Article and photos by Gregory Havel
During the late 20th century as the price of petroleum products steadily increased, renewable energy sources became more attractive. Technologies have been developed to use solar energy to generate heat and electricity for buildings.
Two types of solar energy collectors are photovoltaic cells, which convert solar energy directly into electricity, and solar water heaters, which use sunlight to heat water or a transfer fluid as an energy source to heat the building or its domestic water supply.
Both of these types of solar energy collectors can be either fixed panels, usually on the south or southwest side of the building, or tracking collectors, which use small motors to rotate the collector to face the sun for higher efficiency.
Both of these types of solar collectors can be installed as part of new building construction or can be added to existing buildings.
Photo 1 shows a set of photovoltaic panels mounted on the south wall of a college classroom building. These panels are versatile and can be mounted almost anywhere there is good exposure to the sun. It has been proposed that these panels could be mounted to walls as awnings above windows, to shade the windows from direct sunlight as well as to convert the energy to electricity. This type of installation could interfere with the use of ground ladders and with aerial apparatus operation.
Photo 2 shows a set of solar water heater collectors on the roof of a motel. They supply most of the heat to the swimming pool and for domestic hot water.
Either of these types of collectors can be set up to track the position of the sun for higher efficiency.
The most important concerns for firefighters regarding solar collectors include the following:
- They can prevent or interfere with firefighter access to roofs for ventilation or other operations.
- They can prevent or interfere with firefighter exterior access to windows for ventilation or rescue operations.
- When they are installed on an existing building, they provide an eccentric load on the wall, or they may exceed the live load allowance in the engineering calculations for the roof.
- They cannot be turned off. Although they can be isolated from the building’s electrical or heat system by switches, circuit breakers, or valves, the collectors themselves will continue to produce electricity or heat as long as they are exposed to sunlight. Some photovoltaic cells are so sensitive that they will produce some electricity from exposure to street lighting. Although covering these collectors with salvage covers or opaque tarps will reduce their electrical or heat output, firefighters may still be exposed to electric shock or hot-water burns.
- They can add significant weight to a structure that was not designed to carry them.
- If solar collector panels are broken during firefighting operations, the firefighters in the area can be injured by electrical shock or hot-water burns.
Solar collectors of any type attached to a building need to be noted in our preincident plans.
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Gregory Havel is a member of the Town of Burlington (WI) Fire Department; retired deputy chief and training officer; and a 30-year veteran of the fire service. He is a Wisconsin-certified fire instructor II, fire officer II, and fire inspector; an adjunct instructor in fire service programs at Gateway Technical College; and safety director for Scherrer Construction Co., Inc. Havel has a bachelor’s degree from St. Norbert College; has more than 30 years of experience in facilities management and building construction; and has presented classes at FDIC.