Insurance companies demanding mandatory inspections of solar panel installations
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Fires in solar panel installations on buildings are statistically rare. According to a 2020 article from the French solar panel company Dual Sun, only 1 incident per 10, 000 installations result in fires:
"Solar panels pose an extremely low fire hazard. In fact, Photon magazine has recorded no more than 1 incident per 10, 000 installations. So a house equipped with properly installed solar panels will not catch fire", states the article.
However, as more and more people acquire solar cells, the risks increase of installations being carried out by contractors who lack the skills to install the solar power safely.
"There are errors at these facilities, errors that should not exist", says Staffan Moberg, expert at Swedish insurance.
In Sweden, the responsibility of the safety of the solar installation falls on the property owner. Companies who are hired to install a solar panel system often subcontracts certain aspects of the work to a third party subcontractor. Because of the lack of qualified electricians on the labour market, there is no guarantee that the person connecting the solar system is qualified to do it safely.
Another issue is natural degradation of the solar power system over time, impact by birds and other wildlife, and the flammability of the roofing material the solar panels are attached to.
When fires occur because of a improperly installed solar panel, it can sometimes be hard to find exactly who is responsible.
A hotel in Våxtorp in the south of Sweden burned to the ground on August 21 after a solar panel installation caught fire, and the local insurance industry is now demanding that a public inspection program is set up to avoid improperly installed solar panels on buildings.
"Many property owners do not understand that the ultimate responsibility falls on them. Te property owner may have a language barrier, might be old or sick. The question is whether you can really place that responsibility on an a private individual", says Staffan Moberg to Swedish SVT.se, who calls for a government inspection function, similar as to how cars are inspected.
Many countries and states already have this inspection system in place, and as Vermonth based energy adviser Kerry Thoubboro writes in her article on the US web page EnergySage.com, the inspection process and the permits to ensure a safe installation does not have to be very costly for the consumer:
"Fortunately, most people installing a residential solar panel system won’t need to pay more than a couple hundred dollars for the permitting and inspection process. In fact, some states have regulations in place to cap on what governments can charge for permitting fees – Colorado caps permitting costs at $500 for residential solar projects and $1,000 for commercial projects. Similarly, California has the same cap for commercial projects but limits residential permitting costs to $450", Kerry Thoubboro states.
The insurance company Zurich in the UK, lists in a 2020 article a number of things to think about when installing solar panels:
- Building owners/occupiers should have a basic understanding of the technology and how it works.
- Install only on non-combustible roofs (ideally). Do not install a PV system on a roof containing highly combustible materials, such as polystyrene insulation.
- Ensure the system is designed and installed by competent contractors, adhering to industry best practice and regulations.
- Consider fire brigade access and facilities, including system information. This should include an easily accessible DC isolator switch/circuit breaker or "fireman switch" to enable the current from the PV panels to be isolated remotely
- Ensure the PV system is suitably maintained as part of the building’s electrical inspection and testing procedures. Far too often PV systems are overlooked in this regard as mentioned earlier.
- Have an emergency response plan in place in case a fire breaks out and keep it up to date. Incorporate this with the building’s fire risk assessment.
The international Association of Home Inspectors, NACHI, state that fires in solar panels are very rare and pretty much always occur because of improper installations.
In an article by Nick Gromicko, the association lists some of the major things to look out for in a solar installation:
"PV systems may be a hazard in the case of a house fire, particularly if firefighters are not aware that a system is installed. Some of these hazards are as follows:
- The conduit leading from PV panels to an inverter may remain live with direct current even after the main service panel has been shut off. Firefighters who unknowingly sever live lines are vulnerable to electrical shock. Some firefighters carry a "hot stick" that aids them in finding live wires, but it does not detect direct current.
- Solar panels and batteries contain toxic chemicals that may be released in a fire and are dangerous if inhaled.
- PV modules may become slippery and pose a slip-and-fall risk to inspectors, technicians and firefighters.
- Solar panels may block key points and pathways that inspectors, technicians and firefighters would otherwise use to mount, navigate and dismount from a roof.
- PV modules may inhibit ventilation of a fire in prime roof locations.
- The added weight of a solar panel array may lead to roof collapse if the integrity of the structure is already compromised by fire."
Cover Photo: (Above) Solar panel installation. Photo courtesy of Infopool