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Contractor breaks supply line for DES, causing outage

RMOW considering loans for DES users wishing to disconnect from heating system

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An independent contractor struck and broke a supply line for the District Energy System (DES) last week, knocking the ambient heating system in Cheakamus Crossing out of order for several hours.

The break occurred after 10 a.m. last Wednesday, Aug. 22 and was back in operation by 4 p.m., according to the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW).

"The utility guys were dispatched and found the broken line and the DES pumps at the plant were shut down so they could repair the line," relayed Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden. "Because that happened, there would have been a loss of pressure for some owners, which may have caused residential heat pumps to shut down, so homeowners were asked to check the control screen of their units and to reset their systems if necessary."

The DES is a closed system that captures waste heat from the local sewage treatment plant and pumps it into homes, providing space and domestic hot water heating for household use. Touted by officials in the lead-up to the 2010 Olympics as an energy-efficient system that would save homeowners on their heating bills, the DES has, at least for some Cheakamus Crossing residents, reportedly led to a litany of technical issues and thousands in repair costs. (Homeowners are responsible for the DES equipment within their own homes, while the DES plant and distribution system are the property of the RMOW.)

Tony Routley, neighbourhood appointee to the Cheakamus DES volunteer committee, said the system's most recent shutdown exposed "the vulnerable position" DES users find themselves in.

"There's nothing you can do about this kind of stuff; it was an accident. But what it has done has highlighted some of the issues we have, in my opinion," he noted. "We have a break. So what happens after that? We get a quick notice that there's going to be a problem. It's not just a break. Now everybody has to do something with their system. Hopefully it's set up properly and it will shut down so nothing gets damaged. If not, you need to manually turn things off in your system. Well, what if I'm at work? Or I'm in Ontario visiting family? What are you going to do? It's a fundamental flaw in the whole system."

On Aug. 14, the municipality announced that council, in a closed meeting, had discussed several potential measures to assist homeowners: ensuring that annual maintenance is put into place; addressing systems that have exhibited systemic failure; and helping those interested in opting out of the DES. Asked for more detail, Wilhelm-Morden said that, on the latter point, council is considering "the possibility of loans to people who want to get off (the DES) but can't afford it."

In October, the RMOW gave DES users who were dissatisfied with their system the option to opt out, with the understanding that homeowners would cover the cost to install a new heating system. Some homeowners welcomed the chance to disconnect, but argued they shouldn't have to foot the bill to replace a system that they believe hasn't worked as advertised.

This came a year after council voted to lend municipal subsidiary Whistler Development Corporation, the developer responsible for Cheakamus Crossing, $350,000 to carry out repairs in units that required it.

Routley believes the loans won't go far enough.

"(The RMOW has) come to the table and I guess they've agreed that the system doesn't work and they want to help us out. But they're not taking the responsibility of paying for this thing," he said. "It's pushing it back on us to pay for their mistake, and that's where I have the problem."

Routley is also seeking donations to a legal fund for homeowners as October's local election nears.

"It's reached a point where we've spent three-and-a-half years talking about this, and this council is coming up for election and we have to move forward," he said.

"I have had free legal advice over the years, and it's time that we get a paid legal opinion so we know exactly where we stand. I'm not saying that we're going to move forward and sue (the RMOW), but I think we need to know exactly what those options are."

For her part, Wilhelm-Morden would also like to close the book on the DES as her tenure as mayor draws to a close. (She will not be seeking re-election in the fall municipal election.)

Asked if she would have handled the issue any differently than the past council that greenlit the project, Wilhelm-Morden said that, "to put relatively sophisticated equipment into individual houses, I don't know that I would have agreed that was a great idea.

"This is one of those instances where a green solution to heating was pursued without perhaps really considering the consequences."

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