Solar Power in Guatemala and the Best and Worst in Customer Service

installation of our solar energy system in Guatemala showed us the best and worst of customer service

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.

faulty wiring
You don’t need to be an electrician to see that this is bad!

(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.

solar panels shading one another
One set of panels is shading the next set, which cuts production dramatically

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.

rusted supports for the solar panels
The supports that hold the PV panels are also rusted

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.

This article is the second of two. Click here for the first article about our solar water heater installations.
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3 thoughts on “Solar Power in Guatemala and the Best and Worst in Customer Service

  1. The pride of being fired from this job really had hurt me, Kyle Johnston, and my partner, Linda Heinisch. We are both proud people who take pride in our work and our customer service. Besides Tracy we have a nearly flawless customer satisfaction rating and several grid-tied and dozens of off-grid installs through out the country up and running perfectly. In Tracy’s favor we could have been more punctual and faster to act in regards to the issues with the system. I remind you that Tracy lives in-between Santiago and San Lucas, a 3 and a half hour ride for us which we made more than a dozen times to troubleshoot the system free of charge to figure our what was wrong and fix it! What we were doing, before being fired, was documenting evidence to provide to Outback Power, the inverter manufacturer, so we could RETURN the inverter and install a grid-tied solar system and a separate back-up system at OUR OWN EXPENSE. The reason for this is that with the high and low voltages coming from the grid to the “hybrid” system, like we had installed for Tracy, just will not work. The spikes and drops in the grid from Energuat make the system constantly think the electricity is either dangerously high or to low (or even off) so the system would switch to battery power even when the grid was still up and the back up battery power was not needed. This was a learning experience for us and an experience we were planning and hoping to make right until being fired by Tracy. For us, Lux Aeterna, it is even more embarrassing to have other companies see the wiring how it was left. In our process of connecting and disconnecting breakers, fuses and disconnects we left many disconnected 1) to troubleshoot to make sure that the connected device was not the problem and 2) to eliminate issues 1 by 1. This disconnected state is where the other companies had come in and seen our work. Unfortunately, Tracy was unwilling to allow us to finish our work and split the system in to two separate systems. Now, months later, we see that Tracy with her newly hired companies still won’t advise her to do the right thing: Provide evidence to Outback that the inverter is not sufficiently designed to work with an unstable grid like in Guatemala. Every month I log in and see Tracy’s monthly electric bill. We installed 18-295 watt panels which, with the system we would have now had installed at our own expense to replace the hybrid system, would have been producing over 20 kilowatts per day. This would completely or nearly completely encompass her electric bill. Instead she fired us, closed communication and stuck with the hybrid system which WILL NOT WORK WITH THE UNSTABLE GRID OF ENERGUAT. Tracy’s electric bill was on average around Q1,200 or 600 kilowatts per month. Her electric bills, since firing us and having her much more experienced advisers come in have been as follows:

    February 27: Q2,500
    March 28: Q600
    April 25: Q636
    May 21: Q1619

    We had learned a lot from this experience and there are several things Lux Aeterna could have done differently. One thing we know was right was to split the systems rather than leaving the “Hybrid” system up and running. Some people would rather be angry than listen and be patient. Getting a company to take back and refund you for $1000’s of dollars of electronics is hard, but we were almost 100% done collecting the evidence to make it happen, free of cost to Tracy. Now, with new companies and “advisers” on the job, things have stayed the same. Very low numbers on solar production, extremely high electric bills and I would bet the blackouts are still happening. The battery bank is not large enough to power Tracy’s jacuzzi or 6 kilowatt water pump. These are all things we stressed to Tracy but instead of letting us finish our work and give her the system she deserved, at our further expense, we were fired. This is truly a lose – lose case. We have been bad-mouthed by an impatient, misunderstanding customer for the whole web to see and Tracy still has an electric bill close to what it was before we started. Tracy: we apologize for our impatient words and for not being on site as quickly as we could have been, although to record data for a refund you actually need true date, which requires time. All excuses aside, as you try to slander the name and quality of work provided by Lux Aeterna we continue to provide stable, safe, warrantied and quality systems for customers all over Guatemala. Our one other “hybrid” system installed for a customer in San Juan la Laguna was removed at our expense and replaced with a split system, again at our expense (a grand expense to say the least). She deserved a working system and we provided it. Now she is selling back more than she is using and has a separate back-up to power her necessary loads when the grid goes down. This would have also been the outcome for you, but your frustration blocked your reason and listening to us was no longer an option for you.

    In regards to the solar thermal system. We showed up on site to move the system free of charge to face the sun for the season and Mark told us “oh no, please don’t touch it, it is the only thing working!.” We left after bringing our tools and a replacement tube without turning the system in the direction from which it would be most productive for that time of the year (Tracy lives on the side of a mountain and true south only hits the tubes for a few hours in the morning for most of the year).

    If we have dozens of happy customers all over the country and dozens of safe, functioning systems with just one bad review, perhaps it is time to take perspective and see the big picture as we had imagined it for Tracy.

    • Well, at least you care enough to respond—I’ll give you that. However, much of what you say is incorrect at best.

      The pride of being fired from this job really had hurt me, Kyle Johnston, and my partner, Linda Heinisch. We are both proud people who take pride in our work and our customer service. Besides Tracy we have a nearly flawless customer satisfaction rating and several grid-tied and dozens of off-grid installs through out the country up and running perfectly. In Tracy’s favor we could have been more punctual and faster to act in regards to the issues with the system. I remind you that Tracy lives in-between Santiago and San Lucas, a 3 and a half hour ride for us which we made more than a dozen times to troubleshoot the system free of charge to figure our what was wrong and fix it!

      Let me remind you that you never got the system working correctly. This is not troubleshooting free of charge. This is getting the system to work as contracted, which you never did. When we signed the contract with you, you assured us that you were at the lake frequently, and that coming out to deal with any system problems would not be an issue. After seven months, I’d had enough of your excuses and just wanted a working system.

      What we were doing, before being fired, was documenting evidence to provide to Outback Power, the inverter manufacturer, so we could RETURN the inverter and install a grid-tied solar system and a separate back-up system at OUR OWN EXPENSE. The reason for this is that with the high and low voltages coming from the grid to the “hybrid” system, like we had installed for Tracy, just will not work. The spikes and drops in the grid from Energuat make the system constantly think the electricity is either dangerously high or to low (or even off) so the system would switch to battery power even when the grid was still up and the back up battery power was not needed.

      If your intention was to return the inverter to Outback and install a different system, you never told me that. You told me that you were working with Outback to “sort out” the problem. When I talked with Outback’s customer service department, they told me they had no record of any conversation with you since October.

      There is nothing wrong with the inverter. There was nothing wrong with the charge controller that you sent back before that. The equipment is excellent. The problems were with your wiring, plain and simple. Outback had me change a setting on the charge controller that adjusted for the MINIMAL spikes and drops from Energuate, and since then the system has been functioning with no problems. We have purchased a second charge controller based on the recommendations of Outback and another system designer. They both told us that your calculations were wrong and that having only one charge controller would significantly shorten its life. 

      The system never switched to battery power as it should. That was fixed when your inadequate switches were replaced with a proper breaker.

      This was a learning experience for us and an experience we were planning and hoping to make right until being fired by Tracy. For us, Lux Aeterna, it is even more embarrassing to have other companies see the wiring how it was left. In our process of connecting and disconnecting breakers, fuses and disconnects we left many disconnected 1) to troubleshoot to make sure that the connected device was not the problem and 2) to eliminate issues 1 by 1. This disconnected state is where the other companies had come in and seen our work. Unfortunately, Tracy was unwilling to allow us to finish our work and split the system in to two separate systems.

      You should be embarrassed by the wiring you did. Nothing was left disconnected, and you insisted repeatedly that your switches and wiring could not be causing any problems. Splitting the system into two separate systems was completely unnecessary. All we had to do was change your inadequate switches and faulty wiring, plus change one setting on the charge controller, and now the system is working.

      Now, months later, we see that Tracy with her newly hired companies still won’t advise her to do the right thing: Provide evidence to Outback that the inverter is not sufficiently designed to work with an unstable grid like in Guatemala. Every month I log in and see Tracy’s monthly electric bill. We installed 18-295 watt panels which, with the system we would have now had installed at our own expense to replace the hybrid system, would have been producing over 20 kilowatts per day. This would completely or nearly completely encompass her electric bill. Instead she fired us, closed communication and stuck with the hybrid system which WILL NOT WORK WITH THE UNSTABLE GRID OF ENERGUAT. Tracy’s electric bill was on average around Q1,200 or 600 kilowatts per month. Her electric bills, since firing us and having her much more experienced advisers come in have been as follows:
      February 27: Q2,500
      March 28: Q600
      April 25: Q636
      May 21: Q1619

      What you are showing is not my bill for the month—it’s the balance due on a specific date. The system was not functioning until early March, when we had your faulty switches and wiring replaced, so February is irrelevant. Spanning the billing periods in March and April, the system was down for two weeks while waited for a part from Outback (the power supply board on the inverter went out).

      Selling back power is still pretty new here—the bill is not adjusted automatically. In March we found the person at Energuate who manually adjusts the bill based on how much energy we’ve put into the system. The amount you show for May included the April balance and was before the adjustment was made for the power we produced: my actual May bill was Q116.  

      So the numbers show that even in March and April, with the system down part of the time, my bill was ½ what it had previously been. That’s with the low production due to your panel layout, and production will improve after we have the panels moved to eliminate the shading.

      We had learned a lot from this experience and there are several things Lux Aeterna could have done differently. One thing we know was right was to split the systems rather than leaving the “Hybrid” system up and running. Some people would rather be angry than listen and be patient. Getting a company to take back and refund you for $1000’s of dollars of electronics is hard, but we were almost 100% done collecting the evidence to make it happen, free of cost to Tracy. Now, with new companies and “advisers” on the job, things have stayed the same. Very low numbers on solar production, extremely high electric bills and I would bet the blackouts are still happening. The battery bank is not large enough to power Tracy’s jacuzzi or 6 kilowatt water pump.

      As noted above, this is the first I’ve heard about any offer to replace the system.

      The “blackouts” stopped as soon as we replaced your faulty wiring and turned off the electric water heater you sold us and installed. The low numbers on solar production were because you built the solar panels so they shade one another, cutting production significantly. Things have not stayed the same—that’s what you don’t understand. The system is functioning quite well since replacing your wiring, and it will be better when we correct your incompetent layout of the solar panels.

      It’s true that the battery bank is not large enough to power the spa tub or water pump for long—it’s not enough to power the house in general for long. You knew about both the spa tub and the water pump when you designed the system. The spa tub uses very little energy and isn’t a problem. The water pump does run the batteries down, and I told you from the very beginning that the pump was my biggest source of electricity usage. Again, the problem was with your design.

      These are all things we stressed to Tracy but instead of letting us finish our work and give her the system she deserved, at our further expense, we were fired. This is truly a lose – lose case. We have been bad-mouthed by an impatient, misunderstanding customer for the whole web to see and Tracy still has an electric bill close to what it was before we started.

      Wrong. My bill is much lower now that we’ve corrected your wiring and replaced the inadequate switches with a proper breaker. Do I need to say that again?

      Tracy: we apologize for our impatient words and for not being on site as quickly as we could have been, although to record data for a refund you actually need true date, which requires time. All excuses aside, as you try to slander the name and quality of work provided by Lux Aeterna we continue to provide stable, safe, warrantied and quality systems for customers all over Guatemala. Our one other “hybrid” system installed for a customer in San Juan la Laguna was removed at our expense and replaced with a split system, again at our expense (a grand expense to say the least). She deserved a working system and we provided it. Now she is selling back more than she is using and has a separate back-up to power her necessary loads when the grid goes down. This would have also been the outcome for you, but your frustration blocked your reason and listening to us was no longer an option for you.

      Again, you never said anything to me about replacing the system. I waited seven months for you to get it working, and you couldn’t. This is not slander. This is telling the truth about my experience with your company. When we fix your faulty placement of the solar panels and install the second charge controller, which you insisted wasn’t needed, our production will improve significantly.

      In regards to the solar thermal system. We showed up on site to move the system free of charge to face the sun for the season and Mark told us “oh no, please don’t touch it, it is the only thing working!.” We left after bringing our tools and a replacement tube without turning the system in the direction from which it would be most productive for that time of the year (Tracy lives on the side of a mountain and true south only hits the tubes for a few hours in the morning for most of the year).

      I was out of the country at that time. Mark was supporting a house full of paying guests that day and didn’t want to have the water turned off while they were here. We get plenty of sun and have plenty of hot water now that we had someone else moved the system—they also fixed the rusted supports you left us with.

      If we have dozens of happy customers all over the country and dozens of safe, functioning systems with just one bad review, perhaps it is time to take perspective and see the big picture as we had imagined it for Tracy.

      I would have loved a different outcome. Your design was faulty. Your work was faulty. I paid others to figure out how to get it working correctly when you couldn’t. And still you want to blame me. Oh, and after all the emails and time we spent on this, you still have no idea how to spell my name. It’s Traci.

      In five years living in Guatemala, I’ve never had a significant problem with a vendor other than you. I’m respected as an employer and have excellent relationships with the contractors who have worked at my place. You are the only company with whom I’ve had this kind of problem.

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