Low Lake Anne Levels Concern RELAC Users

With Lake Anne way below typical water level, can water-run cooling system keep up?

Signs of drought can be seen all over Reston: withering flowers, browning lawns and low water levels in Reston's lakes.

But what is a sore sight for Reston boaters and other nature lovers may be a much bigger issue for Lake Anne-area residents.

About 300 homes near historic are cooled by RELAC (Reston Lake Anne Air Conditioning Corporation), a system that uses recirculated lake water.

RELAC is now operated by Aqua Virginia, which says it has brought in a secondary pump to aid operations until water levels are back to normal.

President Ken Knueven says the water level at Lake Anne is about three feet below where it should be. Meanwhile, average July precipitation here is 3.67 inches. As of July 19, 0.76 inches had fallen.

"This is the worst I have seen it," said Knueven, who has lived in Reston for decades. 

Knueven, the director for Lake Anne and Tall Oaks, lives in a RELAC-cooled home. He says his home is sufficiently cooled and that Aqua has been "very responsive" to RA's questions, but he is concerned about the lack of a longtime solution.

Aqua Virginia Chief Operating Officer Shannon Becker says the company may bring in a second secondary pump if lake levels get lower.

"Unfortunately, these things have a short-term impact," says Knueven. "If they bring in the second pump, there will be pipes around people's homes and it will limit boating on Lake Anne. Right now. the impact is basically noise. We have a noisy pump right next to the [North Shore] tennis courts and 50 feet from people's homes."

Knueven - as well as several other Lake Anne-area homeowners - are also frustrated that is able to pump large amounts of lake water to its irrigation ponds.

Since Hidden Creek began as a public golf course, it was granted legal water rights when it was built in the 1960s. Hidden Creek is allowed to draw up to 25 million gallons annually into its irrigation pond, says Knueven.

 Knueven says he does not know the daily usage amount, he does know that the greens look lush. He says he has had conversations with Hidden Creek General Manager Jon Patrick, asking him to be a good neighbor and cut back on the watering.

"I have no idea whether that has happened," Knueven says. Patrick did not return Reston Patch's phone calls.

Waterview Cluster resident Mary Coombe says she is concerned the water imbalance will affect nearby businesses.

"Hidden Creek is taking the little remaining water from the lake," Coombe said in an email.  "Yes, their contract says they have a legal right, but morally?  The RELAC system needs a certain amount of water to operate. Also, the boating will stop and the overall enjoyment of the lake (including the restaurants) will cease if the golf course doesn't stop taking all the water. "

RELAC was touted as a state-of-the-art system when it went into use in the mid-1960s. One of its main bonus features: it is quiet and would not interfere with the sounds of nature.

Over the years, though, it has been the subject of lots of criticism in Reston. Among the concerns - it is inefficient, moldy and has issues when the lake levels fall. RA covenants say that those on the RELAC system may not switch to a heat pump or other more conventional system.

In 2005, a petition was signed 160 homes and RA put replacing RELAC to referendum. Residents voted 130-100 to keep the system, falling short of the three-fourths necessary to move it forward.

Last fall, RA adopted a provision that will allow some RELAC users to add a supplemental system - but they must provide a doctor's note, among other items, to show why they need additional cooling. 

Aqua Virginia also recently raised rates for residents. The average bill is now $1,000 annually, up from $870, Becker said.

Aqua Virginia has been talking about installing two new cooling towers since shortly after it took over RELAC in 2003. The towers were approved by the RA Design Review Board in January of this year, but remain in the drawing board phase. Aqua Virginia says the estimated costs came in too high and are working on a solution that will not drastically increase rates for customers.

Becker says Aqua is frustrated too. The RELAC system - which may be the only one of its type remaining - takes up time and resources for the company. Low water levels, storm debris and pumps that can overheat and shut down are among the issues Aqua Virginia is facing, he says.

"We have two full time operators working on the system," he said. "That is out or the norm. We are in the water and sewer business. We are not in the AC business, and our operating metric is not typically two people to 300 customers."

"We are working with RA to make sure people are aware of issues and determine what we need to do to go forward."

Knueven says he is organizing a task force to look at RELAC options.

"Aqua Virginia basically inherited RELAC in an acquisition [of many systems]," he said. "RELAC does not sit with their longterm business model. We have to collaborate on what are our best options for us as a community and for them as a business. One thing that is holding us back are covenants that require homes to use RELAC."

Are you a RELAC customer? Do low lake levels concern you? Tell us in the comments.


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Chipperson July 20, 2012 at 11:38 AM
Interesting article regarding the history and rules of the system. I worked on some engineering proposals for lake Anne plaza and had old surveys or asbuilts showing underground cooling lines - I had no idea what they were for - and now I do! Thanks!
HarleyGirl July 20, 2012 at 01:27 PM
The residents of Lake Anne and users of the RELAC system are most appreciative of the Patch coverage. The current owners of the system has not serviced the system properly despite years of problems and complaints from residents forced to use it. Unbelievably, despite years of poor service, the owners considerably raised our rates for this season! In addition, the water levels of Lake Anne continue to drop from the lack of rainfall this year and from water usage by Hidden Creek Country Club. Despite our reliance on an adequate level of water to cool our houses, Hidden Creek refuses to cease drawing water from the lake to water their greens. Residents have contacted Hidden Creek with responses such as this: "...we have cut back on the amount of water that we have been pumping from Lake Anne as of late. Unfortunately, mother nature hasn’t been very kind to any of us this year however, it does look like we are going to get a break in temperatures later this week, it also looks like we will be getting some much needed storms tomorrow. Please understand that we are doing what we can and will continue to do so." I’m not sure what 25 million gallons of water looks like or how many millions of gallons Lake Anne holds. In the spirit of neighborliness, Hidden Creek should do a bit more: stop using the water from the lake for the remainder of the season. Find another source. Let the grass wither just a bit.
Wildcat Mack July 20, 2012 at 02:12 PM
Fascinating story. Let's hope this issue gets solved. Thanks Karen!
Bobbie Kennedy July 20, 2012 at 02:39 PM
I would like the thank the management of Patch for bringing the issues of RELAC and Hiddencreek Country Club’s use of Lake Anne for golf course irrigation, into the public awareness. As many users of the system are aware it is a chronic, seasonal issue. The small utility known as RELAC has been at issue since it first began operation in the late 60’s. Its history of reported poor service has been discussed summer after summer, as well as its very expensive user price tag. Service to our home has been better than that reported by most....482.46 X 4 is the price tag. We have invested a considerable amount of money maintaining our system, our home is cool, except for extraordinary issues , for example power failure, or temporary difficulty at the plant related to keeping the chillers cool, and intakes clear. Aqua Virginia has made many promises and followed through on few of them . The SCC granted them a rate increase again this year. At issue now is the low lake levels related to the current drought and also the ongoing withdrawal of water for irrigation of the private country club which is compounding the RELAC operation by lowering the lake to a level that makes it difficult to operate the already compromised air conditioning plant. RA has been working both with Aqua and Hiddencreek. Why are they avoiding responding to press inquiries? What is the drought management plan for Hiddencreek?
John Lovaas July 20, 2012 at 03:06 PM
It is good to see Patch picking up on this story and to see Reston Association starting to get involved in a positive way on behalf of their membership. We appreciate the efforts of new RA President Ken Knueven to engage our Association in this issue. The Patch story understates the deterioration in the system and the costs to the users and the community. Besides antique cooling equipment which AQUA VA (RELAC's Corporate owner) has been promising to update for 5 years, the "chilled" water distribution system is in an advanced state of decay, with leaks popping up all around --for example in front of our home. RELAC was in the first instance an accidental acquistion by the AQUA America (owner of AQUA VA), which they value so highly that they offered to sell it to Reston Association or the systems bound users three years ago for the price of One U.S. dollar. They repeated this offer this very week to RA rep. Next, let's talk real costs....
Elizabeth July 20, 2012 at 03:32 PM
If RELAC users are required by covenant to stay with the RELAC cooling system, why doesn't the Reston Association take over administering RELAC from Aqua VIrginia? RA could dedicate a portion of its robust revenues received from our annual assessments to invest in two new cooling towers and run the system. We should be thinking about expanding the system, not shutting it down! The cooling system is a unique and environmentally friendly aspect of Reston's heritage that we should all be proud to support. RELAC users should not be hostage to Aqua Virginia's corporate, profits-first mindset. And, in these times of drought and economic misery, there ought to be a public referendum on the merit of water privileges for the lush green lawns of Hidden Creek "public" Country Club.
John Lovaas July 20, 2012 at 03:39 PM
When AQUA VA couldn't unload the RELAC relic on the community, they filed for a rate increase of 54%, which the State Corporation Commission obligingly granted just a year and a half ago. In the last week or two, they were given an additional increase of 17%. The cost for a cooling season (May to October) is way higher than the $1,000 quoted in the Patch article. With the 17 % increase, we are paying over $2,000 per season for our townhouse---and ours is by no means the highest AQUA bill. In addition, because the relic is so inefficient it has to be run continuously to attain a temperature of 78 degrees on our main floor when the outside temp hits 90 even though we keep equipment in good condition. (We normally set thermostat at 76). Also, we must operate at least one dehumidifier constantly because RELAC "chilled" water air is so moist. Result: our electric bill is probably 50% higher than it would be with standard A/C. What effect do you suppose using all that electricity has on the environment? Over the years, many homeowners have routinely gotten medical waivers enabling them to get off the system. The wet, "chilled" air AQUA/RELAC provides is very unheathy. It is said to foster molds and is harmful to folks with allergies or breathing issues. Changing to conventional A/C solves their medical problems. Let's get behind a community effort to lower costs and improve our health by ending the reign of the relic that is RELAC!
Bethany Hannan July 20, 2012 at 08:45 PM
All I know is that I wouldn't buy a house that requires RELAC due to all the problems I've heard about through the years. It's a cool idea in theory, but doesn't seem to work in practice. Lots of other places in Reston to buy where I can cool my house in more affordable and efficient ways...
Deanne Baine July 21, 2012 at 01:31 AM
I agree with Bethany. RELAC may have been a cutting-edge idea at one point, but given all the negative feedback I've heard since moving to Reston more than 20 years ago, I would never in a million years consider buying property in a neighborhood that forces owners to use this or a similar system.
the-stix July 22, 2012 at 09:20 AM
“Reston Association starting to get involved in a positive way” should NOT involve spending ANY money from the dues of paying members (15-20,000?) to provide A/C for 300 homeowners that unfortunately (or not) willingly signed on by covenant to the RELAC provided utility. My suggestion for the 300 is to buy a heat pump or A/C unit and pay each year for the operation and maintenance of the unit as most of us Restonians do (in addition to paying the RA assessment). And I would remind everyone that the Hidden Creek G&CC is a Reston asset. Tread carefully on dmanding they degrade the the venue or we may all find the green spaces replaced with 1000's of new housing units. In case you are wondering, I am not a member!
Bethany Hannan July 22, 2012 at 03:53 PM
@The-stix: The 300 owners can't buy A/C or a heat pump - they're not allowed to unless they have a documented medical condition.
the-stix July 23, 2012 at 09:03 AM
I understand that, however if there is enough dissatisfaction by the 300 the rule can be changed. Then everyone can live like the most of the rest of us, buying and owning our own unit, and bearing the maintenance and operational cost that go with it. Question: Is the real problem the cost to the 300 to replace RELAC and finding someone else (like RA) to pay for it? If so, I urge RA to stick to paths, pools and tennis courts and not try and get us all in the A/C utility business.
Skip Endale July 23, 2012 at 02:17 PM
The historic area, namely the Heron House and the horse shoe need to be completely gutted and rebuilt. They are an eye sore and a maintenance night mare. A realtor a few years back reviewed a unit with me in the high rise - we concluded that the listing price and the maintenance fees combined would be comparable to a single family home. I also rented at the Heron House for a while and the heating/AC did not work well - basically you cannot adjust the temperatures. Its really a surprise to me that nothing has changed. 2011 tax laws allowed for a complete overhaul of the AC to newer technologies ($500 tax credit). In 2012 these provisions do not exist, however there are still options for renewable energy (geothermal heat pumps and solar energy). Still unexplored, fuel cells. In my mind the Heron House and the horse shoe urgently need some sort of upgrade. As for the surrounding clusters they need to be completely torn down and rebuilt. They are an eye sore. I know a lot of people at RA will disagree but its time that people look at this problem with a sense of urgency and realism. Two centavos...
restonanon July 24, 2012 at 05:04 PM
Perhaps my perspective is different as someone who runs a small to medium sized business in Reston, but I am more inclined to agree with "the-stix". We should not be looking to a business (hidden creek) to risk its business because of an outdated infrastructure project. The result of a golf course reducing their water usage would very likely reduce their membership and club usage which in turn affects the entire community. That shortsighted view may help ease the pain for the next few weeks, but in the long run Reston will be worse off.
steve potts August 01, 2012 at 11:38 AM
"Signs of drought can be seen all over Reston: withering flowers, browning lawns and low water levels in Reston's lakes." All the Reston lakes? What about other local lakes? Reservoirs? Before blaming a local golf course for low water levels in Lake Ann, shouldn't someone have done a little more research? "RELAC may be the last remaining system of its kind." Painful as it will be for RELAC users to replace their system, it is only a question of when!
Karen Goff August 01, 2012 at 12:07 PM
No one is blaming Hidden Creek for the low water levels. That is due to the weather (heat and lack of rain). They have asked them to help out by not pumping out as much water for lawn maintenance until significant rain raises the water level.


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