The Roof Is on Fire: Do Solar Panels Hinder Firefighters?

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Are rooftop photovoltaic arrays problematic — or even perilous — to firefighters as they attempt to extinguish house fires?

They are indeed, according to a recent Reuters article that dubs solar panels as being a “new enemy” of “frustrated” firefighters and emergency responders who are often unable to properly access array-clad roofs to ventilate burning buildings or who may put themselves at the risk of being electrocuted by still-active solar systems that have not been disconnected. The threat of roof collapse under the weight of the panels is also a concern.

That being said, villainizing rooftop solar systems and deeming them dangerous isn't going to help, nor is discouraging homeowners from exploring the cash-saving potential of sun-powered renewable energy.

The solution lies within properly training firefighters on how to combat blazes in the ever-growing presence of rooftop solar. Currently, there is not a nationwide standard operating procedure for approaching residential and commercial fires when rooftop solar panels are present. Individual states and municipalities have provided firefighters with often ad-hoc training on how to deal with solar panels although, according to Reuters, implementation is “spotty.” Many within the firefighting industry are pushing for the development of clear-cut nationwide training standards and building codes.

Says Ken Johnson of the Solar Energy Industries Association: “We are working very closely with firefighters across the United States on the development of codes and standards. After every incident, we learn from it and improve. Firefighters don't have a good idea of how solar works. It's incumbent on us to do a better job in educating them."

Adds Ken Willette of the National Fire Prevention Association: “It's an emerging challenge. We're seeing more of these panels installed in places that we have not seen them before."

In the article, an extreme and non-residential example of solar getting in the way of firefighting is used to illustrate this "emerging challenge": the recent and not-ideal outcome at a “burning meat warehouse” — ack ... smoked meats, indeed — in solar-happy New Jersey, one of the top 10 states where it’s advantageous for homeowners to invest in rooftop photovoltaics. A 7,000 panel-strong photovoltaic array installed atop the Dietz & Watston refrigeration facility prevented firefighters from accessing the roof and raised concerns about the possibility of electrocution. That scenario and other factors allowed the 11-alarm inferno to burn for nearly 30 hours and left the 266,000-square-foot warehouse completely gutted.

Although a complete loss, fire officials in New Jersey hope to learn from the Dietz & Watson warehouse fire once the investigation into the source of the blaze is completed.

As reported by The Daily Journal, New Jersey is one of the few states that's quite progressive — and aggressive — when it comes providing firefighters with the training needed to combat fires in the presence of solar arrays. The New Jersey Division of Fire Safety has published a report, “Fire Safety & Its Impact on the Fire Service,” geared to educate local fire departments about solar systems of the non-intergalactic variety while stressing “the importance of identifying and tracking buildings with solar energy systems in advance of a fire.”

For the last three years, New Jersey's largest utility, PSE&G;, has also offered fire companies with specialized, solar-centric training. To date, more than 5,000 New Jersey firefighters have gone through the program.

William Kramer, New Jersey’s acting state fire marshal, believes a preventative approach is the best approach: “Alternative energy sources aren’t going to go away — so we need to be able to adjust to prevent tragedies from happening.”

Paul Sandrock, chief fire marshal for Camden County, echoes Kramer’s sentiments: “With this new construction and this installation that’s going on in our world, we’re certainly making firefighters aware of the hazards. These panels do not cause fires — they just hinder the effort of fire services using quicker methods.” He adds: “People put them on roofs because of space restrictions. And that’s what we’re up against.”

Although Sandrock points out that solar panels themselves do not cause fires, the electrical systems tied to the panels can cause fires in somewhat rare occurrences.

In 2012, a “major malfunction” at the newly installed solar array atop TerraCycle headquarters in Trenton, N.J., resulted in several small junction box fires. In that instance, firefighters and contractors were forced to manually disconnect TerraCycle’s 100-panel system from the electric grid to combat the fires after the inverter box began sparking and shooting out current. The damage resulting from the malfunction was minimal, restricted to the junction boxes and inverter, and no one was seriously injured.

Via [Reuters], [The Daily Journal]