In September, a fire grew out of control and destroyed the Dietz & Watson 300,000 square foot refrigeration facility in Delanco, New Jersey.  This 11-alarm fire was hindered by the fact that roof was equipped with 7,000 photovoltaic panels.  The investigation is still open, but reports state that firefighting operations were hindered by the large number of photovoltaic panels housed on the roof of the facility because of electrocution concerns. According to Delanco Fire Chief Ron Holt, “With all that power and energy up there, I can’t jeopardize a guy’s life for that.”

Photovoltaic panels, also referred to as solar panels, are used to convert sunlight into energy and are becoming increasingly popular as an alternative energy source. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, solar panel installations increased close to 300% from 2010 through 2012 and forecasts show installations will continue to increase through 2017. As a result, there is a growing concern about the challenges and dangers firefighters face when battling fires involving structures that are equipped with solar panels.

Even if the electricity is turned off at a facility, solar panels can remain electrified if they are receiving light.  According to Ken Willette from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), “Those panels, as long as there’s any kind of light present, whether it’s daylight or it’s electronic lamp light, will generate electricity.”

Another challenge firefighters face when structures are equipped with solar panels includes roof ventilation, which is often used to keep the fire from spreading. Solar panels cannot be cut through. So, if a structure is equipped with solar panels, the area on the roof that can be cut by fire fighters to create ventilation holes is reduced, as are egress travel options for firefighters when they need to exit from the roof.  In this case, firefighters are often forced to take a more defensive approach by staying off of the roof and attacking the fire externally and from a distance, which can be less effective.

With the expected growth of solar panel installations in commercial facilities, it is easy to see that firefighters and emergency workers will continue to face challenges when responding to incidents at such facilities. It’s important for firefighters and emergency workers to educate themselves regarding these challenges. One resource that can be helpful is Firefighter Safety and Emergency Response for Solar Power Systems report, published by The Fire Protection Research Foundation. This report provides best practice information for handling fires in facilities that are equipped with solar power systems. Underwriters Laboratory’s (UL), Firefighter Safety and Photovoltaic Installations Research Project, is another resource that was designed to document firefighter vulnerability to hazards when responding to fires that involve photovoltaic panels.

By Jeff Harrington, CEO and Founder of Harrington Group, Inc.