Roof Solar Panels Present Firefighters With New Challenges

Sep 13, 2017

Installing solar panels to reduce homeowners’ electric costs and reduce the carbon footprint continues to be popular in New Jersey, especially when companies offer to install systems free of charge. In these cases, it’s easy to be “green.” But the prevalence of the systems has led to changes in the ways volunteer firefighters approach house or other structure fires.

Ray Van Marter, deputy fire marshal and fire training coordinator for the Ocean County Fire Academy, located in Waretown, said the systems themselves do not increase fire risk to the homeowner. “As long as they are installed professionally and have all the (local construction) permits and inspections, having solar panels on your house doesn’t create more of a fire hazard,” he said recently. “It only presents a problem if the building burns.”

According to the National Fire Protection Association, having solar panels on your roof presents unique problems for firefighters, including the threat of electric shock, tripping and slipping hazards, structural collapse due to extra weight, flame spread, and hazardous emissions if they catch on fire.

“The inability to de-energize individual PV (photo-voltic) panels exposed to sunlight cannot be overemphasized,” warns the NFPA. “It is absolutely imperative that emergency responders always treat the systems and all of its components as energized. This includes after the incident is stabilized, as the system will continue to be energized while exposed to sunlight.”

Van Marter agrees with the warning but said fire companies are equipped to handle the new parameters.

“It creates additional concerns for firefighters, but every time something new comes along, we learn to deal with it,” he said.

As the NFPA stated, the main problem firefighters have to be aware of is that solar panels remain energized even when the power converter has been shut off. And they may remain charged at night if there is lightning from storms, strong ambient lighting such as street lights, or the lighting firefighters themselves set up to aid in fighting a fire.

Said Van Marter, “We usually go for the disconnect panel, but the wiring to the panel is still energized. We can also cover them (the panels) with tarps.”

These tarps must be of a certain color and thickness, as the NFPA has suggested. When doing investigations in 2011, it found that black and green canvas tarps were safer than the typical blue or red salvage vinyl tarps, which did not protect against electrocution. (It must be noted that as of 2016, no firefighters had been electrocuted while fighting fires on structures with solar panels.)

Another problem is the additional weight that is put on the roof of the building may add risk for the building to collapse, said Van Marter. “One study showed 4 pounds of additional weigh per square foot once they are installed – so we no longer walk on the roof. They also pose a tripping hazard for firefighters.”

Firefighters will vent roofs during a house fire to allow smoke and heat to escape, but this is not possible when roofs are covered in panels. “In a fire of any significance, heat rises, and we want to vent that to let heat and smoke out. But we can’t when there are solar panels, so we ventilate in a remote area (usually the side of the house near the peak), and that creates some concern.”

The NFPA also suggests that firefighters not rest ladders against the house in case metal gutters have become energized. It recommends using a fog pattern nozzle to spray roofs with solar panels as a steady stream could carry electric current back to the firefighter.

“We suggest they stand at least 20 to 30 feet away,” said Van Marter.

The NFPA suggests that fire companies do surveys of their neighborhoods to see where solar panels are located.

“Especially when there are commercial buildings with large arrays of panels,” said Van Marter. “We suggest that pre-planning when we teach our classes, any building that presents a special hazard; obviously hospitals and schools and those large commercial buildings. Anything we can put in the dispatch system, the more information we can give to the emergency responders, the better – especially when they arrive on the scene at 3 a.m. and have to go to the back of the house.”

“Much like anything else,” said Van Marter, “we have learned to adapt and improvise so we can get the job done.”

— Pat Johnson

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