STAMFORD — As tax credits and other benefits help increasing numbers of residents and businesses install energy-efficient solar electricity systems, firefighters and public safety officials are looking to get regulations in place that will make doing their jobs around solar panels safer.
The problem is that the panels — even on a moonlit night — could be charged with as much as 600 volts of electricity, and if a firefighter stumbles into one or catches some equipment on them, the firefighter could be electrocuted.
Even after firefighters find the electric main to a building and shut it down, the panels still remain charged from any light in the sky — even lightning.
They can throw tarpaulins over the panels, but there could still be electricity in the conduit between the panel and the electric main, Stamford Public Safety Director Ted Jankowski told members of the city’s Public Health Safety Committee at a recent meeting.
If the solar panels pose too much of a hazard, Jankowski said his fire chiefs will not put their men on the roof of a structure that has them.
Committee member Joseph Coppola seemed stunned at Jankowski’s presentation.
“I must confess, I didn’t realize that,” he said, rubbing his forehead with his hand. “I never realized there was such an issue with these solar panels. What can we do about it?”
The panels present several hazards to firefighters, according to Jim Carroll, Connecticut Fire Academy program manager for live fire training and rescue. First, they can make it difficult to vent a fire, he said, explaining that a hole is cut in the roof to do that, but because solar panels are energized, firefighters can’t cut through them.
Beyond that, the panels also add weight to a roof, which creates additional danger if the structural integrity of a building is compromised in a fire.
Up the coastline from Stamford, there are also concerns about the panels in Connecticut’s biggest city.
“There are two types of solar panels: hydroponic panels that are used to heat water and photovoltaic, which create electricity. The latter are more dangerous. Electricity could potentially remain in the capacitors even if the electrical power is shut off to the house at the pole,” William Kaempffer, a spokesmen for Bridgeport’s emergency services said, citing information from Bridgeport’s Deputy Fire Chief Ismael Pomales. That city has not yet had a fire in a solar-powered building, he said.
Stamford’s Jankowski said he is talking to city building officials and engineers about developing new practices and rules that would lessen the danger of solar panels to city firefighters.
The academy and firefighting organizations are working with solar panel makers and installers to understand how the panels function, he said, so firefighters know how to approach buildings where they are mounted.
They are also trying to pin down how many buildings have them and where they are, and find a way to track this as solar power systems proliferate further. Kaempffer said knowing where the panels are is critical.
“Firefighters would respond using traditional firefighting techniques while being mindful of the danger” if they knew where the panels are located, Kaempffer said. “Typically, panels are on one side of a pitched roof, so firefighters would ventilate on the side with no panels.”
On a recent sunny day, Jankowski climbed up to the roof of the city’s Highway Division maintenance garage at 90 Magee Ave., which has 336 solar panels on its roof, and showed the problems that firefighters could face if a blaze broke out in such a building. The garage is one of five Stamford municipal buildings that use solar energy. Jankowski said that as of July 2013, the city’s planning department recorded 49 other addresses around the city that use solar panels.
One possible problem firefighters could face is that the breaker switch to the panels needs to be easily accessible.
He also wants to explore the possibility of being able to turn the electricity off on each panel to further reduce the possibility of electrocution.
“I will look for a local ordinance to see if we can develop some, whether it is requiring shut-offs eventually when they develop it, or making enough space around the panels so you can perform fire operations. So there are some issues we are looking at to put into ordinances,” Jankowski said.
Another problem is that the panels need to be placed far enough apart that firefighters can get around them.
He says he is talking with city building and engineering officials about introducing regulations that would require spaces between panels to ensure firefighters would be able to access the roof with the minimum danger possible.
Ironically, a brochure for Solarize Stamford — the city-sanctioned campaign that helps connect residents and companies with incentives to make installing solar power more financially attractive — shows a photo of roof-mounted solar panels that stretch unbroken from peak to gutters over the entire roof, which is exactly what Jankowski doesn’t want.
He said he doesn’t want to crimp the use of solar power, just to make it safe to protect the structures that have it.
“I look at solar as being a great source of energy. It’s good for the environment and cost-effective for the resident. However, there are issues that come about from the perspective of the fire service,” Jankowski said.