Solar Panels Pose Challenges for Firefighters

Firefighters across the nation are alarmed at the prospect of battling blazes in buildings topped with solar panels, which can create new risks of roofs collapsing, an inability to gain footing and even potential electric shock, reports Fox News.

Two recent fires involving structures decked with solar panels have triggered complaints from fire chiefs and calls for new codes and regulations that reflect the dangers posed by the clean-energy devices. A two-alarm fire last week at a home in Piedmont, Calif., prompted Piedmont Fire Chief Warren McLaren to say the technology “absolutely” made it harder on firefighters. Weeks earlier, in Delanco, N.J., more than 7,000 solar panels on the roof of a massive 300,000-square foot warehouse factored into Delanco Fire Chief Ron Holt’s refusal to send his firefighters onto the roof of a Dietz & Watson facility.

“We may very well not be able to save buildings that have alternative energy,” New Jersey’s Acting Fire Marshall William Kramer told The Star-Ledger.

Experts told FoxNews.com that the biggest danger posed by the panels is that they continue to send voltage down from the roof throughout the building even after power is shut down. In a conventional building, firefighters typically cut off the electricity leading into the house before entering.

“First of all, solar panels are designed to generate electricity any time there’s light received by the panels, and that happens in low-light settings as well,” said Ken Willette, a spokesman for the National Fire Protection Association. “So inherently, those are charged electrical appliances … there’s a shock hazard.”

Solar panels also frequently utilize the very space firefighters use for rooftop ventilation during structure fires and create potentially dangerous conditions for slips and falls.

“In some applications, the solar panels have covered 100 percent of the roof, which allows the firefighter no room to operate,” Willette continued. “That’s not what you want to have happen when you’re operating on a pitched roof.”

With the panels rising in popularity, firefighters and building industry experts say codes must catch up. The average price of a solar panel has declined 60 percent since 2011 and industry trade groups expect that systems will be installed, on average, every four minutes in the United States by the end of 2013, primarily in California, Arizona, New Jersey and North Carolina.

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