Solar

Are Solar Panels A Fire Risk?

Should you be concerned about solar energy fire hazards? Who is ensuring product safety? Go no further until you’ve read this.

Question: Can Solar Panels Cause Fires?

Answer: Solar Panels Are Extremely Safe

Solar panels are an electrical appliance.  So think of the concern on the same level as a refrigerator, microwave, or your HVAC unit. You don’t worry about it, right? Because it’s overwhelmingly safe.

Properly installed solar panels shouldn’t cause a fire; so it is important to hire a good professional.

Solar Panel Safety Facts

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The U.S. has about 2 million solar power systems installed throughout the country; some of which are residential and others that are on the roofs of commercial buildings. 

Japan has around 2.4 million homes with rooftop solar. Germany has more than 1.4 million solar power system installations. So, similar numbers to the U.S.

Over a ten year period, Japan reported on 127 rooftop solar problems that included fires. Germany reported 350 solar power systems that caught fire over a 20 year period.

That’s 0.006% of all installed solar power panels.

And only 1 in every 5 of those fires even caused much damage. So the percentage of disaster is even smaller than that.

By addressing these concerns, many organizations have worked towards building codes, product standards, and creating training and guidelines that make solar energy as safe as possible. And they continue to work towards safety by routine collaboration.

However, since information is your greatest asset, we wanted to break things down and answer 3 specific solar panel fire risk concerns homeowners often have.

Concern #1: Do solar panels themselves cause fires?

While a solar power fire occurrence is extremely rare, it may happen if there are electric/fire hazards present, or if there is an improper connection in the equipment.

Just like your toaster, TV, or house lights, solar has flowing electricity. Problems occasionally occur. The two most common issues are fires and electrical surges, much like any other appliance in your home.

Fires are usually the result of some electrical problem like damaged wires, poor insulation, or incorrect installation.

These fires usually happen in the combiner box (full of wires that are connected to your panels before they go through the inverter). This fire is only a problem for solar panel systems with string inverters. In microinverter systems, there isn’t a combiner box since the inverters are installed next to the solar panels.

Electrical surges happen when higher voltages flow through your electric wires and, depending on the surge, can damage a device that isn’t designed to deal with a surge.

These surges can be caused by lighting strikes or power drops. You may notice it sometimes when you turn on another big appliance like an extra room air conditioner or heater.

This issue can largely be avoided by making sure all your home’s electrical systems are current and maintained.

Table 1.1 Fire incidents involving a PV system referred to in related research reports and media release.

LocationStructural ConditionsDamageObstacles to Operations
Bakersfield, CA., United States
April 2009
Large retail stor, 380 kW array on roof.Fire did not penetrate metal roof decking.
  • Two seperate fires were started by a "blind spot" ground fault.
  • Absence of DC disconnect switches at combiner boxes necessitated disbatch of electrical worker to pull 56 fuses.
Delanco, NJ., United States
Sep 2013
Warehouse, 1.6 MW on roof.A 30,000 m2 structure was destroyed.
  • Firefighters decided not to operate on the roof because of the percieved possiblity of electric shock.
La Farge, WI, United States
May 2013
Office, 70 kW on roof.A wing of the 400,00 m2 building was destroyed.
  • Substantial roof coverage by the PV modules on the roof prevented ventillation efforts and accelerated a partial roof collapse.
Walldorf, Germany
June 2014
Warehouse, PV on roof.Damage of a few dozen euros.
  • Synthetic resin plate was used for mounting system.
  • Firefighters could operate; fire stopped before extending to the building.
Nordemy, Germany
August 2013
Factory, PV on roof.Damage of a few million euros.
  • Fire extended for a while and roof structure collapsed with PV modules on it.

Source Credit: pv-magazine-usa.com

This concern is a good reason for why we often press homeowners to have a professional install their solar panels. Their electricians know how to check for these dangers. And, if something does go wrong, you have a company with insurance and warranty to fall back on.

While standards vary somewhat from state to state, there are general procedures and rules professionals follow to reduce risk and keep homes and people safe.

If you’re interested in more information, the National Electrical Code and product safety standards addresses this concern further.

Concern #2: Do solar panels affect the ability of firefighters to fight a fire?

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Another concern is how solar panels may affect an unrelated fire in a building. Some worry about how the solar energy system’s layout may affect how well firefighters are able to control a house fire, or how solar panels might affect a pre-existing fire.

Building codes, solar panel and other product standards, and, of course, firefighter training, are all used to address this concern.

The SEIA Codes & Standards Working Group monitors the development of solar energy product standards, as well as building codes, for the solar industry. They advocate market-friendly requirements, and collaborate with stakeholders and developers (standards and code developers), and communicate with firefighters and other affected organizations.

The National Electric Code requires module level automatic shutdown to protect first-responders from electricity flow even if the main electric switches have been shut down. This makes it safe for firefighters to do their work safely and quickly, which allows them to save a building faster and prevent more damage.

Concern #3: Are firefighters safe when fighting a fire with solar products involved?

Some are concerned firefighters are exposed to more risk when fighting a fire with solar products.

Since the presence of solar products may influence how fires are fought, building codes and product standards reflect this change to reduce risk. Firefighters are also trained how to specifically handle fires with solar products.

The National Electric Code mandated automatic shutdown (mentioned in the prior concern) also protects first-responders and helps them work safely and quickly so less damage occurs to the structure.

IREC (Interstate Renewable Energy Council), UL (Underwriters Laboratories), and IAFF (International Association of FireFighters), have all considered firefighter safety concerns. They have helped develop training and guidelines in firefighting when solar products are involved.

Many building codes also reflect firefighter safety as they ensure firefighters have space on the roof to walk around solar panels.

So Are Solar Panels A Fire Risk?

Product standards, building codes, and related organizations have all worked together to ensure solar panels are as safe as possible to use–much like any other industry whose products you utilize; they also work towards creating a safer place for firefighters to do their work.

If your home is safe with your electrical appliances, then it’s just as safe with solar panels. 

Make sure your home electrical panel is updated and has a whole-house surge protector in place.

Because of the National Electrical Code, your rooftop solar panels have to have that automatic rapid shutdown mechanism in place, this shutdown factor is set off when the AC current isn’t flowing to the inverters, which indicates that your electrical systems are not working as they should. So if your home electric systems have been damaged, your solar panels will shut down to prevent any more damage or hazards.

Ask your solar company more about its solar panel safety features. They’re happy to help you understand and assess your risk and benefits. You should feel comfortable and safe about your home decisions.

You only need to decide for yourself whether solar panels are a good choice for you. Just like you use electricity because it works for you.

Have more questions about solar panels and fire hazard?

Talk to your solar professionals and gain peace of mind. Use our completely free solar pro finder below, and we’ll connect you to your solar professionals today.

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