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Is it true that firefighters are reluctant to work on houses with solar panels? What are the hazards?

Posted May 31, 2019

More and more houses are going to have solar panels. The technology is getting cheaper, people are becoming more curious and economy is growing. This is probably good news – we want more green energy. However, did you know that this is a bit of a challenge for firefighters? They have to approach houses with solar panels a little bit differently.

Solar panels require some extra precautions from firefighters. Image credit: Lindsey Dillon via Wikimedia

The problem, of course, is the high voltage in these systems of the solar panels. Panels themselves may be completely harmless, but the system has batteries, maybe capacitors or other potentially dangerous components. This means that firefighters would be taking a big risk coming close to houses like that and pouring water on them.

However, the code typically requires that there has to be an emergency switch, where it could be easily reached by firefighters as well as technicians. In this way houses with solar panels are a bit similar to electric cars that also have a cut-off cable or some emergency switch for disconnecting the battery. The emergency switch of solar panels usually is in the main breaker box and physically disconnects the system, making it safe to approach.

Or at least partly safer, because potential dangers don’t end here. Solar panels and their mounting brackets may be quite heavy. The entire system may be a considerable weight on the structure of the roof. This is not a problem until the fire starts and weakens the structure of the building. Firefighters must take it into account when evaluating whether it is safe to climb on the roof. Even if the structure itself may seem still strong enough, many may refuse to climb on the roof, because solar panels may be difficult to navigate.

Naturally, solar panels are a tripping hazard. They are usually mounted at an angle with an offset from the roof surface. This means that it is easy to trip and fall when walking around them. The code requires for a gap of set width between the last solar panel and the edge of the roof. However, not every house is the same – sometimes that gap may be too narrow, making it even more difficult to walk around. Introduce smoke to this situation and you may see why firefighters use every tool available before resorting to actually climbing onto the roof with solar panels.

There have been stories on the internet that firefighters will not attack the fire aggressively if there are solar panels on the roof. That is not the case at all. The reality is quite simple – every fire will be addressed with as much effort as possible. Solar panels require some extra steps to be taken, but that’s just a couple of extra lines in firefighter training. Cars, big electric tools, gas tanks, pressure vessels also require some extra attention, but you have to respect professionalism of firefighters – they know what to do.

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