Survey of Cheakamus DES users shows troubling results 

Eighty per cent of respondents say they are not satisfied with the energy system

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CLARE OGILVIE - SURVEY SAYS An informal survey of users of Cheakamus Crossing's controversial heating system showed the majority of respondents have encountered problems with their unit since being installed over four years ago.
  • Photo by Clare Ogilvie
  • SURVEY SAYS An informal survey of users of Cheakamus Crossing's controversial heating system showed the majority of respondents have encountered problems with their unit since being installed over four years ago.

The final results from an informal public survey of Cheakamus Crossing residents are pouring in, and they paint a bleak picture for users of a controversial heating system that has cost thousands of dollars in repairs.

The Rise resident Erica Finnsson spoke to Pique last week about the ongoing problems she and others have encountered with the neighbourhood's District Energy System (DES), a closed ambient heating method that captures waste heat from Whistler's sewage treatment plant to pump into homes. It's been touted for its energy efficiency and savings on monthly utility bills, although a number of residents have run up thousands of dollars in maintenance and repair costs since the system was installed over four years ago.

At press time, 85 respondents had filled out the survey, with 68 reporting that they had experienced at least one system failure since installation. According to Finnsson, there are 174 DES users in all.

The questionnaire also asked residents how much they've spent on maintenance and repair costs on their system, and the results vary widely. Fifteen had incurred no costs, while eight more had their work covered during a two-year warranty period following installation, with the remainder spending anywhere between a few hundred dollars to — in two cases — over $8,000 (see table).

"I'm actually surprised that it's as bad as it is," said Finnsson, who plans to share the results with mayor and council. "I knew it was bad, but I think it's worse than even I thought."

Another illuminating result for Finnsson came on the final question of the survey, which asked if residents were satisfied with the DES — 80 per cent said "no." The survey, which is now closed, can be viewed at www.surveymonkey.com/s/9PK3LJD.

"I'm going to follow up with the municipality and the Whistler Development Corporation with more information, so that they don't think I'm one enthusiastic whiner, and I can show them in writing that there are many more of us (with problems)," Finnsson said.

The municipality is responsible for the maintenance and operation of the DES from the wastewater treatment plant up until the property line at Cheakamus Crossing, and commissioned RMOW subsidiary Whistler Development Corporation to contract out the installation of the units ahead of the 2010 Olympics. Residents are responsible for the upkeep of their individual heating units and any costs that may be incurred as a result.

New councillor Steve Anderson vowed to get to the bottom of the problems plaguing many users of the heating system in Cheakamus in his election campaign, and said the RMOW has "a responsibility to look into" the issue.

"I don't think anybody would be too happy about those results," he said of the survey.

The councillor has spoken with several heating technicians recently, who indicated the problems might be "more of the water source than a system issue." He would like to research further if the water pumping through the system has caused mineralization in users' heating units, which may have led to technical mishaps. He also hopes to determine if the problems many residents are facing can be linked to a specific contractor. Various companies were used for installation depending on which area of Cheakamus work was being done.

The RMOW has committed to its own study of the system in 2015 after BC Hydro pulled the plug on its own DES assessment. The efficiency study will likely be carried out by an independent party and is expected to assess the individual units of several DES users and compared to other methods of space and hot water heating. But Finnsson said a more comprehensive analysis is needed.

"I don't think the efficiency study is the route they need to be taking," she said. "I think they need to analyze the system from start to finish and find out why it's broken. This is not about efficiency."

A report presented to council in October found that, from a municipal standpoint, the DES operated smoothly in 2013, with no overall system shutdowns, although RMOW general manager of infrastructure Joe Paul acknowledged at the time the troubles many residents are facing.

"It's been very clear to us that the vast majority of users of the District Energy System are enjoying a relatively trouble-free system," he said. "There are some problematic installations that have been done. Anecdotally, I've heard some areas have more troubles than others that were installed in a specific development by a specific installer."

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