Fire Departments Focus on Solar Panel Safety

By Briana Vannozzi

Crews are prepping the roof of a Burlington County home for a solar panel installation. The industry is booming in New Jersey. And while the sight may not cause a second glance from neighbors, firefighters see it as a new set of challenges to their safety.

“It changes the way that they have to look at the building, pre-plan the building and yes, it does change the way they would, their strategies and tactics as it applies to that particular building,” said State Fire Marshal Acting Director William Kramer.

It’s not the panel itself causing the problem. Firefighters say the installation creates limited access to the roof — that’s where they vent the smoke from a burning building — and poses the threat of electrocution.

Seven thousand panels atop the Dietz & Watson building in Delanco prevented it from being saved in a fire three years ago.

“It is an issue we’ve spent a lot of time on in the form of educating firefighters, establishing building codes, fire protection codes and just ensuring that when firefighters are faced with a situation with solar panels, they’re aware of the panels and know how to deal with them,” said Solar Energy Industry Association Vice President of Communications Dan Whitten.

“We’ve certainly offered to fire departments to be able to come in and show them the technology and the reasons why it’s safer for firefighters,” said Amped On Solar owner Kristan Marter.

Marter’s South Jersey based solar company is using some of the latest technology to keep ahead of industry regulations.

“If one of those wires were to be compromised because of a fire, it creates an arch fault. In the presence of an arch fault it will actually communicate to the inverter and optimizer to shut everything down to that one volt at half an amp,” said Amped On Solar System Designer Luke Uzupis. “The central inverter itself is required as part of that code to dissipate its DC voltage within 10 seconds and this system actually has that built into it.”

“We also make sure that all of our customers, their fire departments know that there’s solar on the homeowners’ homes,” Marter said.

Along with notifying local fire services, the state has new fire codes, requires visible signage and aisles created for walking around flat roof installations. Departments also have access to free online video courses.

Even with all of the new technology and safety measures in place, experts estimate there are about 45,000 solar arrays in New Jersey built under old fire and electrical codes.

“The codes themselves are always playing catch up with technology. The code process, whether it’s the building or fire code, goes through a three-year cycle and then the adoption of updated standards,” Kramer said.

As technology advances, the state fire marshal says you can rest assured fire departments are doing the same.