Critical solar panel safety considerations for responders
For a number of years now, solar power systems (a/k/a/ photo-voltaic - PV - systems – solar hot water, concentrated solar power, etc.) have grown in popularity and continue to become increasingly accepted energy sources for residential and commercial properties. They operate simplistically and can pose great environmental benefits.
According to the United States Green Building Council, those using solar energy in their homes and businesses can reap benefits like:
- Reduced energy bills
- Earned tax credits and rebates
- High monetary savings
- Reduced environmental pollution
Today, we see new solar innovations all the time. Solar panels have expanded to include solar shingles, sun lights and more. These items all absorb solar energy from the sun, and then convert it into electrical power for use on consumer properties or other locations. The energy is clean and cheap; but it comes with important safety considerations and fire protection concerns.
Industry best practices for installation, operation, maintenance, and repair are improving. Also, the technology changes over the last seven years and the fact that older systems may present more distinct challenges than new systems suggests that these solar energy systems can still create challenges for emergency responders in a variety of ways.
Safety and training considerations by emergency responders should include:
- Understanding the hazards and exposures these units pose
- Assessing the risks at each site
- Protecting yourself through proper solar system training
It is a good idea to start preparing by having a local or regional installer of solar systems address your organization on proper installation and operational practices. The installer will be familiar with what has been installed and is being installed across your community and is therefore able to discuss important details of the system types and their specific safety considerations.
It is typically easy to identify a property with a solar electric system as the solar panel arrays are usually visible on the building itself or in an open area. Figure 1 (below) shows a dwelling with a solar panel array installed on the roof of the dwelling. However, you may also find these systems on commercial buildings (Figure 2) where they are more hidden from view. In addition, solar energy systems can include industrial properties and even be in open fields (Figure 3). Individual equipment devices requiring power are also becoming popular at construction sites and on limited access highways (Figures 4, 5, and 6). It’s a good idea to ask an installer about the precautions noted in this article and their applicability to the systems you will encounter in your area.
Figure 1 - Typical Residential Solar Panels
Figure 2 - Commercial social energy panels
Figure 3 - Typical solar panel array in an open field
Figure 4 - Hot water heater or small service solar panel
Figure 5 - Solar panel configuration for remote areas
Figure 6 - Solar panel power configuration on a limited access highway
There are several reports available to the fire service regarding solar power systems and what risks they can present during emergency response. Known hazards include:
- Electrocution as PV modules should be considered energized at all times. These modules generate direct current electricity, and when damaged or disconnected from site electrical systems, present a shock hazard
- Slip, trip and fall situations
- Chemical burns (particularly if there are on-site battery installations and if hydrogen gas exists)
- Roof loading which can result in ventilation and roof collapse if the roof structure is compromised or damaged in an incident or dead load weight is excessive
- Hazardous fumes from the thin film covering on the panels, which may degrade
- Stinging and biting insects which may nest in these systems
One of the keys to solar panel safety is to assure that PV sites are identified and evaluated to the extent that disconnect locations are known, roof access is defined, related hazards are identified and contacts for solar energy related emergency personnel have been established. Information on solar panels within your community should be documented and maintained as frequently as possible via mobile data terminals, CAD printouts, electronical dispatch providers, etc. when dispatched.
It is further recommended that you have contact information for installers readily available in a database, emergency management resource directory, etc., so that you are able to contact these individuals in the event of a solar panel incident. The installer name and contact info for each system should be documented and accessible when needed.
Individually, it is important to keep the following safety tips in mind:
- Always assume solar PV modules are generating electricity, even at night
- Don’t break, cut or damage the modules
- Don’t walk across modules
- Foams are minimally effective
- Not all tarps block sunlight
- Wear protective clothing and your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), and remove jewelry and similar items
- Use insulated tools
- Lock out and tag out the main electrical panel, and have multiple ladders raised for access and escape
- In addition, add any specific safety tips to your list that your local installers recommend
Solar panel systems create a clean, eco-friendly and cheaper source of electricity than traditional electrical generating stations. Despite these benefits, it’s important to remember that they pose unique hazards to your emergency response activities. Being aware of these hazards in advance will help you to more safely and effectively handle them, keeping your crew, your volunteers and those you are responding to more secure.
Chief Bill Jenaway, VFIS
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