Experts explain how solar panels could cause a fire in your home

Image Courtesy: MGN Online/Pixabay

Solar power is becoming more and more popular.

This month California became the first state to approve a plan requiring solar panels on new homes in 2020 and it could set a precedent for more states to follow.

A recent Agawam house fire put the safety of solar panels in question and many consumers may not know the fire concerns associated with them.

More homes are transitioning to solar panels as a source of renewable energy, but for the Briggs family, that decision could be part of the reason their home is in shambles.

The Agawam Fire Department report obtained by Western Mass News shows the cause of the fire has been undetermined, but what it does say under item contributing most to flame spread is exterior roof covering surface and finish.

"If you think of the fire burning out of the roof it would burn up and then basically open a hole out and vent itself. If you have a line of panels across the roof now the fire is going to hit the panels and it'll have a tendancy to spread," said Joseph Cristino an Electrical Power Engineer with President Cristino Associates.

Cristino said that solar panels do present issues in the case of a fire.

"If the fire does come through the roof the underside of the panel will act as a reflector so it'll regenerate heat," Cristino explained.

Laurence Brandoli is a fire educator and investigator, said the electricity the panels generate alone can be a problem.

"There's always a possibility it can be the ignition source to a fire," said Brandoli.

The weight of the panels themselves threaten the durability of the roof in a fire.

"If the roof is compromised, if the structural members are compromised, it's added weight it could possibly create a situation where you have a collapse sooner," Brandoli noted.

Agawam Fire Chief Alan Sirois said this was the first home with solar panels they've responded to.

They're finding new ways to put out fires in houses using solar energy but it presents safety concerns to firefighters.

"When they're present on the roof of a home or in an array and there's a fire nearby we have to adjust our tactics to make sure our personnel doesn't come into contact with energized electrical equipment," Chief Sirois noted.

"It makes it much more difficult for firefighters if they have to ventilate the roof to work around that. There's also the danger of getting shocked and falling back off the roof," said Brandoli.

So, what should consumers do to ensure they're purchasing and using solar panels properly?

First, look at the materials.

"If it's a plastic frame it has a lot lower integrity to a fire than a metal frame would have," said Cristino.

Second is to make sure the company installing the panels is reputable.

"If something is overloaded or improperly installed it can result in a catastrophic failure," Cristino continued.

He said lastly is to maintain them as you would any electrical device.

"The average solar panels after 4 or 5 years are down 17 percent efficiency because of pollen road dirt and grime," Cristino continued.

For Brandoli, the pros outweigh the cons.

"I'm in favor of it it just creates more challenges for the fire service," he said.

For Thomas Briggs, the aftermath of the fire leaves him with enough doubt.

"There's benefits to having them I'm not going to get them again," he added.

Western Mass News reached out to Trinity Solar, the installer of the Briggs family's solar panels, and they've chosen not to comment at this time.

Copyright 2018 Western Mass News (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.


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