Solar Should not Be the Enemy of Firefighters: UL to the Rescue


At Solar Power International, UL explains their work on solar fire safety. The company aims to ensure firefighters can safely fight fires at buildings with solar PV systems. Attacking the problem from the angle of training as well as testing materials and procedures, UL provides a valuable service to the solar industry.

Solar is a simple technology, with few moving parts. Most solar PV systems operate for years with no problems and little maintenance. Yet solar PV does come with a serious issue, which has been in the news lately: solar can pose a hazard to firefighters.


Dangers to firefighters


Challenges faced by firefighters include the lack of a clear path on the roof to cut a ventilation hole, and the risk of tripping on panels. Perhaps more daunting is the possibility of electric shock. Even if a system can be turned off and the sun isn’t shining, this remains an issue. That’s because solar panels can generate electricity from streetlights, floodlights, the firefighters’ flashlights — or even the fire itself.


Fires like the one in early September at a New Jersey warehouse have brought attention to the issue. Concerns about the hazards kept the fire chief in that case from letting firefighters battle the blaze, which burned for 29 hours and is said to have caused far more damage than it would have if the panels hadn’t been there.


Mitigating risks for firefighters


So do we avoid using solar power because of concerns about fires? UL (Underwriters Laboratories) thinks the answer is a resounding No. They were on hand at Solar Power International to share what they’re doing to make firefighting safe at buildings with solar. PV Solar Report met with Kenneth Boyce and Evelyn Butler of UL to learn more.


There are two main areas of focus for UL in their work to make solar safe: ensuring the solar systems and the fire-fighting procedures are as safe as possible, and training firefighters in safety measures.


PV system safety


In looking at PV safety, UL emphasizes the importance of testing the entire system, not just the modules. This represents a change from previous testing efforts and is part of a more holistic approach UL is adopting.


And it means looking at how a system is installed in addition to the materials used. For example, Boyce mentioned that new setback requirements for roofs are based on the typical length of a firefighters’ boot, to ensure that first responders have room to walk around the panels.


A challenge for an effort like UL’s is keeping up with ever-changing technology. That includes ensuring that as new technologies are introduced, they don’t also bring new hazards.


Butler and Boyce pointed out that any hole in the market provides room for innovation. A prime example is the lack of a good way to shut off solar PV panels to ensure they don’t generate any power during fire-fighting efforts. A solution to this would be a win for the market, for the public, and for firefighters. There are also less obvious issues, such as the fact that firefighters’ gloves can conduct electricity when they get wet. This type of problem, Butler noted, is best solved by engineered solutions.


Testing and training


Till these engineered solutions come along, we still need to fight any fires that happen on buildings with solar. UL works on that, too, by training firefighters on safe methods they can employ now.


UL begins by conducting numerous tests to see what works. A big push has been running tests to see how close it’s safe to get to a fire with a hose. Tests are conducted with a slew of rigorous safety measures in dedicated test cells.


When UL is confident in their test results, they move to the important task of sharing those results. To that end, UL provides free training to firefighters. That includes ensuring firefighters have a good understanding of the actual risks, so that a lack of information doesn’t keep them from fighting fires. Without this, it’s all too easy to face situations like the one at the New Jersey warehouse. No one wants to put firefighters at risk, and UL can arm them with the knowledge they need to safely fight fires on buildings with solar.


Bringing stakeholders together


Because UL is driven by the mission of public safety, it comes naturally to them to bring together disparate stakeholders to find solutions. As a consensus-oriented company, Butler said, UL wants to do more than conduct their own tests. They’re making a point of also getting feedback from all stakeholders, including solar manufacturers, firefighters, fire marshals, and local governments. Those parties may have very different perspectives on the issues, and UL can integrate their views and needs.


UL’s work is a dynamic process that deals with changing technologies and the involvement of various players. In other words, it’s work that’s never done. Butler and Boyce didn’t seem daunted by this; in fact, they conveyed a sense of excitement at finding solutions and improving solar fire safety.


We don’t need more situations like the one in New Jersey. UL is providing a valuable service to the solar industry by showing that solar is not the enemy of firefighters.