A Consumer’s Guide to Fire Safety with Solar Systems

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First responders receive solar energy training

With nearly 2 million solar installations throughout the U.S., the issue of fire safety is a growing concern. While properly installed systems by qualified professionals must be in compliance with current safety codes, solar fires do happen. That’s why the Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) funded the Solar Training and Education for Professionals (STEP) program, which provides tools to more than 10,000 firefighters and fire code officials to manage solar equipment as they put out fires. Learn more about this STEP project

On the surface, the process seems simple, however, there are many steps required to ensure safety. Firefighters arrive at the scene of a fire, and then identify the solar system on the structure, shut it down, watch for hazards as they extinguish the flames, and make sure the scene is safe when they leave.

Common questions about fire safety with solar photovoltaics (PV) are answered below.

Am I putting my home at risk if I install rooftop PV?

As with any electrical system, a PV system that is properly installed by a qualified vendor should not introduce any significant risk to your home. The National Solar Licensing Map provides information about state-specific licensing requirements for solar system installers. In addition, installers may be certified by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, a voluntary, nationally recognized program that provides credentials for those who work with PV and solar heating technologies.

How often are fires caused by rooftop PV?

Although there is no clear data on the number of fires caused by rooftop PV systems in the U.S., a solar system spontaneously bursting into flames is an extremely rare occurrence, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. According to a report detailing fire risks in Germany, Assessing Fire Risks in PV Systems and Developing Safety Concepts for Risk Minimization, 210 of the 430 fires involving solar systems were caused by the system itself. Germany has been a world leader in solar production, with about 1.7 million PV systems installed. The U.S. has 1.8 million installed.

What causes solar rooftop fires?

Design flaws, component defects, and faulty installation generally cause solar rooftop fires. As with all electrical systems, these problems can cause arcs between conductors or to the ground, as well as hot spots, which can ignite nearby flammable material. The National Electrical Code has established safety standards to address these concerns, and again, fires caused by PV rooftop systems are very uncommon.

Are there physical protections I should have installed to minimize fire risk?

Shutting down PV systems in accordance with the National Electric Code requirements will protect consumers and first responders. SETO has funded work with Sandia National Laboratories and Underwriters Laboratory to quantify the potential risks that first responders face when fighting solar rooftop fires. This research is being used to develop new standards for PV hazard controls to protect firefighters, including the electrical resistance of personal protection equipment based on factors like physical body composition and the degree of moisture on the skin and, to avoid shock, electrical pathways that could be encountered.

Ultimately, there should be clear labeling in the home or building that indicates which power lines are connected to the PV system and where the different components are, so that firefighters can get to them quickly and easily. Learn more about firefighter safety concerns and recommendations.

Is there any special equipment I should insist upon using when installing rooftop PV?

Whether your rooftop solar PV is a grid-connected system, a back-up generator system, or an isolated battery-storage system, it should be installed in accordance with current safety codes and standards.

What kind of insurance do I need when I install a solar system on my property?

Most homeowners’ insurance policies cover rooftop solar panels because the system is attached to your property and is considered part of it. You might need an additional or separate policy if your panels are ground-mounted or on a carport. Check with your insurance provider.

How do I know if my local fire department is trained and prepared to fight a PV-related fire?

First, let your local firehouse know that your home or building has a PV system installed. You can do this either by directly communicating it or by using proper safety labeling on your home and PV system. Free online training is available for your local fire department through www.cleanenergytraining.org.