Solar panels hamper firefighters in warehouse blaze; Panels can’t be shut off

NJ.com reports:

More than 7,000 solar panels on the roof of a burning warehouse in Burlington County proved too much of a hazard for firefighters, local officials said today.

“We may very well not be able to save buildings that have alternative energy,” William Kramer, New Jersey’s acting fire marshall, said after Delanco Fire Chief Ron Holt refused to send his firefighters onto the roof of the 300,000-square foot Dietz & Watson facility, ablaze since Sunday afternoon.

Solar panels are particularly hazardous to firefighters for a number of reasons, according to Ken Willette, a division manager with the National Fire Protection Association.

“There is a possibility of electric shock because the electricity to the panels can’t be shut off,” he said, “and not having a clear path on the roof to cut a ventilation hole is another challenge.”

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4 responses to “Solar panels hamper firefighters in warehouse blaze; Panels can’t be shut off

  1. These issues had never occurred to me but they make sense now that I read this.
    Localized solar is a rare bird, really suited only to niche applications, but then that’s true of solar broadly. I dunno what affect a wind system would have had; presumably one could shut down the turbines during a fire and even tie them into the sprinkler or alarm system. Of course that might also black out the building right when lights and power might be crucial to evacuation.

    • Generally speaking, electricity should always be shut off during a fire. There’s just no way to predict what the shortest path to ground will be once the fire fighters start spraying water all over the place. Many older installations use a cold water pipe which would make the hose a direct path. Also, the insulation on a wire will melt away long before the conductor is burned in two by the heat, so it’s entirely possible for live wires to become exposed inside the walls. Emergency exit lights and other emergency systems are designed to switch to battery power when the wall power is shut off. This is why you should never get into an elevator during a fire. They will be shutting the power off.
      I wouldn’t call this an indictment of solar power in general, but if it’s true that the systems mentioned above were designed without any emergency shutoff systems, that would pose a serious problem. There wouldn’t really be time to find out what kind of set up the facility has and act accordingly, so I understand the blanket statement. This may require new legislation and alteration to the National Electricians’ Code which would necessitate the removal of all non-compliant systems. I wonder if the new White House installation would be affected.

      • I think there may be a bit of a misunderstanding here. I can’t believe that there is not a shutoff at the distribution box where the grid tie-n would be. That would de-energize the building itself, but the problem would be the roof panels and connecting lines would still be energized and no way to shut them down so the danger still exists. 7k panels would generate significant power all live on the top of the building with no way to shut it off.

  2. Where are all the regulators when we need them? Since solar is a “favored industry”, issues that would have been raised with other types of energy are ignored.
    And the solar industry spokesman completely ignores the issues raised by the article by claiming that the solar panels didn’t start the fire. So, it’s then okay if they endanger firefighters and make it harder for the fire to be put out.

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