solar water heater facing the wrong direction

Solar Hot Water and Customer Service from Hell

“I’m going to face the solar thermal the other way” Kyle said. “If anyone sees pictures they’re going to say ‘that’s not how it’s supposed to be done.’ But I’m going to do it anyway.”

“If you say that’s best” I replied, but a little red flag popped up in my mind.

Have you ever worked with people who simply cannot admit to their mistakes? At first I thought that’s what I was dealing with: an eager young couple who couldn’t admit their errors. Months later I dismissed them from my life as I could no longer afford their combination of arrogance and incompetence. Who was I dealing with? Kyle Johnston and Linda Heinisch of Lux Aeterna Solar, based in Antigua, Guatemala.

I was initially excited about working with them. I’d had solar on my home in California for many years, and was eager to install it at my eco-B&B. Grid-tied solar power is relatively new and immature in Guatemala, and previous proposals from other vendors reflected the immaturity of the business.

I saw Kyle and Linda’s post about their services on Facebook, and was relieved that the project could be done by someone who spoke English. That should eliminate the miscommunication possible when you’re dealing with vendors in your second language, right?

Oh, was I wrong about that!

Lux Aeterna had done projects for several people around the lake.  I talked with a couple of their customers and felt confident that Lux Aeterna was the right choice.

We contracted for three projects. The large one was a full solar power installation at the B&B: grid-tied with battery backup. Next was a fairly large solar water heater. The small project was solar water heater on our casita in Panajachel. The casita is just a bedroom and bathroom used by two people. Because  of the size of the B&B installation, Lux Aeterna offered the little solar water heater “at cost.”

Let’s Start with the Casita

Before installation, I mentioned that the roof would probably need to be replaced in a couple years and asked what we would do when we reached that point. Kyle assured us that it wasn’t a big deal, and that they would come out and move the solar water heater to allow installation of the new roof. Good enough.

Unfortunately, with the first rain, water leaked into the bedroom. We called Lux Aeterna and they came out and put silicone around the areas where water might be entering. The roof continued to leak. After about a week, they came out with a small piece of lamina and again put silicone where they thought the water might be entering.

It was only a matter of days before water was pouring in–this time when it wasn’t raining. A steady stream of hot water was coming from the unit itself. We’d been told it could leak when the water got hot and pressure built up, but this seemed excessive. Linda’s response was that we should put a sponge under the drip until they could get there to try again. Uh, no. This needed a bucket, not a sponge.

Pana solar water heater
The attempted roof repair – a piece of lamina and lots of gloppy silicone

In the meantime our worker, who built the casita 20 years ago, told us that the patch job with the lamina couldn’t work because water was building up around the siliconed area. He also said that when the installation was done, they walked on parts of the lamina where there were no beams, which had broken the lamina itself.

Okay, it was an old roof. I thought that if it was not appropriate to install the water heater on a roof that old, we should have been advised. We’d never had a single leak before. We decided that we needed to replace the roof.

Linda and Kyle were scheduled to come and try another patch and fix the hot water leak the next day. When they arrived, we told them that the patches weren’t working and we wanted them to disconnect the solar water heater and move it so we could have a new roof put on the next day. They said it wasn’t that easy to move and the tubes could break. While he was standing on the roof looking at its condition, Kyle said that he didn’t think the roof needed to be replaced. Their solution was to put silicone at every screw, since they didn’t really know where the water was coming in.

With that night’s rain the leak was worse than ever. We emailed Lux Aeterna to ask whether they could come the next day to move the water heater so we could put a new roof on. The said they were on their way to another job, and that we could put a tarp over the roof until they had time to come—in two weeks.

Not acceptable.

We contacted a local (Panajachel) company, Nova Deco, for a quote on moving the solar water heater and putting on a new roof. Their quote included building a frame for the solar water heater so the weight of the tank would be on the beams instead of on the lamina itself. They also fixed a couple of places where the plumbing joints were sloppy.

Within a few days, we had a new, non-leaking roof. The solar water heater had been moved and replaced with no damage. We were happy but Lux Aeterna was not: they sent unpleasant emails telling us that we had refused their help. Sorry, folks. Telling us to put a tarp over the roof and wait two weeks is not my idea of customer service.

On to the B&B

The solar hot water at the B&B was initially okay. It didn’t hold heat as we expected, but it worked okay considering it was the rainy season. Then, when the the dry season came—the sunniest time of year—we had almost no hot water. We had to switch to the gas water heater because there wasn’t enough hot water to wash dishes, let alone provide showers for our guests.

Considering Kyle’s comment about the orientation of the water heater, I emailed Lux Aeterna and asked whether that could be causing the lack of hot water. They told me we should have plenty of hot water, and the problem was that I wasn’t keeping my trees trimmed. After several emails they agreed to come out and “rotate the unit 90 degrees.” I’m no engineer, but even I knew that a 90 degree rotation would be wrong. Maybe they meant 180 degrees, but a mistake like that seemed to fit their pattern.

I also asked about the frame they built around the water heater to hold a protective screen—it was completely rusted. Their response was that the frame was doing its job and the rust didn’t matter. Hmmmm.

rusted frame
They used iron instead of aluminum to build the frame
solar water heater fixed
The solar water heater facing the right direction and with the rust cleaned up

I spoke with my regular plumber, who has installed several solar water heaters. He told me that rotating the unit 180 degrees would completely solve the hot water problem because, in its current position, the tank itself was shading the tubes. He also showed me where rust from the frame had dripped onto the unit. If the rusty frame were not fixed, the life of the heater could be significantly shortened. He also pointed out some places where the plumbing was done incorrectly. We hired him to do the work, and within two days we had plentiful hot water and no more rust.

If the mess with the solar water heaters were the end of it, I might have just ignored the problems and moved on. The worst customer service, however, was related to the solar power installation Lux Aeterna was doing for us at the same time. Hold on to your hats—it gets much worse!

This article is the first of two. Click here for the second article about our solar power installation.

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