The recent push for renewable clean energy has moved solar to the forefront of alternative energy sources. It is now common to see solar panels on building rooftops, attached to a light post, and utilities throughout the United States powering homes, businesses, and parks. Worldwide solar capacity rose 50% in 2016, while nearly doubling in the United States. With improvements in efficiency and decreases in cost, the use of solar should continue to experience strong growth. There are even solar panels that resemble common roof shingle material such as tile, asphalt, and slate.
Even if you have no plans to become an environmental warrior, solar can help save money on your energy bill, provide a source of tax credits, offer some degree of energy independence, and possibly make your home or building unique. If you are thinking about making the move to solar, here are some things to consider when making your decision.
It is not a good idea to have your cousin who just watched a YouTube video on solar installation install your equipment. It goes without saying that an improperly installed system can create a host of problems that could damage property and reduce system efficiency, which in turn will drain your wallet. From a property preservation standpoint, the primary concern is making sure solar panels will not impede the roof’s ability to keep moisture out of the home. Such problems can be caused by:
- Improperly installed racking.
- Improperly mounted anchors.
- Panels that are unable to sustain the weight of snow and ice.
- Incorrect positioning.
Since these problems can make the panels more susceptible to movement from wind or the weight of snow or ice, leaks may form causing displacement of the shingles underneath. Leaks lead to rotting, mold growth, and can damage the structural support of the building.
The most severe issues pertain to electrical safety. According to Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), electrical fires account for an estimated 51,000 fires each year, nearly 500 deaths, and more than 1,400 injuries. Solar panels generate electricity and if improperly integrated electrical arcing can burn wiring, cause power disruptions, and in worse case scenarios lead to a fire.
When responding to a fire, one of the first things a firefighter does is cut the power. With traditional power sources this is a simple process, but not the case with solar. Even if the power of a building is turned off, the panels are still able to generate electricity increasing the risk of electrocution for emergency responders.
Another issue that can be a problem for firefighters pertains to ventilating a roof. Firefighters cut holes in the roof to allow gases to escape and heat and smoke to rise. This increases visibility in the building and reduces the possibilities of backdraft and flashover (an instance of a fire spreading very rapidly). Solar panels make this process much more difficult. They also impede the ability to walk on the roof, can be difficult to penetrate, and present an electrocution risk. While training activities have increased in recent years, firefighters faced with such obstacles may elect not to attempt to save the property if there is no one in the building.
Many of the problems mentioned above can be mitigated by selecting the right contractor. Focus on companies with experience, excellent records, and good reviews. Verify the credentials of the installers. Ensure the company you are dealing with has the proper licensing, carries insurance, and is bonded. Do not use any company with unlicensed electricians. This information is found on state licensing websites and typically only requires a company name search. A licensed contractor should also understand local codes and install the panels with enough roof covering remaining for proper ventilation. It never hurts to review the laws yourself for oversight. Codes continually change. The National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) and the International Code Council (ICC) publish the guides for fire and electrical protection for solar panels. Municipalities often rely upon these guidelines when establishing their codes. Making sure they are installed to code should help with some of the issues such as ventilation.
As with any piece of technology, equipment, or machinery what you select will have a significant bearing on performance and safety. Panels manufactured today will be superior to ones made in 2007, and due to rapid changes in technology, it is best to stick with the newer models. Newer models will have safety features such as rooftop shutoff valves (used to disable the direct current running from the solar panels) and arc fault detection. It is also important to keep your emergency department informed on the presence of such systems. The panels are not easily visible from ground level in multistory buildings. Therefore the presence may go undetected until the rooftop is reached. Fire departments across the country are receiving training on responding to fires with solar panels, and any information provided via labels and written materials can shave precious seconds off an emergency response as well as prevent injuries.
There are many benefits to solar. Overall it has a good safety record and the benefits will outweigh the cost for most consumers. If you do decide on solar power just be aware of the pitfalls of improper installation and electrical hazards, as well as the need to pick a good contractor, proper equipment, and let your fire department know of its presence.