It is now relatively common to see solar PV panels on rooftops of houses, apartment blocks, public buildings and commercial/industrial buildings.
Although fires caused by solar panels are rare, any fire involving a building with a solar panel (aka photovoltaic (PV) panels) can present an increased risk to its occupants as well as fire and rescue services.
Fires resulting from electrical faults is the most common cause of loss associated with roof mounted solar panel installations. In some cases, the fire has led to total destruction of the building and its contents.
Challenges arise from the varying quality of installation. Whilst solar panel products must meet UK quality assurance standards, there are currently no regulations covering installation.
Solar panel systems are all too often disregarded when it comes to their necessary electrical inspection and maintenance.
Solar panels generate electrical energy for all of the time they’re exposed to natural light. This means the panels and associated electrical equipment feeding power to the building remain “live” at all times. This poses serious safety risks to persons in the immediate vicinity, and to fire fighters in the event of a fire, as the system cannot be turned off, unlike conventional electrical supplies.
Ideally the panels should only be installed on non-combustible roofs and should not be installed on a roof containing highly combustible materials such as; polystyrene insulation.
Ensure the system is designed and installed by competent contractors, adhering to industry best practice and guidance.
It’s important to allow access for roof maintenance and cleaning along with determining how roof or solar panel sections can be replaced.
Ensure the solar system is suitably maintained as part of the building’s electrical inspection and testing procedures.
There should be an emergency response plan in place in case of a fire and should be kept up to date – this could be incorporated with the building’s fire risk assessment.
Consider fire and rescue services access and facilities, including system information. This should include an easily accessible DC isolator switch/circuit breaker or “fireman switch” to enable the current from the solar panels to be isolated remotely – these switches are often sited in lofts/roof spaces where the fire services cannot operate them in an emergency. If there’s a failure or inability to isolate the supply of electricity from the panels to the building this may delay firefighting operations as the electrical system within the building can remain energised.
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