Solar’s safe, but not when fire strikes

COPAKE—Solar panels have a dark side.

We all know these technological wonders capture the sun’s energy to generate electricity to power homes, businesses and gadgets. They save consumers money and cut dependence on fossil fuels, but they can also be a threat to firefighters when a blaze breaks out in a structure where panels are installed.

The issue came up at the February 12 Copake Town Board meeting when Supervisor Jeff Nayer said Copake Fire Chief David Proper spoke to him about his company’s concerns, which are shared by firefighters nationwide.

Reached by phone this week, Chief Proper said firefighters need to know which structures have “solar systems,” often called photovoltaic systems, so when a fire breaks out, emergency responders will know what they are dealing with and can proceed accordingly.

The chief wants all structures with solar panels to be registered.

Mr. Proper said the panels can never be completely shut down, so that even when the utility company is called in to kill the power to a burning house, the solar panels are still producing electricity.

The chief said the panels have even been known to generate power at night from the flashing lights on emergency vehicles, such as fire trucks operating on a fire scene. He said the only way to shut them down is to place a zero-rated, or opaque, black tarp over the panels, something the fire company is not equipped with.

The chief said there are many different types of solar panels and some now are fashioned to resemble shingles so even if there was a daytime blaze, firefighters might not recognize that they are solar panels.

Because the installation of solar panels requires a building permit, Chief Proper wants building owners to register their solar panels with the town’s building inspector, who would let the fire company know the addresses of solar-powered structures.

Columbia County Fire Coordinator John Howe acknowledged in a phone interview this week that some solar panels have batteries that store energy even after the power company “pulls the meter.” Firefighters need to employ specialized procedures especially when working on roofs where solar panels are installed.

Mr. Howe said some solar panel companies notify 911/County Control when they install the panels so the computer screen file that pops up on that address will include notification that solar panels are there. Having this information immediately available is helpful to firefighters, especially at night or when a snow-covered roof makes the panels hard to see.

Solar panels present “another challenge” to firefighters, he said, noting that while the use of solar panels is “growing dramatically” he is not aware of any instance nationwide where a firefighter has been injured fighting a blaze involving solar panels.

It’s more about “awareness,” said Mr. Howe, noting that local reputable firms, such as SunDog Solar in Chatham, bring programs educating firefighters about solar panels into the field.

SunDog Solar President Jody Rael said he has been meeting with firefighters to answer their questions about solar panels for three or four years. “Even if the system is turned off, the DC can still be live and there is a danger from the panels to that switch,” Mr. Rael said by phone this week. DC is the direct current produced by solar arrays.

Building codes regarding solar panels have been changing, said Mr. Rael, noting that solar panels can no longer take up the whole roof and enough space must be open around the edges to allow firefighters to work there. “Boxes and shut-offs must be clearly labeled so firefighters know what it will do,” he said.

Firefighters “should not smash the panels” and “should be treating the modules as if they are active even when they are spraying foam,” said Mr. Rael, adding that sunlight can penetrate the foam and reach the panels.

A report on a study called, “Firefighter Safety and Emergency Response for Solar Power Systems,” funded by the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), was issued in 2010 and revised in 2013. It was prepared by Casey C. Grant, PE, with Fire Protection Research Foundation.

While the document’s forward mentions the advantages provided by the use of alternative energy sources, it also notes “they also introduce unfamiliar hazards that require new firefighting strategies and procedures.”

“The safety of firefighters and other emergency first responder personnel depends on understanding and properly handling these hazards through adequate training and preparation. The goal of this project has been to assemble and widely disseminate core principle and best practice information for firefighters, fire ground incident commanders and other emergency first responders to assist in their decision making process at emergencies involving solar power systems on buildings,” according to the report.

In a summary of the most important issues emergency responders need to consider or address when dealing with emergency events involving solar power systems, the report says, “Components are always hot!” is the most critical message.

“Emergency response personnel should always consider photovoltaic systems and all their components as electrically energized. The inability to power-down photovoltaic panels exposed to sunlight makes this an obvious hazard during the daytime, but it is also a potential concern at nighttime for systems equipped with battery storage.”

To read more in the report visit http://www.nfpa.org/~/media/Files/Research/Research%20Foundation/Research%20Foundation%20reports/For%20emergency%20responders/RFFirefighterTacticsSolarPowerRevised.pdf.

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