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Clusters Ponder Life Without RELAC

Two dozen people with RELAC learned about quiet central air conditioning at an informational meeting last week.

About 25 people attended an informational meeting last Thursday, Sept. 1 at the Reston Museum — but not to discuss RELAC.

The meeting, moderated by Richard Speier and Wayne Schiffelbein, focused on identifying quiet central air conditioners and their costs. It was set up to dispel the idea that central air conditioners can’t be quiet, but also showed that a switch to a traditional central air conditioning unit would be costly.

“We think it will range between $4,500 and $10,000,” said Speier. “My conclusion from these prices is that only the people who are suffering the most will decide to get off [RELAC]. There will not be a rush to the exits.”

The meeting intentionally omitted any discussion of the upcoming RELAC referendum, which will allow 343 residential owners to vote this month to rescind or to maintain a RA covenant that mandates they use RELAC. They include the households of six clusters, including Coleson, Governor's Square, Hickory, Wainwright, Washington Plaza and Waterview.

While many more people use the system, including condominium owners and some businesses, only those forced to use the RELAC system because of the clause in the Association’s governing documents will be eligible to vote.

The referendum will require that at least 10 percent of the eligible voters cast a vote. To pass, the referendum requires that at least two-thirds of the votes cast be in favor of revoking the mandate.

Forty years ago, the system was considered state of the art and was chosen because it offered quiet cooling. But in recent years it has drawn the ire of users who have said the system doesn’t come on early enough when it starts getting hot in the late spring, it doesn’t adequately cool their homes and it can cause humidity problems that spread mold in their homes.

In February, 106 households signed a petition requesting RA to allow a vote to get rid of the covenant from the governing documents. Last month the RA board agreed to hold the referendum. Ballots will be mailed Sept. 9 and will be due back Sept. 23.

At a RA meeting Aug. 29, many residents who are happy with RELAC said that if people are allowed to go off the system and purchase central air conditioning units, then their neighborhoods will no longer be quiet. It is the predominant complaint of those in favor of RELAC, which is owned by Aqua Virginia and works by drawing water from Lake Anne through a series of pipes.

AT THE MEETING, Schiffelbein, who is an architect, explained how central air conditioning units have become more and more efficient over the years. “Noise wastes energy, so the units are also getting quieter,” he said. “If you a buy good enough [unit] you probably won’t need sound attenuation.”

However, Speier and Schiffelbein also discussed how sound shielding allows even further reduction in sound.

In an experiment, the two moderators brought in an old HEPA air purifier about one-third the size of a central air conditioning unit. Using a decibel reader, they showed that the purifier operated at about 64 decibels. Then they covered the purifier on all sides by a mattress cover and tested again. The reading went down to 54. “Ten decibels is a factor of ten in sound intensity,” said Speier.

Part of the meeting was also spent talking about cluster standards and the role they might play in keeping neighborhoods quiet. “Because each cluster has its unique architecture and neighborhood standards, cluster standards will be the most important environmental requirements for air conditioners,” said Speier.

Some of the considerations suggested at the meeting included acceptable air conditioner models, acceptable housing designs around the units, conditions about where the unit could be placed, and specifications for the use of sound barriers and sound-absorbing materials.

“Any engineer will tell you that you can make an air conditioner as quiet as you like,” said Speier, given all the ways sound can be suppressed.

Another aspect that was brought up during the meeting was the impact on aesthetics. “How is that going to look in my garden?” asked Ralph Youngren of Hickory Cluster.

Schiffelbein explained that the actual air conditioning units sit outside and usually are about 26 to 30 inches wide and 30 to 36 inches tall.

After the meeting, Carol Berman, another resident who will be voting in the referendum this month, thought the discussion was very helpful. She predicts that even if people are given the option to go off RELAC, most people will continue to use the system because of the cost to buy and install a new system. “I think I will vote for people to have an option, even though I will keep the [RELAC] system,” she said.