Solar panels imperil firefighters

As solar panels pop up with more frequency on San Francisco rooftops, firefighters face dangerous new risks from the sun-drenched installations.

The number of buildings in San Francisco with rooftop solar panels roughly doubled over two years to more than 1,300, city figures show.

A city program called GoSolarSF, which is being suspended due to a lack of funds, set aside $9.5 million over the past 18 months to partially subsidize the costs of private rooftop solar panel installations. State and federal assistance continues to be provided.

GoSolarSF is widely credited by industry members with driving a rapid uptake of solar technology in The City.

That helped reduce power bills and greenhouse gas emissions, but it also had the unintended consequence of exposing firefighters to new hazards.

Solar panels remain energized by the sun after they lose their connection with the grid, but rooftop panels are often not visible from the street and firefighters don’t always realize they are present.

The San Francisco Fire Department began training its firefighters and other city officials last week to help them recognize telltale signs that solar panels are on top of a flame-engulfed building.

Firefighters dealing with a blaze often punch a hole in the roof at its highest point to allow hot gases and smoke to seep out of the building to help occupants survive, according to Matt Paiss, a San Jose Fire Department captain with solar panel installation experience who provided the training.

“Over the years, we’d go up on the roof and we’d start to see solar panels,” Paiss said. “If a firefighter were to try to break one of the modules with their axe, they could be exposed to high voltages during the daytime.”

The shock would not necessarily be strong enough to cause major direct harm to a firefighter, but it could provide enough of a jolt to knock them off-balance, which could lead to a dangerous fall, Paiss said.

During two days of federally funded training led last week by Paiss, roughly 80 San Francisco firefighters and other officials were trained at a Pacific Gas and Electric Corp. facility to recognize solar-panel-powered buildings, Fire Department spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge said.

“We also developed an operational guide for the Fire Department that’s going to be sent out with a video to all the stations,” Talmadge said.

jupton@sfexaminer.com

Sun signs

How firefighters detect rooftop solar panels:

Inverter that changes direct current solar power to alternating current

Conduit and wiring

Labeling on electrical panel

Solar panels on roof

Source: Lee & Associates Rescue Inc.

 

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