Solar is hot commodity—but can pose fire risks

Security companies branching out into the solar business should be aware of photovoltaic fire hazards
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Monday, August 18, 2014

QUINCY, Mass.—As security companies get involved in solar panel installation, they should be aware of potential fire hazards posed by solar panels. The hazards range from the creation of concealed spaces where fires can develop, to barring firefighters’ access to roofs because the electrical power the panels generate can’t be switched off, according to a recent forum in which The Fire Protection Research Foundation participated.

Casey Grant, research director for the foundation, which is based here and is an affiliate of the National Fire Protection Association, told Security Systems News that installing companies would do well to be aware of the risks associated with photovoltaic (PV) panels, commonly called solar panels, and take steps to address them.

“They should be thinking about the long-term maintenance needs, the proper care and maintenance of these systems,” Grant said. “It shouldn’t be an afterthought, it should be considered during the installation and [companies should be] making sure the people getting these systems do have something lined up for ongoing care and maintenance.”

Grant authored a 2010 report focusing on the dangers solar panel systems can pose for first responders and new fire fighting strategies they require. He also was a participant in the Property Insurance Research Group Forum on PV Panel Fire Risk, held in June in Las Vegas.

The forum members also included property insurers, end users, fire service representatives and electrical specialists. They discussed fire risks associated with roof-mounted solar panels and mitigation strategies for installation, according to the research foundation.

Security companies increasingly are branching out into solar. Provo-Utah based Vivint is the leader of the trend, launching Vivint Solar in 2011, and may launch an initial public offering (IPO) of its solar business this fall, Reuters reported in early August.

Bloomberg recently reported that Romeo-Ill.-based Protection 1 plans to start a solar division this fall. And earlier this year, GHS Interactive Security, a new California-based security company, announced it was partnering with Solar Universe, a leading nationwide residential solar company, to combine security and solar into a comprehensive home automation package.

Grant stressed that solar is generally safe and is an important power source. “Quite honestly, PV has a great track record and it’s a favorite even among emergency responders,” he told SSN. For example, he said, firefighters battling wildfires in remote areas use solar as a backup power supply for their radios.

“Clearly the advantages are there, and we salute it in that sense,” Grant said. “And it’s not presenting challenges that are insurmountable as much as different, and people need to be aware of that and, as long as we’re aware of it, we can address things accordingly.”

One concern about the panels is that the inability to shut them off can pose a danger to firefighters battling a blaze in a building, he said.

He said that normally, one of the first things firefighters do before approaching a structure fire is to shut off the power. “They minimize the hazard,” Grant said. “But with photovoltaics, on a sunny day, there’s no real way to do that.”

To address that problem, he said, “there are ways that are coming out now to isolate panels and that’s actually being pushed right now by the National Electrical Code.”

But other codes may need updating regarding solar panels, forum members suggested.

“There are no current North American requirements for electrical maintenance or inspection, [although] such requirements exist in the U.K.,” according to a forum report. “NFPA 70B is a potential location for guidance on this topic.”

Also, forum members noted, when in comes to electrical contractors and inspectors, there are “currently no specific standards for qualifications related to PV installations.”

The major fire losses Grant cited have occurred in massive structures like warehouses that have thousands of solar panels on their roofs. But he said residential installations can be a “microcosm of some of the same issues.”

He said one house fire involved “simply a case of some leaves underneath a PV panel where the fire originated.”

Grant said he didn’t know if the panel was the ignition source, “but it’s a good example that there are maintenance questions and issues with systems. Good protocols and housekeeping still are necessary.”

Also, Grant noted, solar panels by their nature are subject to the elements. “[They’re] meant to be in the sun and undergo a lot of exposure, so that raises the question of well, ‘What happens after 20 years?’ … Is it going to be a greater hazard and how is that dealt with? We haven’t really had to face that yet. … so I don’t know.”