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Solar panels: What aren’t you considering?

October 5, 2015

Photovoltaic (PV) solar panels are a popular alternative energy source today. Solar Panels convert the energy of the sun into electricity and are an attractive option for companies looking to reduce both their energy cost and their impact to the environment. What’s more, the cost of installation is dropping and tax incentives are encouraging organizations to reduce their carbon footprint. However, we’re still learning about risks that may occur when you install a PV system on the roof of a building that was not initially designed with this in mind.

Vice President, Executive Technical Director

Jim Breitkreitz is the Executive Technical Director for Risk Engineering at Zurich North America,... About this expert

guy with solar panels

Fire hazards on rooftops

One of the potential risks in placing solar panels on a rooftop is the possible fire hazard it creates. A commercial solar panel installation is a high-voltage system with electrical conduit typically running right on the roof deck. Ignition from short circuits or overheating in the system can be a major concern. Not only does the equipment present new ignition sources, but the solar panels can also affect the way a roof burns. On a typical industrial roof with a UL Class A rating for the roof assembly, a fire won’t spread quickly across the flat surface. Although this rating does not guarantee non-combustibility, it does provide a minimum resistance to horizontal fire spread. By adding solar panels, the roof may become more susceptible to fire and its spreading.

The spread of solar panel fires

Solar panels installed on an existing roof covering can change the way the roof burns. Solar panels typically have a flat metal bottom and are elevated on metal racks above the surface of the roof. The metal bottom of the panel reflects heat extremely well. If there is an ignition source and the roof covering starts to burn, the heat reflects off the bottom of the panel, creating a heat feedback mechanism. This allows the fire to quickly spread under the panels and across the surface of the roof.

Challenge for firefighters

Another fire safety challenge for buildings with solar panels comes after a fire starts. Many municipal fire departments will not send their firefighters onto a burning roof with a solar panel installation due to the possibility of electrical shock. As a result, firefighting is typically accomplished from a distance with hose streams from aerial ladders. Since they are fighting a fire from a distance and shielded by the panels, it can be very difficult to control the fire, let alone extinguish it.

Although there are potential fire safety dangers, this doesn’t mean that solar panels, or other alternative energy sources, are a bad idea. It is important to consider the installation process carefully, particularly for retrofit installations. In addition, the design and materials used, specifically on the roof covering, should be chosen to help keep the risk at an acceptable level.

The information in this publication was compiled from sources believed to be reliable for informational purposes only. All sample policies and procedures herein should serve as a guideline, which you can use to create your own policies and procedures. We trust that you will customize these samples to reflect your own operations and believe that these samples may serve as a helpful platform for this endeavor. Any and all information contained herein is not intended to constitute advice (particularly not legal advice). Accordingly, persons requiring advice should consult independent advisors when developing programs and policies. We do not guarantee the accuracy of this information or any results and further assume no liability in connection with this publication and sample policies and procedures, including any information, methods or safety suggestions contained herein. We undertake no obligation to publicly update or revise any of this information, whether to reflect new information, future developments, events or circumstances or otherwise. Moreover, Zurich reminds you that this cannot be assumed to contain every acceptable safety and compliance procedure or that additional procedures might not be appropriate under the circumstances. The subject matter of this publication is not tied to any specific insurance product nor will adopting these policies and procedures ensure coverage under any insurance policy.

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