Developing and adopting cost-efficient and renewable energy sources are important tasks on the minds of many Americans. With every year, more homes and businesses are utilizing innovative forms of energy generators, particularly solar panels using photo-voltaic technology, to help the environment and their wallets.
However, as with all technology, innovation can come at a price. When a fire emergency situation erupts in a solar-powered structure, firefighters and first responders face a new and unique set of threats.
A study funded by the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) outlined several additional hazards for firefighters when encountering the emerging technology. These concerns are multiplied for firefighters when they come across a large structure that utilizes industrial-sized solar power systems.
Casey C. Grant, research director for the Fire Protection Research Foundation, who prepared the aforementioned study Fire Fighter Safety and Response for Solar Power Systems said:
“I don’t want to cause undue alarm to the hazards [of solar panels], but on the other hand, we do want to be aware when we push forward with this type of technology, that we are sensitive and understanding of the potential hazards that new technology presents,” Grant said.
Electric shock hazards
One of the essential tasks firefighters perform when first arriving on the scene of an emergency is to cut electrical power to remove the electric shock hazard.
Traditionally, this task is accomplished by instructing the utility company to cut power to the portion of the electric grid the structure runs off. With solar panels independently generating their own power, this task is difficult and sometimes impossible.
“The bottom line is that with solar panels with photo-voltaic technology, when the sun is out and they are receiving that energy from sunlight or artificial sources [such as moonlight or emergency responders lights], they are generating power,” Grant explained.
The systems may also be equipped with battery storage that continues to provide power even when the system isn’t receiving light. This poses the added threat of electric shock hazard for firefighters when entering the building to contain the fire.
This challenge is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of solar technology, as every system should be considered “live” and dangerous. This threat significantly impedes firefighters’ tactical operations to contain fires and lessen the structural damage.
Dangers of slipping or tripping on rooftop solar panels
Another physical danger for fire services is slipping or tripping on rooftop solar panels.
Firefighters often perform ventilation tasks in structure fires which regularly require personnel to walk on rooftops to complete. Factoring in the emergency situation, possible inclement weather or low visibility at night, firefighters can be prone to slipping or tripping on solar panels installed on roofs.
Respiratory concerns over burning materials
The materials used to create solar panels may also present respiratory hazards in a fire. Caution should be exercised around all burning materials, especially since synthetic materials generally pose a concern when they are damaged in a fire.
“With the photo-voltaic panels being a part of those fires, it’s producing materials in the products of combustion that are not good for respiratory and dermal exposure,” Grant said. The foundation recommends that firefighters wear full respiratory protection with self-regulating breathing apparatuses to avoid unnecessary exposure.
Increased fire spread concerns
Since solar panels are constantly exposed to the elements, they need to be made of durable materials that can withstand all types of weather.
Unfortunately, the materials that perform well in this regard (like certain types of plastics) are not especially fire-resistant. Homes with solar panels are in particular danger from spreading wild land fires. The study notes that, “The components [of the solar panels] do not necessarily have good fire-resistant characteristics.”
While there have been no studies conducted that confirm solar panels have contributed to an increased spread of wild fires, it is a concern that should be monitored and addressed as necessary.
Additional danger over commercial/industrial sized solar energy systems
Although a residential building may employ only a few solar power modules, the electricity it generates can be lethal to anyone who comes into contact with it. This risk is exponentially more dangerous with large warehouses, solar farms or commercial buildings that have hundreds of panels installed.
Grant mentioned that, “These commercial systems, they can be enormous and the level of energy they are generating is significant and note-worthy. So, it needs to be addressed wisely and with the proper pre-planning on the fire service side.”
Looking to the future of solar energy
Although there are no recorded injuries or fatalities directly related to fires concerning solar power systems, the threat for fire personnel will continue to become more common as more consumers adopt this technology. Grant said, “It is a neverending task to continue to bring information and update the U.S. fire service.”
The research being conducted by the Fire Protection Research Foundation aims to stay on the forefront of the solar panel technology, in order to anticipate possible threats for fire responders.
He further explained, “With any new technology, there are often additional risks and the fire service is trying to stay ahead of those hazards. So as they perform their job functions, they do so in a safe and effective manner as much as possible to accomplish the task they need to do.”
Firefighters: Please take note!
For example, you cannot put an ax through them to open up a roof to vent – your putting the ax through 600 volts. If fire is infringing upon solar panels on the roof it will compromise the integrity of the panels. You then have 600 volts of live electrical energy – and what don’t you do when you have live electrical energy – you don’t put water on it! Even if the roof burned through and the panels fell into the structure, unless the panels were destroyed (de-energized) by the fire and/or falling into the structure, they can still have the potential to be live. They have to be treated as such and have the potential of 600 volts of DC current.
A basic solar system consists of: The solar panels themselves; a combination box; a disconnect box; and an inverter. The panels all feed into a combination box. The combination box (which is almost always located on the roof) takes in all the energy and sends it to a disconnect box. The disconnect box takes the energy and then sends it into the inverter which converts the DC current into AC current. From there the AC energy “pushes” into the structure’s normal electrical system.
Even if it’s nighttime and the solar panels have not been exposed to direct sunlight for several hours they still are energized and can kill you. It is estimated that the panels would need to be covered with an opaque tarp for 7-10 days before the panels will “de-energize” down to minuscule levels. (although the handouts specify that this is an option for safety steps – it is not accurate per the presenter)
The question asked which really put things in prospective – someone asked that since California is number one when it comes to Solar Panel System installations, “…what do their Firefighters do when a structure fire involves these systems?” Answer was “… they let it burn!”
I’m not suggesting that we adopt this strategy. But the reality is – I really don’t have an answer and it seems as if the Fire Service industry, nor the Solar Panel Companies, does either.
Just – please be aware and please be careful if you roll up to a structure where a solar panel system is installed – bottom line, it can kill you!
Free Electrical Safety Training For Fire Fighter Breaks The 1/2 Million Dollars Mark