By Alyssa Leonard
With the increase of solar panels on residential homes, firefighters are taking extra precautions when battling a blaze.
Solar panels are great for producing energy for homeowners who have them. However, they can be potentially dangerous for firefighters. Some reasons include reduced area for ventilation, less surface area to walk on and higher risk of electrocution if the panels are not properly shut off.
The panels produce a direct current, meaning the flow of electricity is constant. Windsor’s Fire Chief Bruce Montone said if a firefighter were to come into contact with a direct current, their muscles would not allow them to let go.
Montone said just switching off the breaker in a house won’t shut down the panels.
“As long as there is light, solar panels are going to be producing energy,” said Montone.
Lisa McDonald, office administration for Unconquered Sun Solar Technologies Inc., said there are ways to reduce the risk by decreasing the energy in panels. One method is called tarping, where the firefighters can place a tarp over the panels to block out any sunlight and keep them from producing energy. When the fire investigation begins, the power in the panels will be reduced to almost zero.
Solar panel installation also comes with a Rapid Shutdown box, which stops the flow of electricity between the solar system and the meter.
According to a solar panel fire safety presentation provided by Unconquered Sun, switching off all associated disconnect switches and circuit breakers, then covering all of the panels with a densely woven, non-transparent material can de-energize solar panels in any light condition right away.
Another concern is the panels can get in the way of proper and quick ventilation. Montone said firefighters will often cut holes into the roof directly above the fire to ventilate the smoke from inside the house.
“It’s a bit of a challenge for us to work around them,” said Montone. “We try not to remove them whenever possible.”
Montone said it can be slippery and difficult to navigate up the roof with panels in the way. Firefighters are encouraged not to walk on the panels due to their fragility. If the fire is significant and there is any structural failure, there is the risk of the panels falling into the building on top of the firefighters.
Even though solar panels can make a firefighter’s job a little tricky, it is extremely rare for them to cause fires. So, homeowners with solar panels do not need to worry about increased safety measures. Montone said residents want to be as cautious as they would with any electrical fire. That means not doing certain things such as overloading a circuit or using too many extension cords.
According to McDonald, a modern large solar system weighs no more than adding an additional layer of shingles on the roof, meaning there is no increased risk of roof collapse during a fire.
Montone said that adding solar panels to your roof does not require a significant change in a fire escape plan.
“In terms of planning your escape, it needs to be the same. Two ways out. A central meeting place,” said Montone. “And of course, once you’re out — stay out.”
Montone also said having working smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors on every floor is the law.
“Aside from it being the law, it’s just a good idea. And it will save your life.”