Solar panel use is on the rise due to lowering costs and generous federal, state and local subsidies. But rooftop solar panels pose a huge risk firefighters trying to put out burning buildings and rescue those who may be trapped inside.
In the American Southwest, many homes are putting up rooftop solar panels, but in areas that are already a high risk for fires, this poses an extra level of danger to firefighters.
Firefighters in Arizona are preparing to meet the challenge of putting out fires at an increasing number of homes and buildings using rooftop solar. The problem with solar panels is that they can electrocute firefighters and make it harder for fires to be put out and buildings to be saved.
Solar panels’ photovoltaic cells are “producing a live electrical current that cannot simply be turned off like a traditional grid-powered electrical connection,” explains the East Valley Tribune. “That means whenever fire crews need to go on the roof for access, venting or to apply water to a growing fire, extra precautions must be taken.”
This means that even the solar panel’s connection to the electrical grid is severed, it can still generate electricity, producing a shocking surprise for rescue workers. It’s not only electrocution that firefighters must worry about, but the added weight of a solar array can cause rooftops to collapse more quickly than anticipated.
“The thing is identifying it early, making sure we secure the system … but you can’t turn the system off,” said Keith Welch, battalion chief of the Chandler Fire Department in Arizona, told the East Valley Tribune.
But that’s not all. Solar panels also block ventilation and water access to the roof of a burning buildings, according to firefighters. Welch told the East Valley Tribune that sometimes fire crews must wait for buildings to partially collapse in order to get around the solar panels and get inside. This is on top of the concern of spraying water onto live, energy-producing circuitry.
CBS Los Angeles reported in February that “a fire at an industrial complex outside Philadelphia burned for 29 hours because firefighters say they couldn’t get to the roof since it was covered with energized solar panels.”
But it’s not just a problem for firefighters in the southwest, as many homes across the New England and the northeast have also installed rooftop solar panels.
“There certainly have been examples with power being backfed into the site that have killed firefighters in adjacent states,” Northampton, Massachusetts Fire Chief Brian Duggan told 22WWLP’s I-Team.
Duggan also told the I-Team that it takes a lot longer for firefighters about twice as long to cut through roofs in a blaze to get ventilation in the roof.
“As an example in Easthampton there was a ventilation hole cut in a roof, it took about 25 minutes to do it, this would elongate that time by approximately double,” he said.
Danbury, Connecticut’s Deputy Fire Chief Mark Omasta told the News Times that even the floodlights used to illuminate emergency scenes can cause solar panels to generate electricity.
“We could use tarps to cover the panels, but the conduit that goes from the panels to the inverter is usually still charged,” Omasta said. “We are teaching our firefighters to always treat solar panels as live electricity.”
Firefighters in the northeast are expecting more buildings to install solar in the coming years and are beginning to adjust their training and firefightings strategies to cope with this development.
“With all the incentives that are being offered to homeowners and businesses to go solar, we expect to see a lot more solar arrays in the next five to 10 years,” Omasta said. “We’ll definitely have to adjust our strategy when it comes to these structures.”
The solar industry says it’s working with firefighters across the country “ to improve fire safety through the development of building codes and product standards.”
“We’re working diligently to better educate firefighters about how solar works,” The Solar Energy Industries Association said in a statement.
But Gregory Garrison, president of Northeast Solar, told 22WWLP’s I-Team that solar panels don’t pose a big risk to firefighters.
“The only issue that remains for them is maybe ventilating the roof and finding the convenient way to ventilate the roof,” he said. “Technology is continuing to advance to provide those solutions for us, but for right now, from an electrical standpoint, they pose no issues.”
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