Rooftop Solar Panels Pose Serious Risk to Firefighters

| September 18 2013
Christopher Cook
Unintended consequences.

How often, throughout your life, have you said, “Oops, I didn’t mean to do that”?

Though popularized in the 20th century by Robert Merton, the concept known today as the “law of unintended consequences” traces back at least as far as the writings of Scottish Economist Adam Smith. Governments, businesses, and individuals have all done it: We set out to do one thing, but in the process, something else happens. This unanticipated consequence might be positive, negative, or even perverse, but whatever it is, it is something we didn’t intend or plan for.

See if you can spot the unintended consequence in this video:

Two weeks ago, a meat warehouse burned down in Delanco, New Jersey, and according to the local fire chief, solar panels were partly to blame. The 7000 solar panels on the roof of the 300,000 square foot warehouse presented first responders with access problems and a risk of electrocution.

“Do I think we’d have had a different outcome if we could get on the roof? Sure,” Delanco Deputy Fire Chief Robert Hubler said.

Solar panels pose a risk for four main reasons:

1. Electrocution

According to Matthew Paiss, a fire engineer with the San Jose Fire Department, “During daylight, there can be enough voltage and current to injure or even kill a firefighter who comes in contact with the energized conductors.”

Industry reports have shown that there’s a risk of firefighters being electrocuted when they cut into the roof and accidentally slice panel wires. Moreover, studies funded by the Department of Homeland Security have shown that firefighters who inadvertently come into contact with an energized wire might “lock on” and not be able to let go.

The problem is not a simple one to fix. Solar panels cannot simply be turned off. As long as sunlight is hitting a panel, it is producing electricity, and as long as current is being produced, the panel presents a risk to firefighters.

Unfortunately, fires do not wait until the sun has set. The New Jersey warehouse fire began while the sun was out, but by the time the sun went down, it was too late. The fire burned for 29 hours.

 

2. Access

Solar panels are big. They can present a large physical obstacle that restricts firefighters’ movements and access to critical areas. “Gaining access to roofs gives firefighters advantages such as venting gases, and the panels get in the way,” according to Ken Willette of the National Fire Protection Association.

 

3. Risk of catching fire

In addition to the risks solar panels pose for firefighters, they also carry an inherent risk: They themselves can be the cause of fires. Solar panels have been shown to be the cause of a number of fires and the older the panels, the greater the risk. Back in May, a St. Louis high school caught fire because of their solar panels.

 

4. Exacerbated fire damage

Solar panels may also make it more likely that a building that might otherwise be saved will instead burn to the ground:

Unable to access roofs, firefighters sometimes switch goals – from actively trying to save a building to preventing flames from spreading to neighboring properties – a practice known as defensive firefighting, said Bert Davis, an engineer who performs forensic examinations at fires and studied solar markets at Carnegie Mellon University.

A property owner who installs solar panels certainly doesn’t expect firefighters to give up on saving his building before they’ve even tried, but unless solutions can be found to this problem, we may see more of that. Firefighters and firemen’s associations are now keenly aware of this risk, and they will almost certainly be taking steps to mitigate threats to their own safety.

This problem requires careful study. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) a solar project is installed, on average, every four minutes in the U.S. Firefighters will be encountering an increasing number of these potentially hazardous situations and will need to develop strategies to limit their exposure to unnecessary injury or death.

Needless to say, the makers, retailers, installers, and owners of solar panels didn’t intend for this to happen. But we all know about where even the best of intentions may lead.

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