Rooftop Solar Panels Pose Hidden Dangers for Firefighters

Jason Lomberg, Editor, North America, PSD



We tend to focus on the efficiency and aesthetics of rooftop solar panels, but as it turns out, placing giant, potentially electrified devices on top of your home impedes a very specific group – firefighters. Wired has more….

Solar panels can “get in the way of cutting ventilation holes ... first responders also rely on the ability to turn off the electricity pulsing through a structure — but photovoltaic panels can make their own power. Electrified panels can cause burns, or even blow responders off a roof,” notes Wired.

Photovoltaic devices also pose several hidden dangers – high-powered lights (like the sort utilized by first-responders) can inadvertently electrify rooftop panels, while spraying water over electrified sources presents a more obvious problem.

With the rapid expansion of commercial and residential solar, these little quirks are no longer a minor annoyance. From 2015-2016, US solar doubled from 7.3 to 14.7 GW, and as of 2013, more than 400,000 homes sport solar panels.

It’s become enough of a problem that the Department of Homeland Security – yes, the same organization responsible for the TSA – recently took up the issue. The DHS identified most of the salient dangers of rooftop panels, and this led to updated fire and electric codes (like allowing enough space between panels for firefighters to walk and rapid shutdown systems to quickly turn off the electricity).

But in areas of the country where solar hasn’t caught on – like Oklahoma, with its relatively miniscule 5.2 megawatts of solar capacity – the local fire departments haven’t changed their operating procedures.

“In my 20 years, I’ve never seen a solar panel on a roof. It’s really not necessary,” says Julian Gaona, a captain at the Oklahoma City Fire Department.

On the other hand, in Vermont – with its 168.5 megawatts of solar power – 744 firefighters have already been trained to respond to rooftop photovoltaics.

It’s a situation worth monitoring – first-responders already have dangerous jobs. They needn’t face additional hazards from renewable energy.