It is no secret that the solar industry is booming. Photovoltaic (PV) systems are reportedly being installed every four minutes. The number is only expected to increase with experts predicting that a system will be installed every minute and 28 seconds by 2016. In addition, the U.S. is expected to reach one million cumulative residential solar installations by that time. States like Arizona, California and New Jersey have seen rapid growth in solar energy in recent years.
But what does all this mean to fire fighters?
Solar panels can pose significant risks to fire fighter safety with electrocution being a real threat. In New Jersey a couple of weeks ago - an 11- alarm fire destroyed a 300,000 square foot warehouse resulting in fire fighters having to pull back because the roof was covered in fully-charged solar panels. At the time, the fire chief said he didn’t put fire crews on the roof because he didn’t want to risk jeopardizing losing a member.
In an emergency, every second counts for fire fighters and photovoltaic systems are a challenge to how fast a fire can be put out. Rooftop solar panels are known to limit the access fire fighters have to structures and are time consuming to remove because modules cannot be cut through. Gaining rooftop access is crucial for fire fighters during a fire emergency. Cutting a hole at the top of a structure allows for a fire to rise out of a building at its highest point, and increases the visibility and the chances of survival of anyone who is trapped inside.
Most solar systems can’t be turned off --- even when one is equipped with a shutoff function are you really shutting off the system? The answer is no, current technology does not give fire fighters the ability to shut off the energy producing system. We can disconnect the power supply but the power is only broken from that point forward, not back to the source. Any light produced, including moonlight, artificial light, sunlight and our on-scene emergency lighting is enough to generate enough energy to place our members at risk.
There are individuals who advocate the covering of photovoltaic panels to shut down energy production with in-service tarps, blankets or even the use of foam. We have experienced very mixed results utilizing these various forms of protection. Underwriters Laboratories conducted research specifically into the photovoltaic systems. In their report they have identified various tarps or coverings and their respective performance in limiting, or failing to limit, energy production.
In addition, solar fires can change how a fire department responds to an incident.
These are just some issues that concern fire fighters.
Earlier this year, Ontario, Canada fire fighters sounded the alarm over solar panel rooftops. The Council of the Township of North Dumfries passed a by-law requiring all companies installing alternative energy to notify the fire chief at least 30 days prior to installation. See what’s happening in the codes process in Boulder, CO.
The next-time you work a solar fire remember the following tips to protect yourself: Cover solar arrays with performance proven heavy tarps.
Disconnect inverters and operate away from the energy source.
Always assume the system is generating energy. Watch for Smart Homes that can sense a reduction of energy and re-route energy from a separate source on site such as an electric vehicle charging station.
Never remove photovoltaic panels or break them to ventilate a roof. Use alternative methods such as accessing the gable, or Horizontal Ventilation, if there are no ventilation paths provided.
Always keep safety in mind
Read the Underwriters Laboratories Firefighter Safety and Photovoltaic Systems Report at: http://www.ul.com/global/eng/pages/offerings/industries/buildingmaterials/fire/fireservice/pvsystems/ to better understand how to operate in a safer manner when dealing with fires in structures with photovoltaic systems.
Training is your best defense
All departments should provide training on responding to incidents involving photovoltaic systems and develop standard operating procedures with fire fighter safety as a key component.
Get involved in the building codes process – it is in the codes process where fire fighters can make a difference in how you are protected on the job. This is precisely how the IAFF partnered with various fire service representatives to finally establish language in the codes addressing Photovoltaic Safety. Prior to the 2012 Edition there were no requirements for photovoltaic systems except in the National Electrical Code.
As you can reference our efforts (Microsoft Word Document) have established safer operating protections for our members in regards to ventilation access, marking the systems and shut offs and maintenance. But there is more to do and we will continue to refine code, and Standard, requirements as new technology becomes available that can provide a safer work environment for our members.