Concern heating up over ongoing issues with Cheakamus energy system 

State-of-art technology has some residents claiming they've paid thousands in repairs and maintenance

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CLARE OGILVIE - Cross at the crossing Residents at Cheakamus Crossing are speaking out against costs associated with its District Energy System.
  • Photo by Clare Ogilvie
  • Cross at the crossing Residents at Cheakamus Crossing are speaking out against costs associated with its District Energy System.

Some Cheakamus Crossing residents are speaking out against high repair and maintenance costs associated with the neighbourhood's District Energy System (DES), an energy-efficient heating system that was touted for its potential savings on monthly utility bills before it was installed ahead of the 2010 Olympics.

The DES is a closed system using relatively new technology that captures waste heat from Whistler's sewage treatment plant and pumps it into homes, assisting with ambient heating and providing hot water for homes. The system was designed to reduce household energy use and potentially save Cheakamus residents up to 30 per cent on monthly hydro bills. But with some complaining of persistent technical problems, and thousands of dollars in regular repair and maintenance costs since the system's warranty expired in 2012, residents are questioning whether the DES was ultimately worth it.

"As far as the savings on heating I think some people have said we should rip it out because they'd be saving money in the long run on electric heat," said Cheakamus resident Tim Koshul. "Between the maintenance and what we pay to the municipality (in annual user fees), when you put that into consideration, I can't see how we're saving money."

Annual operating fees for the DES are shared over the total area of Cheakamus Crossing buildings, at $4.58 per square metre, according to the RMOW. The estimated cost of running the entire system is $1,096 per year for a typical townhouse, with $622.88 in DES fees and $473.28 in electrical costs. Maintaining the system's equipment is up to individual owners, and not the municipality.

And while hydro bills are low in comparison to more commonly used heating systems — one resident said his bill averages around $120 a month over the year — some claim to be facing staggering costs for repairs that don't always eliminate the technical issues associated with the DES.

One resident, who wants to remain anonymous, said she's racked up nearly $7,000 in repair and maintenance bills in the last two years and went without heat for weeks in her home this winter. She hopes to recoup some of the costs she's incurred. The woman also said she's dealt with four different repair companies, and was often given varying reasons as to why her system was experiencing technical issues.

The system came with a two-year warranty from date of occupancy, although various DES components hold separate warranties.

Other residents have taken to Facebook to voice their mounting concerns, with one writing that his system stopped operating on Dec. 23, which led him to spend around $1,300 for parts and service as a result. Two others said they'd spent nearly $500 each in recent months after chemical flushes and other minor repairs were recommended.

Cheakamus resident Denis Ebacher said he spent $1,260 to replace a valve last month, and has had his heat pump replaced three times under warranty since moving into The Terrace in 2010. He believes many of the issues residents are facing with their individual systems are due to improper installation in the push to finish developing the Athletes' Village for the 2010 Winter Games.

"If all the units in Cheakamus Crossing, which are all on the same system, all had issues, then we would know the system sucks, but that's not the case," Ebacher said. "A lot of people never had an issue at all then some of us have to get something fixed yearly. During my first two years here, (technicians) were here almost every two months trying to figure out what was wrong with the system."

Installation of individual heating units was farmed out by developer Whistler 2020 Development Corporation (WDC) to a handful of general contractors, including Glacier Creek, Rommel Homes and Kenwood Construction, who in turn hired around 25 sub-contractors each during construction, according to WDC president Eric Martin.

Peter Harteveld, owner of Custom Air Conditioning, said his technicians have identified issues with a handful of systems at the point of installation, although he stressed that his company has not serviced enough of the units to determine if this is the root problem facing the majority of residents who've experienced ongoing technical issues. Custom Air did not install any of the systems.

"The geo-exchange and district energy systems aren't hugely complicated, but what happens is that when they get installed, it's typically installed by mechanical plumber contractors who are not heat and thermal dynamic people, and so when they put the system in, the complexities of the system weren't really appreciated," he said "Those issues, if they aren't done properly, are kind of hidden for the first while and show up later on in terms of component failure."

WDC fielded "probably thousands" of warranty requests from residents who experienced issues with their system during the warranty period, Martin said. He couldn't recall offhand if any of the identified problems were due to installation, but admitted "there may well have been" such cases. He added that each individual circumstance is different, and a myriad of factors from maintenance, to design, to equipment malfunctions could be at play. WDC recommended residents hire Western Technical Systems (WTS) during the warranty period because the company is accredited to service the DES, Martin said, but that sometimes owners decided to use other companies without the necessary expertise.

"We know that that happened but I couldn't tell you objectively what the extent of it was, but it definitely occurred," he said.

A state-of-the-art heating system like the DES will always have challenges, said WTS president Dave Robb.

"Particularly when you're dealing with relatively new technology like this, there are all kinds of things we've learned in hindsight," he said.

"The system wasn't designed to be cheap, it was designed not to produce carbon dioxide," he added, saying he still believes the DES is "in the bottom 20 or 25 per cent" of heating systems when it comes to operating costs.

Robb said some of the issues residents have faced were due to mineral buildup in heat pumps, and recommended they have their systems cleaned.

Certain property owners in Cheakamus have discussed getting the neighbourhood's strata councils together to meet with a qualified DES technician to go over how the system and its components function. Because the system's components are not common property, addressing problems with the DES falls outside of the stratas' purview.

A province-wide BC Hydro report comparing the Cheakamus Crossing heating system to a number of other district energy systems was expected for delivery in 2013. When asked Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said she was unsure when the assessment would be completed.

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