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Photovoltaics and Fire: Separating fact from fiction

The future of solar power technology looks bright – excuse the pun! 

While this technology introduces new and different hazards for fire fighters, they are able to handle it with proper training and understanding. The risk of a roof or home catching fire because of a solar photovoltaic power installation is very unlikely. Having said that the proliferation of solar panels as a renewable energy tool is gaining significant momentum and market penetration. Firefighters must understand the particular hazards they face when fighting a fire in a PV-equipped structure, which are primarily from tripping on conduits and electrical shocks, as even with very little exposure to light PV modules are still electrified and this includes bright moonlight or street lighting. From a fire service and rescue perspective, as with any structural fire attack, it’s best for the fire fighters to be aware that a solar power system exists on the building.

Mitigating the risks

Firefighters are of course trained to deal with electricity and PVs are very visible to the fire service on their arrival. But the key to firefighter safety is “voltage isolation”.  Products are available to isolate the panels at roof level, and prevent electricity flowing into the house, and the industry is also developing other types of automatic switches to isolate the panels.  In the event of a fire occurring in a solar powered home, information can lessen the risk to firefighters and allow them to do their job without being impeded. Informing local fire and rescue services that a building has a solar power installation will allow them to be ready to deal with the situation in the best way they can when they arrive. This can be done during an emergency call but I believe a call to the fire and rescue service after the installation has been completed is a good idea – just in case. The fire and rescue service is looking at a data capture system to enable a consistent approach to this matter to be achieved.

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