The fire risk is increasing as the number of solar installations in the United States approaches 2 million. Solar fires can occur even if systems installed by experts follow all applicable regulations. To help more than 10,000 firefighters and fire code officials manage solar equipment while fighting fires, the Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) supported the Solar Training and Education for Professionals (STEP) initiative.
Although there appear to be few processes involved, many are necessary to guarantee everyone's safety. When firefighters respond to a fire, they must first determine which solar system is affected, shut it down, keep an eye out for potential dangers as they put out the fire, then double-check that everything is safe before they depart.
If a reputable company installs your PV system, it shouldn't pose any additional dangers beyond the home's existing electrical infrastructure. Installers of solar energy systems can find details on licensing requirements in their respective states in the National Solar Licensing Database. The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners also has a voluntary certification program for people working with photovoltaic and solar thermal systems.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a solar system bursting into flames on its own is exceedingly rare, even if there are no precise statistics on the frequency of fires caused by rooftop PV systems in the United States. Assessing Fire Risks in PV Systems and Developing Safety Concepts for Risk Minimization, a paper examining fire risks in Germany, found that of the 430 fires involving solar systems, 210 were caused by the system itself. With over 1.7 million PV systems in place, Germany is a global leader in solar production. There are currently 1.8 million in use in the United States.
Solar rooftop fires can be traced back to poor design, malfunctioning components, and improper installation. Any electrical system can catch fire due to arcs between conductors or to the ground, as well as hot spots that spread flame. Again, fires started by PV rooftop systems are sporadic because of the stringent safety criteria set forth by the National Electrical Code.
Safety for customers and emergency personnel can be ensured by turning off PV installations as per the National Electric Code. To better understand the dangers that firefighters encounter when battling solar rooftop fires, SETO has funded research at Sandia National Laboratories and Underwriters Laboratories. Firefighters are being protected by new requirements for PV hazard controls, such as the electrical resistance of personal protective equipment based on elements like physical body composition and the degree of moisture in the skin, and, to avoid shock, electrical paths that could be encountered.
Firefighters will need easy access to the PV system's components, so they must know which power lines are linked to the system and where everything is located. Study the issues and suggestions regarding firefighter safety in greater depth.
Homeowner's insurance typically covers rooftop solar panels because the system is permanently affixed to the roof and thus deemed part of the building. If your panels are set up on the ground or in a carport, you may need to get a different insurance policy. Make sure you contact your insurance company.
Be sure to notify the fire department in your area that you have a solar energy system installed on your property. Either tell them face-to-face or make sure your house and PV system are appropriately labeled with warnings. Your local fire department can get free training on the internet.