SC Solar Boom Sparks New Firefighting Concerns

Firefighters are battling a new concern. As News 19's Ashley Izbicki explains the issues behind solar panels.

(Columbia, SC) As solar energy soars to new heights in South Carolina, the boom is sparking new concerns for firefighters.

"Since it involves electricity, it is a significant concern,” said Battalion Chief Christopher Kip, with the Columbia Fire Department.

South Carolina jumped from number 36 in the country to number nine for solar growth. According to Solarize SC, there were only 840 solar systems statewide. That number more than tripled to 3,000 in 2016.

“Two years ago, they kind of walked past. They didn’t know anything about solar. That was something California did, or on the West Coast, or Germany, but not here,” said Sara Hummel Rajca, Community Outreach Manager with Solarize SC – Smart Power.  “But now people are like ‘oh, my neighbor has that, my friend has that, my family member has that. Tell me more’. And they have questions because they know what it is.”

As the panels shine on more rooftops than ever before, firefighters are taking part in new hands-on training at solar-powered homes.

“We need to know about every single kind of feature that a building could have. And solar panels are now becoming a critical piece of that,” said Kip.

Columbia fire crews responded to a fire at a home with solar panels in April. Captain Brick Lewis said the flames displaced to people and caused $250,000 in damage. While he said the panels didn’t cause significant issues for crews, they could in the future, which is why they are now getting training at solar homes. News 19 went to this week’s training, hosted by the Falvey family, who made the solar switch after living on Rosewood Drive for 17 years. 

“My husband has a degree in environmental education, so obviously the environmental part was very important,” said Jennifer Falvey. “With me, it was more about the dollars. I wanted to know if it was going to be a cost-effective way to go, since it does cost money to install the system.”

Falvey said she will get a return on investment in just seven years, and is already seeing dramatically lower power bills. With her neighborhood and others buzzing about the clean energy trend, she said it’s important to make sure first responders are trained.

“Obviously we want them to understand how the systems work so that they can better help people who might unfortunately have a fire at their home but also mainly to help keep the firefighters safe. Dealing with these electrical systems is different from a regular house,” said Falvey.

Experts with AlderEnergy Solar showed firefighters how to shut off the system, since it’s different than shutting off power at homes with standard electricity.

“There is a shut off switch here. So that’s your first line of being sure, if you don’t want anything coming back from the panels that’s going to get ya, shut off the inverter,” said Chirs Starin, Solar Power Consultant, showing the crews the differences and what to know about the meters.

Even when the power is off, crews also have to mindful that the panels are still producing energy. The Chief said they are still a hazard. One by one, each firefighter climbed a ladder to the roof to see the inverters underneath the panels.

“Now one thing that we need to be wary of, and that’s why this training is so important, is that the cables from the solar panels that go through the inverter and then run through the attic to that back side, where we saw it run down to the meter, so even when we control the power at the meters, there’s still power in the attic,” said Kip.

The location of solar panels might also change the way crews ventilate a home.

“We access the roof with ladders and cut a hole in the roof, basically make a chimney, to get all of the toxic gases and heat out of the house. The panels might be where we would normally ventilate, so we have to work around that,” said Kip.

Companies are mandated to leave three-feet of walking room along the edge of the roof so that firefighters can work safely.

“I feel like we’ve had personalized training now, god forbid anyone should have to come to our house, they know just what to do,” said Falvey, as crews wrapped up the training at her home.

Kip said the SC Fire Academy offers online courses, and the hands-on training, while still new, could be a requirement in the future.

© 2017 WLTX-TV


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