Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on July 2, 2018.

Solar Safety

A California solar power requirement raises fire service concerns


In May, the California Energy Commission voted to require all new homes built in the Golden State by 2020 to have some form of solar power generation. Builders can either put solar panels on individual homes or offer a shared solar power system that serves a group of homes.

While the decision furthers the state’s reputation as the country’s leader in clean-energy policies, it also concerns fire service leaders who worry that the requirement could affect firefighter safety as well as fire safety in general.

As a fire captain in Riverside County, near Los Angeles, Dan Olson has dealt with solar panels for several years. Although he hasn’t experienced anything too terrible related to the technology in Riverside, he’s heard horror stories from fellow firefighters in other California jurisdictions about nighttime fires involving solar-paneled homes that have been extinguished, only to reignite when the sun rises and sends electricity pulsing through the photovoltaic (PV) systems. “We tell our guys to cover the panels at night and post-fire knockdown. During active fire suppression, we tell them to avoid the panels with a series of ‘do nots’—do not remove, do not walk on, and so on,” said Olson, who teaches his firefighters about PV systems with slideshows and other training materials.

Educating firefighters on handling PV systems is a goal of the state’s fire service and one that Olson sees as its responsibility as the 2020 requirement approaches. “We’re seeing more of these solar homes and occupancies,” he said. “It’s like the automotive industry—10 years ago you hardly saw a hybrid car on the road, and now you see them everywhere. With PV we have the responsibility to make sure that if we run into it, we know how to safely mitigate it, shut it off, and deal with it if an incident occurs.”

The need for education is driven not only by the impending requirement but also by the technology’s rapid development, which is making it harder to tell when a roof is solar-powered. “Look at Tesla’s new building-integrated solar roof system—you can’t tell the difference between which one’s the shingle and which one’s the [solar] tile,” said Kevin Reinertson, Riverside County deputy fire marshal. “So a lot more has to come out of the training side of it.” Reinertson said these types of issues make the new California solar requirement “a huge concern” for the fire service, as they’ll presumably be faced with more and different versions of solar technology after it takes effect.

According to The New York Times, other states like New Jersey and Massachusetts have considered implementing similar regulations that require new buildings be solar-ready, but the California announcement is “by far the boldest and most consequential of any.”

As the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources continues, PV systems, as well as battery-powered energy storage systems (ESS), are expected to become more common, a change already reflected in NFPA codes and standards and other resources. Codes such as NFPA 1, Fire Code, NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code®, and NFPA 5000®, Building Construction and Safety Code®, all address PV systems; a new standard addressing ESS—NFPA 855, Installation of Stationary Energy Storage Systems—will be available as soon as early 2019. NFPA has also developed ESS training for first responders, and the Fire Protection Research Foundation has published several studies on PV and ESS.

Safety information for first responders on both technologies is available online.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images