How To Determine Solar Panel Fire Risk: Preventative Measures

Firefighters putting out a house fire with burning solar panels on the roof

Solar panels are a brilliant way to generate clean energy, slash electricity bills, and boost your home’s value. But like any electrical system, there are safety considerations. The good news? Panel fires are uncommon: in 2019, there were only 63 incidents reported. Solar adoption has skyrocketed during the last five years, but there are still less than 70 panel fires per month. This situation is entirely preventable with the right knowledge and maintenance.

Check this article to learn about the potential fire risks of solar panel systems, Chicago fire safety regulations, and proven practices to keep your solar system operating smoothly and safely. With this knowledge, you can confidently enjoy the peace of mind of a reliable solar energy system.

Introduction to Solar Fire Risks

Solar panels, multimeter and engineering hands for voltage check, installation or maintenance.

While panels are a fantastic source of clean energy, it’s important to be aware of potential safety hazards. Three main reasons for solar fire are:

  1. Electrical faults: Like any electrical system, solar panels have wires and connectors. Component defects or improper installation can create electrical arcs, igniting nearby materials and producing rooftop solar panel fire.
  2. Overheating: Solar panels naturally heat up as they convert sunlight to electricity. Normally, this heat dissipates harmlessly. However, dirty, defective, or partially shaded panels have overheating patches, increasing solar panel fire risk.
  3. External factors: While less common, lightning strikes or faulty roofs can create a fire hazard that could spread to solar panels.

Fire Safety Standards and Regulations

There are dozens of solar panels fire standards. Today, we will review just those regulations of fire risk relevant to Chicago citizens.

Standard Governing Body Description
NFPA 70 (NEC) – Article 690 National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) The NEC focuses on proper wiring, component selection, and safe system shutdown procedures for firefighters
IFC – Section 605.11 International Code Council (ICC) These are international solar safety rules for photovoltaic power systems adopted by Illinois
IBC – Section 1511.1 International Code Council (ICC) These are international provisions for rooftop solar panels, enforced in Chicago, with local amendments
Chicago Building Code – 14F-12-1204 Solar photovoltaic power systems City of Chicago Local building code provisions
Illinois State Fire Marshal Regulations Office of the Illinois State Fire Marshal While not directly addressing PV systems, it’s crucial for solar installers since it provides fire safety rules for permanently moored crafts
Chicago Electrical Code City of Chicago Look for the latest available code related to your building to ensure proper installation of electrical systems

Common Fire Scenarios

While solar panels are generally safe, certain situations can set solar panels on fire. Let’s examine them in detail.

1. Faulty Wiring and Connections

Manufacturing defects in electrical components can provoke malfunctions and generate excessive heat. It leads to situations where solar panels catch fire.

Cutting corners during installation leads to loose connections, damaged wires, or improper grounding. These issues can increase the risk of solar panels fire hazard.

2. Arc Faults

If a panel is partially shaded, it creates an uneven flow of electricity. In the long run, this leads to “arc faults”— tiny, high-intensity sparks within the panel. Over time, they damage the system and potentially ignite surrounding materials.

To partially mitigate this issue and lower solar panel fire risk, use arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) and regularly inspect your system.

3. Overheating and Hot Spots

If panels are mounted too close to the roof, it restricts airflow, hindering heat dissipation. In the long run, this can lead to panel fires.

A build-up of dust and dirt reduces trapped heat. It can create hot spots within the panel, exceeding safe operating temperatures and increasing solar panel fire risk.

Thermal Runaway and Battery Fires

To start off-grid living, install batteries to store excessive electricity. While offering additional convenience, they introduce the risk of fire due to a thermal runaway phenomenon.

Thermal runaway is a vicious cycle that occurs within a lithium-ion battery. Here’s the breakdown of this solar battery fire case:

  1. Trigger: The thermal runaway can be initiated by overheating, physical damage, overcharge, or over-discharge.
  2. Exothermic reactions: As the battery temperature rises, the chemical reactions within the battery accelerate, increasing their temperature.
  3. Gas release and venting: Rising battery temperatures cause the electrolyte solution to break down and generate flammable gasses.
  4. Fire and explosion: If the room lacks ventilation, the battery becomes uncontrollably self-heating, leading to solar battery fires and hazards in solar panel systems.

Impact of Fire on Solar Panel Performance

A couple of Engineering technicians installing alternative clean energy solar panels

Solar panel fires can cause physical damage to panels, including melting, cracking, or destruction. Inverters and wiring are also crucial for converting DC from the panels to AC for your appliances.

You should monitor the system’s health. If it’s constantly hot, the battery will drain faster than expected. This overheating can trigger thermal runaway, causing fires on solar panels.

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Preventive Measures and Fire Safety Practices

Proper maintenance of the system mitigates potential PV fires. First, ensure that you collaborate only with certified installers, lowering the chances that your solar panels cause a fire hazard.

Clean your solar panels once in 3-4 months to remove dirt that can trap heat and create hot spots. Trim nearby trees to prevent shading, lowering the risk of fire.

Monitor your system to identify any abnormalities early. Schedule regular inspections by a qualified professional. Consider installing a rapid shutdown system that can quickly disconnect the DC electrical output of the solar system in case a solar panel fires.

Wrapping Up: Preventing Solar Panel Fires and Electrical Hazards

Proper maintenance is needed to lower the risk of solar panels fire. Be aware of potential safety hazards and follow safety guidelines set by manufacturers and local authorities.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How common are solar panel fires, and what are the main factors?

A solar panel on fire is an uncommon situation. In most cases, it results from thermal runaway caused by neglected system problems. Regular, proper maintenance can mitigate fire risk.

Can solar panels catch fire in extreme heat?

Yes, that’s why keeping them under the temperature range provided by the manufacturer is crucial. Usually, it’s below 122 F.

Can solar panels catch fire on a roof?

Yes, fires on roof PV systems can happen due to thermal runaway. To prevent uneven shading, it’s recommended to check wires and install anti-rodent protection regularly.

What should I do if my solar panels catch fire?

Turn off the system immediately. Don’t use the water to stop the panel fires. Use a CO2 fire extinguisher and call firefighters and insurance agents immediately.

Are solar panels a fire hazard?

Solar panels can potentially cause a fire, but they are completely safe to use with proper maintenance.