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Hot topic: lessons on reacting to a solar panel fire

Despite this year’s uncertainty around the feed-in tariff cuts, the number of solar module installations on British buildings continues to rise. Whilst this is undoubtedly a positive sign for the industry, an absence of the UK or European standards means that consumers need to take more care with the installation and maintenance of these modules to ensure the safety and return on investment (ROI) of the product. One particular concern being discussed most frequently is the fire risks posed by solar installations. Link

Though there are no official industry statistics around solar module fires, incidents like the 2009 fire in Burstadt, Germany, or even last year’s fire in High Wycombe, England, keep the risk of fire front of mind. The main issue with solar modules and fire is that even if the modules are not the cause of the fire – which they rarely are – any fire in a building with a PV system can offer more risk to both homeowners and firefighters. However, by taking some simple precautions, owners can help prepare for such a scenario and make sure that if the worst were to happen, the consequences remain lower.

The key is preparation and communication.

One simple first step is to inform the local fire department that your building has been fitted with solar modules. Often, firefighters only learn that the building is equipped with a solar system when they arrive on the scene. This is a problem because solar rooftop installations demand a different approach both in terms of safety and because traditional extinguishing methods do not apply to electrical systems. Not only does the rooftop position, risk of falling glass and slippery surfaces of the modules need to be considered, but so too does the system’s high DC voltage.

In the absence of any kind of national database of systems, the responsibility falls to the owner of the system to inform the local fire department about the location and type of PV on their buildings, preferably as soon as the system is installed and at the very latest when the emergency call is made. Here, the more information that can be shared with the department regarding the wire routing, setup, isolator switches, inverters and supply stations the better. The circuit distributor, switch box and meter cabinet should also be equipped with a “Caution: Voltage” sign, which can be found in a number of equipment shops across the UK.

The danger posed by solar panels to fire crews is already a topic of much debate in the US. According to the Fire Protection Research Foundation, on average 215 firefighters are injured in the US each year by electric shock while responding to calls. Though there is no evidence as to how many of these injuries directly related to solar modules, such as the concern around the issue, that a legislative proposal is underway in the US fighting for an emblem to be placed on buildings where solar panels are attached to warn firefighters against electrocution.

“An average solar installation will produce several hundred volts between the modules and the inverters. For humans, anything over 120 volts can be deadly. Any contact with a burning system can therefore pose an extreme risk, particularly when the heat makes water pipes in the building burst, conducting the electricity,” said Daniel Heck, Marketing Director at Canadian Solar.

The German solar industry has fostered close relationships between local installers and fire stations, with many installers hosting workshops to educate fire crews about solar installations and offering up contact details for help in the case of an emergency. In turn, installers incorporate advice from the fire services when consulting customers on installations. One of our German suppliers, for example, recommends to customers that they consider the space needed for the firefighters to enter the room when they plan their system.

As soon as a fire has started it is time for the professionals to take over. The first thing required when extinguishing a fire is to switch off the system completely if possible. Under no circumstances should owners try to take matters into their own hands, especially if this involves a misguided attempt to extinguish the fire with water. In order to make sure there is no more voltage in the solar power system, the starting point should be to disconnect the inverter from the grid. This will remove any load from the PV system. Only after this should additional measures be taken.

Further risk of electric shock can be brought about by loose or dangling wires, damaged during the fire.

The fire and extreme heat will also affect the structure of the module. The high temperatures might cause the metal to warp and the modules to come loose from their anchor points. In a worst-case scenario, the heat could make the solar modules explode, sending splinters flying into the air, so special protective clothing is required. Proximity to any fire involving a photovoltaic system also brings with it an increased risk of inhaling toxic vapours that will clog the respiratory system. Firefighters will therefore have to use an autonomous respirator. All these separate elements show how crucial it is for the local fire department to know what it is dealing with in advance.

The final preventive measure when addressing fire is insurance. In the case of a fire, the homeowners’ insurance will typically cover the damage that has occurred, even if the fire department lets the house with the PV installation burn down under controlled conditions -85 per cent of all households have such insurance. However, it pays not to assume, so before installing a system contact your insurance provider to find out what its policy is.

Even if your provider will cover your system, it is best to inform them in writing that you own a new system. This is in order to prevent underinsurance in case of damage. In today’s climate of high energy pricing, PV systems increase the value of the property they are on. According to the Solar Trade Association, a recent survey by MORI found out that people are willing to pay up to £10,000 more for a home built to high environmental standards and estate agents are now de-valuing homes for sale with poor “Energy Assessments” results, due to HIP (Home Information Pack) reports. Therefore, the insurance company needs to know exactly which total value to insure.

The risk of a solar module fire is extremely low but by being armed with this knowledge and by working through a few simple steps you could ensure that a bad situation is not made much worse.