Solar panels showing to impede fire prevention

Solar panels on fire 1As useful as solar panels are in helping to save energy and helping to wean us off fossil fuels, there’s a darker side that is proving to be unexpectedly hazardous. Firefighters are having enormous difficulty fighting fires in or on buildings sporting energy-producing solar arrays.

Case in point was a massive fire that broke out on Sunday in south New Jersey. The 11-alarm blaze at the Dietz & Watson distribution center – requiring 200 firefighters and crews from more than 44 fire companies - was hampered by the more than 7,000 photovoltaic panels lined the roof of the nearly 300,000 square-foot refrigeration facility which served as a temporary storage center for the company’s deli meats and cheeses. 

City of Delanco Fire Chief Ron Holt was forced to keep firefighters from attacking the blaze from the roof because of electrocution concerns. Combined with concerns of a building collapse, this forced firefighters to simply spray the building with water and foam from afar.

Fire crews had to peel back the walls of the factory to fight the fire

Fire crews had to peel back the walls of the factory to fight the fire

Ken Willette from the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit that develops standards for firefighting, says electrocution is one of the hazards firefighters are increasingly facing fighting blazes at structures where solar panels are deployed.  A 2011 study from the Underwriters Laboratory found solar panels, being individual energy producers, could not be easily de-energized from a single point like other electric sources.  

“Very often they’re not wired like your home, where you have a master breaker,” Willette said. “Even if you turn the breaker off, the panels still generate electricity and you need to cover them (with a tarp) and prevent any light from getting into them.” The issues, he said, force firefighters to take a defensive approach to fighting the flames by staying away from the building – rather than going inside and attacking the fire source.

Fears of electrocution are hampering firefigthers from saving buildings with solar arrays

With the continued growth of solar panels and other alternative energies, Willette says code officials, builders and developers need to work with local fire departments to ensure installations are designed with firefighting in mind.

It’s crucial that this impediment to public safety be addressed as rapidly and fully as possible. Buildings can be replaced, albeit at great expense. Lives cannot.

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