Solar panels represent a significant risk to firefighters and emergency services personnel and current Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) do not adequately address the increasingly obvious safety gaps. Whether responding to a solar panel fire, responding to storm or flood damage or encountering a property that has a faulty or substandard solar panel system installed, solar panels represent an unmitigated electrical safety risk.
How did we get here?
Ten years ago there were approximately 40,000 small scale solar installations across Australia but due to rising electricity prices, government subsidies and the public’s growing appetite for cleaner energy, that figure has now surpassed 2,000,000 installations. 20% of all Australian homes now have rooftop solar, not to mention the ever growing number of commercial, industrial and solar farm scale installations.
In December 2018 Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor made headline news when he warned that lives are at risk from unsafe or sub-standard solar panel installations. Quoting figures produced by the Clean Energy Regulator up to one quarter of all rooftop units inspected posed a severe or high risk. Extrapolated against the 2,000,000 national rooftop
installations, this equates to potentially 500,000 unsafe or sub-standard installations!
What does this mean for Fire and Emergency Services Agencies? Crews are now encountering incidents involving solar panels on a weekly basis and likely to face solar panel incidents on a daily basis in the near future. Without adequate tools, procedures or training, “near miss” scenarios are common and lives are at risk.
As a PCBU, Fire and Emergency Services Agencies have an obligation to undertake a risk assessment and take reasonable action to mitigate risk. PCBUs must manage electrical risks at the workplace so they are eliminated so far as is reasonably practicable, or if this isn’t possible, minimised so far as is reasonably practicable. Relevant guidance to PCBUs is provided by the MANAGING ELECTRICAL RISKS IN THE WORKPLACE Code of Practice (FEBRUARY 2016), an approved code of practice under section 274 of the Work Health and Safety Act (the WHS Act).
Solar panel electrical risk
The primary risks associated with solar panels are electric shock and electrocution. As long as solar panels are exposed to light they are producing potentially lethal amount of DC electricity, in industry terms this is known as the “DC Danger Zone” and up until recently there were no tools or procedures available to isolate the power at the source (the solar panels themselves). There are a range of electro- mechanical solutions available on the market including isolation switches, micro-inverter systems, DC optimizing equipment etc but these all operate downstream of the panels themselves, they do not isolate the power produced by the panel itself. This means anyone operating near a solar panel system during daylight hours is always engaging with live electrical equipment.
It is important to understand the risks attributable to PV solar systems. For reference, a domestic 240V AC power outlet is usually rated at 10 Amps, providing 2400 Watts of power. The average size of a residential solar PV installation is 5KW, usually configured in multiple strings of up to 600V per string. With up to 10 Amps available, an average residential solar PV array can produce up to 5000 Watts of power.
Residential installations of up to 10KW (Kilowatts) are now common, while commercial installations can be upward of several hundred KW, and generation plants can be in excess of 100MW (Megawatts) or more.
The physiological impacts from 1000V DC current exposure can be represented as follows:
Physiological Effect DC Threshold Limit for Adult (Milliamps)
Mild Shock Reaction 2 mA
Lock On 40 mA
Electrical Burns 70 mA
Ventricular Fibrillation 240 mA
Clearly even small domestic systems have the capacity to injure via electric shock and kill by electrocution.
Solar panel unanticipated risks
One of the challenges surrounding solar panel safety is the simple fact that the technology is relatively new and it has grown so quickly. There are very few true experts in the field of solar safety and authorities are only just starting to recognise the safety gaps. Current education and training is inadequate and “near miss” scenarios are commonplace.
Tarping damaged solar panels
This practice is extremely dangerous and operates in clear contravention of Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) which state;
- When working near solar panels damaged by storms:
- Assume the solar power system and surrounding area is live.
- Establish an Exclusion Zone at least 3 metres around any damaged solar panel components.
- Increase the Exclusion Zone to 8 metres if the components are in contact with conductive materials.
The recent Sydney hails storms (Dec 18) highlighted that this dangerous practice is still being utilised as agencies struggle to adapt and come to terms with the “new normal” that solar panels represent.
Post damage fire
The Sydney hail storms also highlighted a new and previously unanticipated risk, the potential for hail damaged solar panels to create a secondary fire incident. One example was a factory fire in the Sydney suburb of Moorebank. The factory featured a roof top solar panel system that was heavily damaged during the hail storm on December 20th 2018. Although power was subsequently isolated, on December 23rd 2018 under hot and sunny conditions, the hail damaged panels started arcing and a full blown roof fire ensued that put the entire factory at risk.
Burning Solar panels
Another little known fact is that the chemicals used to manufacture solar cells can be highly toxic and include;
- Cadmium Telluride – Carcinogenic
- Gallium Arsenide – Highly toxic and carcinogenic
- Phosphorous – Lethal dose is 50 mg
Sandwiched between the protective glass, frame and back-sheet of the solar panel, the solar cells present no health risk, but once a panel burns and the solar cells are exposed, the burning panels present a significant health risk. Inhalation of these toxic nano-particles cause silicosis of the lungs and should be treated with the same precautions as asbestos.
The full scope of solar panel risk
Much of the focus of this article has been placed on the risks associated with solar panels when they fail, but with solar panels now featured on 1 in 5 buildings across the country, it is also important to consider the broader range of incidents involving structures and fire. For every incident initiating with a fault in the solar panel system, there are many more incidents where the ignition point is totally unrelated to the solar panel system but where the fire may encroach upon the solar panel system and compromise safety.
New solutions to combat solar panel risks
The more innovative Fire and Emergency Services Agencies have identified the need to adopt new products and procedures to enable them to operate safely in incidents involving solar panel systems and are now rolling out a new product called PVStop. PVStop is an Australian innovation and the only reactive solution on the global market which safely isolates the power produced by solar PV systems. It eliminates the risk of high voltage DC electrocution by acting as a liquid tarp, isolating the power produced by solar panel system in seconds. Once the threat has been eliminated, the coating can simply be peeled off without causing any damage to the solar panel system.
A critical consideration for fire and emergency services agencies when adopting a new product is assurances that the product is safe for their personnel, the community and the environment. PVStop does not contain any PFAS, PFOS or PFOA type chemicals and in addition, has been analysed by scientists at the NSW Environment Protection Agency (EPA) who conclude that the product presents no detrimental impact on the environment.
The new Normal
The statistical evidence published by the Clean Energy Regulator clearly warns that solar panels represent a serious national issue that potentially places lives at risk. This is supported by the increasing number of solar panels incidents reported by Fire and Emergency Services Agencies through the Australian Incident Reporting System (AIRS). Solar panel systems are clearly emerging as a new and growing incident category. Proactive and innovative Fire and Emergency Services Agencies are responding to the “new normal” and seeking out new products like PVStop to combat the emerging risks and improve safety, but as incidents like the recent Sydney hails storms show, there is still a long way to go to adopt and implement best safety practices.
For more information, go to www.pvstop.com.au