Answer Man: Do solar panels pose a danger to firefighters?

News-DemocratJune 10, 2014 

Q. On a recent trip, my wife met people who told her that firefighters are reluctant to battle fires in buildings with solar panels. So if we install them to save money and help the environment, can we expect to watch our home go up in flames if it catches fire?

-- K.A., of O'Fallon

A. Your wife's acquaintances weren't just spouting hot air. Experts say you could indeed be playing with fire if the installation is not done properly and if firefighters aren't prepared to handle them in an emergency.

Take, for example, the 11-alarm inferno Sept. 13 at the Dietz & Watson food distribution center in Delanco, N.J. The best firefighters could do was spray the nearly 300,000-square-foot storage center for meats and cheeses with water and foam from a good distance away.

Why? Because the roof was covered with more than 7,000 photovoltaic (solar) panels, and they were still generating power even while the building was going up in smoke. Couple that concern with the weight of the panels leading to a potential roof collapse, and the building was a total loss.

"With all that power and energy up there, I can't jeopardize a guy's life for that," Delanco Fire Chief Ron Holt told WCAU-TV, the NBC affiliate in Philadelphia.

But while solar panels add a new wrinkle to firefighting, you can prepare for them, says Belleville Fire Chief Tom Pour. He compares them to other hazards firefighters have had to train for over the years -- the acids used at Bell City Battery, for example.

"There's a lot of places that have their own hazards," Pour told me. "That's why our guys do yearly inspections. At the same time, they do a pre-fire plan, draw the building out and write where everything is at so when we pull up to a building, we know where the gas shutoff is, we know where the water shutoff is, we know if there's an internal way to get to the roof. (Panels) would be a hindrance right off, but it's something we'd just have to change our tactics for that specific occurrence."

Panels do pose novel headaches, he says. For example, firefighters often knock holes in the roof over a fire to draw out the heat there rather than sending it throughout the house. Obviously, you don't want to break through a raft of solar panels because they and storage batteries contain toxic chemicals that may be released in a fire, according to the National Association of Certified Home Inspectors (nachi.org). Simply climbing over wet, slippery panels poses a hazard as well.

The weight of the panels is also a worry. A heavy, panel-laden roof may collapse more quickly if weakened by fire, possibly trapping firefighters inside trying to perhaps rescue occupants.

And, of course, there's the fear of electrocution.

"Those panels, as long as there's any kind of light present -- whether it's daylight or electronic lamp light -- will generate electricity," says Ken Willette, of the National Fire Protection Association.

Even worse, since solar panels are individual energy producers, they cannot be easily switched at a single source like conventional electricity, according to a 2011 Underwriters Laboratory study. Instead, experts recommend throwing a tarp over the panel -- but only if it can be done safely.

As a result, when battling a fire in a building with large arrays of solar panels, Willette says firefighters tend to remain at a distance and focus on keeping it from spreading to other structures.

Still, there are steps cities can take to prepare for such emergencies. For example, Pour says, new innovations such as airbags and hybrid cars have prompted firefighters to develop new tactics of extracting occupants from vehicles and fighting hybrid car fires.

"There's a lot more wire transferring the energy from where it's collected to where it's used," he says of solar panel installation. "Same way in a hybrid vehicle. They have a bright orange casing over the wires so we know that's high voltage. But since we haven't really gotten into it in houses yet, we're not sure exactly."

However, with solar-panel installations up 300 percent from 2010 through 2012, Pour knows it will be a growing concern. Owners, for example, must make sure their homes and businesses can support the weight of such panels. Inspectors must make sure they are installed properly. He also can foresee panel installations being noted in a central computer, so whenever Pour's department is dispatched to a fire it can be alerted to their presence in advance.

"And what we'll have to do as we see more solar panels is just go in and do our pre-fire plan walk-throughs and make note of that kind of stuff. It's something you just can't take lightly."

So far, though, Pour knows of only a handful of homes with them and one major business -- the Illinois American Central Water Laboratory, which happens to be right next to the firehouse on South Illinois Street.

"We were just in their building on an alarm-sounding call," Pour said. "And just like the hybrid cars, I think for the most part everything is well-labeled as far as what things are. Besides, our guys typically aren't going to blindly go into anything as far as power that they're not aware of."

Today's trivia

How fast and far can flying fish "fly"?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: In 1995, horse trainer D. Wayne Lukas watched Thunder Gulch win the Kentucky Derby. Then, his Timber Country took the Preakness. Two weeks later, Thunder Gulch returned to claim the Belmont, making Lukas the only major figure to sweep the Triple Crown with different horses.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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