Solar Panels and Firefighters
By: Sharrod Parker, Risk Services Leader
Reports indicate that about half a million new solar panels are installed every day. The increase in solar panels introduces some new and challenging risks. Foremost, among these are the hazards posed to firefighters when a building fitted with solar panels catches fire.
If any of your units have solar panels you should be aware of some issues firefighters will have to face when fighting a fire at that location.
- Today’s solar panels tend to be very strong. Most are designed to withstand large hailstones and high winds. That can make it difficult for firefighters to apply a tactic that’s often used when fighting building fires: cutting a hole in the roof to vent heat and smoke.
- Newer models often have sleek designs that are virtually invisible, firefighters may not realize that the building is equipped with solar panels until they are on the roof.
- Coatings to minimize dust build-up can make solar panels quite slippery even when they are dry.
- When the system is not integrated directly into the roofing material, there is a gap between the roof and the panels. That can be a problem in some locales where leaf build up underneath the panel creates a combustible fuel source. When that happens, a small spark – or even a large one from a lightning strike – could cause what otherwise would be a minor fire to spread more rapidly and intensely.
- These systems don’t always have a simple and readily accessible “off” switch; that’s especially the case with older designs
- Turning the system “off” only stops the current flowing from the panels into the building’s electrical system; the panels themselves can continue to produce power if the fire occurs during the day.
- The scene lighting used in night-time emergencies could be bright enough to electrify photovoltaic panels.
- Solar panels are often installed after-the-fact, and the building design is unlikely to have considered the implications of adding more permanent weight on the roof.
- Flat panels on roofs, poles and racks are not always electrical. They could be providing room lighting, hot air, hot water or electricity, and multiple types of panel could be combined in one installation.
- Roof access may be limited by solar panels of any type. While some areas have local ordinances requiring setbacks and pathways, others do not, or the system may have been grandfathered in. The roof areas on which firefighters can walk or cut into for ventilation may be very limited.
- Renewable energy system components and disconnects may not be properly labeled, or fire fighters may not be familiar with what the labels mean.
- Large backup battery banks may or may not be included, and can pose chemical hazards (sulphuric acid), explosion hazards (hydrogen gas) and electrical hazards (powering household circuits even after you pulled the main meter).
As awareness of these new hazards grows, government agencies, industry associations and individual fire brigades are taking steps to address these issues.
For companies and building owners with roof-mounted solar panels – or plans to install them on new buildings in the future – a detailed pre-emergency plan covering a fire situation in those buildings should be developed and reviewed, as appropriate, with the local fire brigade.
Most importantly, make sure the local fire brigade is aware of the installation and informed about the procedures for de-electrifying the system. And clear labels describing how to de-power the system – if possible – should be posted in a prominent location.