Texas Living

Can solar panels slow down firefighters?

By Lisa Martin 3.27.14

As one of the hottest trends in green building, solar panels seem to have it all: increasingly reasonable pricing, unobtrusive looks, and real energy savings for homeowners, particularly in sun-soaked states like Texas. But when disaster strikes and fire roars through a residence, those panels pose potentially lethal problems for firefighters, causing many homeowners to have second thoughts about installing them in the first place.

“Solar panels are designed to generate electricity anytime there’s light,” explains Ken Willette, a spokesman for the National Fire Protection Association. “So inherently, those are charged electrical appliances, and there’s a shock hazard.”

When fighting most any blaze, firefighters typically shut off the home’s electricity before stepping foot inside, but where the panels are present, voltage courses down from the roof and throughout the structure even after the power is cut. A secondary issue concerns the actual rooftop. “There’s no room for the firefighter to operate,” Willette says. “That’s not what you want to have happen when you’re up on a pitched roof.”

The burgeoning solar industry—which experienced unprecedented growth in 2013 according to a December report by the Solar Energy Industry Association—has partnered with safety groups to help alert firefighters to the inherent dangers of the panels.

“After every incident, we learn from it and improve,” says Ken Johnson, a SEIA spokesman. “We are working very closely with firefighters across the United States on the development of codes and standards. It’s incumbent on us to do a better job in educating them.”

Technology is likewise improving as experts continue working to reduce risks to firefighters—a prime reason (along with the huge reduction in utility bills) for investing in solar panels. If you do you decide to purchase them in 2014, notify your local fire department so they have a record of your solar panels in case they do get called to your property for any reason. That will go a long way to keeping everyone safe.