Solar panels installed on rooftops have become widely embraced for their eco-friendly and sustainable energy contribution. They come with various advantages, such as cost savings on electricity and a diminished environmental impact.
Nevertheless, there has been a growing worry surrounding the safety of rooftop solar setups, with reports suggesting an increase in solar-related fires.
Therefore, today, we will investigate tips to prevent rooftop solar fires in Australia. We will soon find out whether rooftop solar fires are on the rise and try to offer practical guidance for homeowners safeguarding their solar installations.
Are Solar Fires Increasing in Australian Rooftops?
Some concerns were raised regarding solar fires recently. A few cases were filed in Victoria, New South Wales and Northern Territory. It’s vital to address these situations carefully. Solar panels aren’t dangerous in general.
However, they require proper installation, maintenance, and regular inspection to minimise associated risks like any electrical system.
In Victoria, approximately 3,000 house fires take place annually, as reported by the Country Fire Authority.
There are a significant number of solar-powered households in Victoria. These stand at around 510,000 by the end of 2022. The percentage of these households experiencing a fire is approximately 0.01%.
Only four DC isolator fires were documented. But this year’s total marks a significant increase. Specifically, the DC isolator component of solar panel systems has been responsible for fires at 11 different properties in the Northern Territory this year.
These increased incidents have prompted NT Work Safe to issue a safety alert. They also released 22 infringement notices for solar panel installations between January and August.
Are Only DC Isolators Responsible for Rooftop Fires?
The primary factor behind rooftop solar fires is faulty electrical units. It includes DC isolators, inverters, and wiring.
DC isolators disconnect solar panels from the other electrical system for maintenance or safety purposes. Inverters are essential for transforming DC electricity into AC electricity from solar panels for your home.
Storms or severe weather can damage solar panels, rendering them a potential fire hazard. Also, when a solar panel system is not installed correctly, it increases the fire risk. Solar panel systems also require regular maintenance to function safely.
Therefore, we can see that DC isolators are not the only fire hazard components. Let’s go through them in detail.
Causes of Rooftop Solar Fires
Water Infiltration in DC Isolators
DC isolators, especially those on rooftops, are a well-documented source of fires within PV systems.
Traditionally, rooftop isolators were authorised in Australia to assist in the disconnection of the system at the solar panel array. It meant they had to be located on the roof.
However, these rooftop isolators are more vulnerable to damage due to their exposure to the elements.
Additionally, their less ideal-placement can result in issues going unnoticed until it’s too late. While recent changes permit alternatives to rooftop isolators, millions have already been installed.
Proper installation methods to maintain the isolator enclosures’ improved protection allow water to stay intact inside the section.
This can lead to the erosion of terminals. In heavily overflown isolators, it can also damage internal components.
When the isolator provides electricity in these conditions, it increases the chance of leading to fires.
Several common entry points for water in DC isolators include:
Open Connections: Failure to properly seal units allows water to enter the connection point slowly. All entries, including caps for unused entries, should be securely closed.
Uncovered Screws: When screws are not sealed properly, water can seep in gradually from the opposite side of the screw.
Incorrect Cable Glands: Multi-hole cable glands can result in fire hazards. Unused holes in the glands should be properly plugged.
Improper Enclosure Penetrations: Drilling holes without properly sealing them can allow water to infiltrate. Infiltrations on any surface carry a higher risk of water dripping onto components.
Over-tightened Screws: It leads to cracked openings or loose screws, causing ineffective seals. Both scenarios occur when the manufacturer’s settings are not followed, enabling water infiltration.
Ensuring that components and other connections are correctly tightened is essential for the smooth flow of electrical current.
When prescribed torque settings are disregarded or when connections are left loose, it can lead to the formation of hot joints. The heat generated can melt the plastic surrounding the cables, setting the stage for a fire.
Additionally, paying attention to the length and positioning of cables within the enclosure is crucial to prevent any damage to the wires.
Each plug and socket constitutes a connection, and loose or mixing connectors from different brands and models can also result in a hot joint on the rooftop.
While solar modules are designed to withstand various environmental conditions, damage to the module can induce hidden internal cracks.
Microcracks, which may not be visible, can develop within the module’s cells. It could lead to hotspots. These hotspots, in turn, have the potential to ignite fires.
Cracks and micro-cracks in the cells can arise from various sources, including:
- Impact damage
- Installation of earthing lugs against the module’s back sheet, causing abrasion.
- Damage is caused by individuals walking on the modules or during improper transportation.
An alternate way for damage is to separate the module’s back sheet. It results in water penetration into the solar panel and a short circuit of the module’s current to the earth.
While this typically doesn’t lead to fires, it decreases system efficiency and creates potential hazards on the roof.
How to Prevent Rooftop Solar Fires?
For safer solar panel installation and maintenance, consider the following:
Choose Certified Manufacturers and Installers: With the growing solar industry, ensure your installers are certified by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) to reduce fire risk.
Adhere to the National Electric Code (NEC): Ensure your installers follow NEC guidelines for safe electrical design and installation.
Opt for Non-Plastic Materials: Avoid panels with plastic frames and back sheets, as these can fuel fires.
Assess Roof Fire Rating: Use Class A roof coverings for safer installations, as lower classes may have combustible insulation, exacerbating rooftop fires.
Develop Emergency Plans: Plan rapid shutdown and rooftop access in collaboration with the fire department to aid firefighting efforts.
Maintain Adequate Roof Space: Ensure panels have enough space on the roof to allow firefighters to ventilate the building and tackle fires.
Inspect Connectors: Check connectors to prevent electrical failures and potential fires due to incompatible cables.
Schedule Regular Maintenance: Regularly test and maintain solar panels to identify and address wear and tear issues.
Address Weather-Related Risks: Consider protection against physical damage from weather events, such as hail, wind storms, wildfires, or earthquakes, depending on your location.
Despite potential risks, adopting renewable solar power offers business opportunities, but it’s crucial to understand and address associated risks and challenges.
Extra Tips to Prevent Solar Fires:
- Equip your home with a fire extinguisher and blanket, and ensure everyone understands how to operate them.
- Create and routinely rehearse a fire escape strategy.
- Confirm that your home insurance policy covers rooftop solar fires.
- Maintain the cleanliness of your solar system, keeping it free of debris.
- Trim any trees or objects that may cast shadows on your solar panels.
- Install a solar isolator switch to disconnect the system from the grid in a fire emergency.
What to do if There’s a Rooftop Solar Fire?
In the unfortunate event of a rooftop solar fire, you should immediately contact the fire department by dialling 000.
Once the fire has been set, arranging for a qualified technician to inspect your solar panel system is necessary. This inspection serves the purpose of identifying the fire’s root cause and addressing any required repairs.
Rooftop solar panel systems provide safe and environmentally friendly improvements to your home when installed and maintained correctly.
While concerns regarding rooftop solar fires exist, it is essential to recognise that most solar installations meet safety standards and are dependable. It is advisable to take proactive steps, to keep your system from any potential issues and ensure your home’s safety.
Steps such as collaborating with reputable installers, investing in high-quality components, and conducting routine maintenance checks are wise.
Following these measures can help you take advantage of solar energy while minimising the risks.
Is there Any Other Fire Risk Related to solar panels?
Your solar system is essentially an electrical setup; a certified installer should set it up. A proper installation typically leads to a secure and efficient system.
Suppose you have a solar panel system and have reservations about the installation’s quality. In that case, we suggest contacting Solar Emporium or a licensed electrician for a thorough system inspection.
Like any other electrical system, consistent maintenance and regular monitoring are essential for performance and safety.