Solar Photovoltaic Panels and Firefighter Safety
Solar Power | October 25, 2013 | Posted by Fred Greenhalgh
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As solar professionals, passionate supporters of renewable energy development and as dedicated members of the fire service, we appreciate the opportunity to respond to a recent Fox News story claiming that solar electric systems pose a new and unforeseen hazard to first responders. Though we are not aware of any firefighter injuries related to solar energy systems, we take the topic very seriously, and are happy to take any opportunity to increase awareness and knowledge regarding safe fireground operations involving renewable energy systems.
Firefighting is undeniably a dangerous occupation, and the hazards encountered must be assessed for every building and every incident. From initial size-up to overhaul, proper training and situational awareness allow firefighters to stay as safe as possible. We train all the time so that the mechanics of our jobs become second nature and so that we can use our senses to stay aware of the evolving situation and risks on the fireground and adapt our tactics accordingly. Virtually every modern convenience that we take for granted in our daily lives contribute in some way to increased complexity and risk for firefighters in a structural fire attack situation. Knowledge of risk mitigation while working with natural gas, propane, and oil-based heating systems, automatic start backup power generators, and uninterruptible power supplies for computers has long been a part of firefighting training. The addition of solar energy systems is cause for additional training, not a reason to panic.
Beyond the major household appliances found in most homes, many modern lightweight building techniques and materials including using roof trusses, LVL beams, engineered lumber, spray foam insulation, or Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs), as well as the variety of roofing materials including asphalt, rubber, steel or slate, all contribute to dramatically different hazards than in the past. Even more basically, the rise in popularity of personal electronics and of synthetic materials in furniture and other household items has made the smoke conditions from a building fire ever more toxic and dangerous to residents and firefighters alike.
Each of these things affects the tactics, strategies and tools that the fire department will use to attack a particular fire, but that doesn’t mean they pose an unreasonable risk to emergency personnel. Likewise, there is absolutely no reason why a properly designed and professionally installed solar system should create any exceptional hazards for a well-trained fire department. In fact, many of the particular issues raised in the Fox News article have already been addressed by the relevant codes and industry practice. Those that cannot be fully mitigated by design need to be addressed through firefighter training.
For example, as of the 2011 revision, the National Electric Code requires that all solar source circuits which run inside the building be run inside ‘metallic raceway’, which is intended to minimize the risk for firefighters in coming in contact with these potentially energized conductors during interior operations. The code also specifies how and where to install conduit in the attic space to minimize the risk that they are impacted by roof top ventilation. Other sections of the code require clear and consistent labeling both inside and outside the home (typically at the meter), to alert first responders to the presence of a secondary power system so they can alert the crews and adjust their tactics accordingly.
All in all, the solar industry has done an excellent job of developing consensus codes and standards which make the solar energy system as safe and effective as possible for system installers, system owners and emergency personnel, but clearly there is always more to be done. Proper and up-to-date training is critically important (both for solar installers and for emergency personnel), especially as solar prices have dropped dramatically and solar adoption has rapidly accelerated across Maine and New Hampshire. We are encouraged by the excellent and ongoing work of organizations such as UL and the California Fire Marshall’s office who have been working with representatives of the solar industry to help develop new codes and best practices for installers, as well as training programs for first responders. Closer to home, each of us has led training for our own departments and other area firefighters, and we’d extend an open invitation to any Maine or NH fire departments who are interested in the same. If you are interested in having a training on Solar and Firefighter safety at your local department, please get in touch with us and we’ll be glad to do it.
In the meantime, keep your eyes open, and be safe out there.
Fortunat Mueller, PE
Co owner, ReVision Energy
Captain, North Yarmouth Fire Department
Senior solar system designer, ReVision Energy
Assnt Dep Chief, Brooks Fire Department