For the first time in the eight months since our solar power was installed, the system is humming along, generating power and selling back to the grid. Our experience with the installation of a photovoltaic solar energy system on our B&B at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala was filled with challenges. Some of the challenges stemmed from the newness of grid-tied systems in Guatemala. However, the vast majority of the challenges were the result of terrible customer service mixed with a big dose of incompetence. In the end, the process of getting the system up and running showed us both the best and worst in customer service.
We grant the title of World’s Worst Customer Service to Kyle Johnston and Linda Heinisch of Lux Aeterna Solar based in Antigua, Guatemala. On the same project, we received stellar support and from Outback Power and from Autonomía Energética—the people at both companies are true professionals and are the reason our system is up and running.
In a nutshell, Lux Aeterna’s atrocious service stemmed from their refusal to accept responsibility for their own faulty work. At every turn, they tried to blame us, blame the equipment, or blame someone else’s work. They absolutely could not see that the cause of the problems with the system were their own doing. You can’t solve a problem when you refuse to look at the true source.
Lux Aeterna designed the system and purchased the hardware. They installed everything themselves. Before the sale, they repeatedly told us that they offered the best service around, that they were at the lake frequently and could come to check on any problems that might arise, and that they were backed by the largest solar company in Guatemala City. We talked with two of Lux Aeterna’s customers–people we know–who told us they were happy with the projects. We trusted the excellent reviews on their Facebook page.
Here’s where we get kinda jargon-y. However, you really don’t have to understand what an inverter and PV panel array are to see what we were up against.
These are the critical areas where the system was failing from the very beginning:
- Inappropriate battery configuration shutting down the inverter
- Spikes in power usage shutting down the inverter
- Energy production lower than expected from our PV panel array
Let’s see what good and bad customer service looks like in each of these areas.
Inappropriate Battery Configuration Shutting Down the Inverter
Before our power company, Energuate, inspected our new installation, we had a bank of four batteries. After the inspection, Lux Aeterna added a fifth battery, which was supposed to give us enough battery power to last two or three days if the grid went out.
Our power began failing regularly. Power was coming from the grid but our inverter was shutting down several times a day, cutting all power to the house: a real challenge when you’re hosting paying guests.
When I emailed Lux Aeterna, they told me they didn’t know the reason for the power shutdowns and they were busy with other jobs. They told me I should call the company that makes the inverter and ask them. Customer service strike one!
I called Outback Power in the Arlington, Washington. Their technical support department was amazingly helpful and patient with my lack of knowledge as I was thrust into a completely alien world where they speak a language of amps, volts, and watts. Outback told me the source of the problem was that the inverter could not work with the battery bank we had: it could only work with 48 volts and not the 60 volts coming from five 12-volt batteries. I spent at least two hours on the phone with them, walking through our configuration. I have since called and emailed them many times. Every technical support representative I’ve talked with has been patient and obviously interested in helping us get the most from their equipment.
When told Kyle what Outback said about the inverter not operating with 60 volts of battery, I was stunned by the response. He told me that he designed the system to operate at 60 volts and that it would work after our new meter was installed, in spite of what Outback said. He then sent a long, rambling letter accusing me of running the system inappropriately and of trying to find fault with their beautiful system. Funny, other than the changes Outback had me make to the programming, the system was exactly as Lux Aeterna left it. All I wanted was a system that worked and didn’t shut the power down regularly. Customer service strike two!
Eventually, Kyle and Linda came out and disconnected the fifth battery. It was hard to tell whether that made a difference, because a new problem was introduced…
Spikes in Power Usage Shutting Down the Inverter
The power continued shutting down randomly, which seemed related to spikes in power usage—something we saw via Outback’s excellent online monitoring. Lux Aeterna insisted that my water pump or spa tub had to be causing the spikes. They wanted to isolate the problem by separating these items out into their own electric panel. We said no and called our next hero: Luis at Autonomía Energética.
Luis looked at the system and said the first problem, which had to be fixed immediately, was Lux Aeterna’s wiring from the batteries. They had installed two completely inadequate switches where there should have been a breaker. Outback had long before told me that these switches were inadequate, which Lux Aeterna denied.
(As a side note, after we fired Lux Aeterna we had three companies come and give estimates for making the system work right. All of them said that the equipment was excellent, but Lux Aeterna’s wiring was not only poor, it was dangerous.)
Luis brought his electrician to remove the switches and install the breaker. The electrician was appalled by Lux Aeterna’s sloppy electrical work.
Coincidentally, the grid was down at the time of the rewiring. When the breaker installation was complete, we began running completely on solar and battery power for the first time since the system was installed! Hooray!
But what about the power spikes? It took Luis about 10 minutes to locate the source of the problem: a small electronic water heater that Lux Aeterna had sold to us and installed. Our regular water heater is a long distance from the bathroom and the hot water took about three minutes to arrive: a real waster of water. Lux Aeterna’s solution of a little electronic water heater seemed ideal. Oops, not so fast! As Luis quickly saw, the little water heater drew far too much power for the inverter to handle. The shutdowns appeared random because they didn’t happen every time. As soon as we disconnected the electronic water heater, the power spikes disappeared.
Luis solved two of the big issues with the system in a day. Lux Aeterna had fished for answers—intermittently—for several months. They refused to see that their own wiring and the water heater they sold us were the source of the problems. In contrast, Luis has patiently answered every email and given advice, including the solution to the other big problem…
Energy Production Lower Than Expected From Our PV Panel Array
Even with the system running properly, the panels are generating less power than they should. Lux Aeterna first insisted that the problem was the charge controller, and even returned the first charge controller to Outback. Of course, the replacement charge controller didn’t fix the problem.
Luis had been here only 30 minutes when he said “let me tell you about shading.”
Lux Aeterna had installed the rows of panels too close together. One row of panels was shading the next row, cutting our production dramatically. I had no idea how dramatic the affect of shading could be until Luis showed me this video.
Our next step is to move the panels so they no longer shade one another. At the same time we’ll either repair or replace the rusted support structure that Lux Aeterna built. If we don’t, the support structure will fall apart long before the panels need to be replaced. We’ve also been told that rust from the support structure can drip onto the panels and damage them—something else that Lux Aeterna denied.
The one area where Lux Aeterna provided reasonable service was in dealing with Energuate. After our new meter was installed, allowing us to sell power back to the grid, we still weren’t getting credit for our production. Linda followed up with Energuate several times to get our bill adjusted.
What Did We Learn?
After a few small programming changes recommended by Outback, the system is producing reasonably well and has remained stable. During the process, I learned more about solar power than I ever expected.
We thought we had done our homework. We thought we were hiring a company that had our interests at heart and would deliver what they promised. What we got was a combination of incompetence and the worst customer service we’ve ever experienced, followed by some of the best customer service we could ask for. Lux Aeterna tried our patience and betrayed our trust. Outback Power and Autonomía Energética restored trust and got our system working.