Fire dept. refreshes solar panel training after 13News Now investigation

A unique challenge for the fire department

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WVEC) -- Firefighters have found they need to change their tactics if they battle a fire at a building with solar panels.

The panel technology's additional weight and the threat it could be pulsing with electricity can put crews' lives at risk.

In 2013, hundreds of firefighters banded together to put out flames and smoke that poured out of a warehouse in New Jersey. At some moments, they had to let the fire burn, afraid of the danger the 7,000-panel array presented.

Members of the Virginia Beach Fire Department said a 13News Now investigation was the motivation for refreshing firefighters' training, making sure first responders knew how to handle the challenges and threats solar panels can present.

Captain Ray Chisnell, a firefighter of 34 years, installed the energy-saving technology on his home.  

“I was looking at not only using a little less electricity, you know, trying to improve the environment a little bit, but also to try to get my electric bill down,” said Chisnell.

The captain's solar panel array serves as the backdrop for the new Virginia Beach Frontline Firefighter training video.

The panels added about 600 lbs.to the roof of Chisnell's home.

“That's the weight of about three firefighters,” Chisnell explained. “So if you have three firefighters, plus the extra 600 pounds of solar panels and it could create a situation where you need to be careful.”

Chisnell told us if firefighters need to be so mindful to avoid a roof collapse from the extra weight, they might not be able to get up there to create ventilation.

“You get all that heated gas and stuff,” Chisnell said. “If you don't get it out of there, it can start to ignite.”

To explain the shock danger in the video, Virginia Beach Fire Department worked with Solar Services Inc., the company that installed Chisnell's system.

“If the sun is shining, even if it's cloudy or raining, and you have solar electricity, you're always going to be generating electricity,” solar consultant Arthur Fichter said.

One conduit brings power from the solar panels on the roof into an inverter. The inverter changes it and brings power into the home through another conduit. There is a switch on the converter, which can shut off power from the inverter to the home. There is no way to do that on the side with the conduit from the solar panels to the inverter, so that line is always live.

“The kind of voltage that we're talking about with solar power generation is 600 volts, and that's certainly enough to very, very seriously injure a firefighter or anybody else,” Fichter explained.

That's exactly what the Virginia Beach Fire Department wants to avoid. Officials are reminding firefighters of the steps they can take to ensure their safety. They want emergency responders to assume the system always is live and to treat it that way.

While most of the danger from solar panels comes during daylight hours, experts warn you still need to be careful at night. Some systems have battery back-ups, which means they also are storing the energy generated. They still can be live even when the sun is down.

© 2017 WVEC-TV


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