Firefighters: Solar panels are risky during fires

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The weight of residential solar panels is equivalent to an extra layer of shingles. That may not sound like much, but firefighters say the extra weight could make your roof collapse much faster in a fire.

That’s just one of the concerns first responders have about solar panels, which are growing in popularity in Rhode Island.

“You will see more of these as time goes on,” said Vito Buonomano of Northeast Solar & Wind Power.

Firefighters have noticed the trend, too.

“I drove around town the other day and there’s quite a few in the town of West Warwick,” said Lt. Paul McAllister of the West Warwick Fire Department.

McAllister told the Target 12 Investigators that solar panels are changing the way firefighters battle flames for several reasons.

Added Weight

According to Lt. McAllister, the added weight from solar panels could force firefighters to go on the defense, rather than attack a fire from the inside.

“Normally, under ten minutes of heavy fire conditions, a roof structure usually collapses,” said McAllister. “This is probably going to be a little bit sooner now if we have solar panels on the roof.”

Limited Access for Vertical Ventilation

Firefighters say solar panels limit access to do vertical ventilation, which could impact the time it would take to put out a fire. “When we do vertical ventilation, it’s to reduce the fire and smoke spread throughout the building or structure,” explained McAllister.

Electrocution Risk

“If we were to throw a ladder to the roof and the ladder would puncture the solar panels,” said McAllister, “that could cause an electrocution to the members who were putting the ladders on the roof.”

Safety Measures

By law, solar energy shut-offs have to be clearly marked, and before any solar panels are installed, a structural engineer has to evaluate the structural integrity of the building.

There’s also a strict permitting process to ensure solar panels are installed properly.

According to data Target 12 requested from the RI Department of Labor and Training, the agency has issued 34 Renewable Energy Professional Certificates since the green energy law went into effect in 2015.

“Rhode Island has sufficient regulations in place to ensure that whoever comes to your home or business is competent,” said Buonomono.

He added, “I can honestly say to a firefighter, as long as they turn off the power when they arrive at the scene, it’s very safe, extremely safe.”

U.S. Department of Energy data backs up that claim. According to the agency, there have been no documented deaths caused by electric shock, chemical burn or fire caused by a solar panel.

“We’re going to keep it that way, I hope,” said McAllister. “That’s why we train.”

In the March and April, the Rhode Island Department of Energy hosted two solar safety training sessions for first responders.

Solar Safety in Other States

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, “many building codes now include provisions intended to address firefighter safety, such as minimum setback areas to provide space on the roof for walking around solar products.”

“Solar is relatively new to Rhode Island,” said Buonomono. “I think in time the whole country will go that way, adopt the California code.”

California’s installation guide includes mandatory setbacks for solar panels on roofs. “You don’t go all the way to the ridge,” explained Buonomono. “Three feet from the ridge, three feet from either end so that the firemen have a path to get up onto the roof and vent the roof. I would like to see Rhode Island adopt that law. I’m sure they will in time.”

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