A year ago, fire trucks arrived on the scene of a blaze at a cheese and deli-meat distribution facility just outside of Philadelphia. But firefighters had to keep their distance because of worries that the thousands of solar panels on the roof were still generating power, putting them at risk of electrocution. The building was completely destroyed.
To make sure that the same thing doesn't happen in Ontario, where the majority of Canada's solar installations are located, firefighters and the solar industry association have created new guidelines to ensure those arriving at the scene of a fire are aware of the presence of panels, and know how to deal with them.
On Tuesday, the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs and the Canadian Solar Industries Association will launch a training manual for fighting fires in these circumstances. They will also ensure that industrial buildings with solar panels on their roofs be marked so that arriving firefighters know they are there. All fire halls will get the manuals by early in 2015.
The key issue, said Meaford, Ont., Fire Chief Mike Molloy, is that solar panels keep generating power even if they are disconnected from an electrical system or grid. Even at night, the lights from a fire truck are enough to produce some power out of the panels.
In some circumstances involving fires at buildings with solar panels, foam might be used instead of water to fight the fire, or water may be spayed in a broad stream instead of in a direct stream – so electricity can't travel up the water to reach the firefighter.
The weight of the panels can also mean a roof might collapse sooner than it would have otherwise, if it becomes compromised during a fire, Chief Molloy said.
"Solar panels don't cause fires, but they can be present on buildings that have fires," said John Gorman, president of the Canadian Solar Industries Association. Situations such as the fire outside of Philadelphia underline how crucial it is that first responders be protected, he said.
It is also important that these kinds of safety issues don't become a roadblock to future solar installations. "We want solar to continue to be well supported by the Canadian public," he said.
Mr. Gorman said the training program will eventually be rolled out in other provinces as solar power takes hold outside of Ontario.
The guidelines for firefighters would also apply to fires on houses, as well as on industrial buildings.
Chief Molloy, who served on the committee that developed the new guidelines, said the rapid expansion of solar power means this issue will be more and more important. In the small town of Meaford alone, he said, there are four solar panel systems in place and "there are proposals going on monthly to add more and more photovoltaic sources on top of the shopping centre, or on top of the hardware store."
He said one reason buildings with solar panels need to be marked is that some panels are built into the exterior glass and are not at all obvious. Firefighters need to know about these "building-integrated" panel systems, he said.