited to cosmetics and noise, several homeowners used the meeting as a forum to lobby for an end to a system that was initially sold as the epitome of luxury.

"Individual townhouse owners should have the free choice to either stay in RELAC or get individual air-conditioning units," said Speier. "Why should homeowners have to pay for something that irritates them?"

Aqua Virginia has warned that reducing the already-small customer base even further could doom the system because it would not be economically viable.

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