Firefighter Safety and Photovoltaic Systems

Firefighter Safety and Photovoltaic Installations Research Project Released

November 29, 2011


Under the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Assistance to Firefighter Grant Fire Prevention and Safety Research Program, Underwriters Laboratories examined fire service concerns of photovoltaic (PV) systems. These concerns include firefighter vulnerability to electrical and casualty hazards when mitigating a fire involving photovoltaic (PV) modules systems. The need for this project is significant acknowledging the increasing use of photovoltaic systems, growing at a rate of 30% annually. As a result of greater utilization, traditional firefighter tactics for suppression, ventilation and overhaul have been complicated, leaving firefighters vulnerable to potentially unrecognized exposure. Though the electrical and fire hazards associated with electrical generation and distribution systems is well known, PV systems present unique safety considerations. A very limited body of knowledge and insufficient data exists to understand the risks to the extent that the fire service has been unable to develop safety solutions and respond in a safe manner. This fire research project developed the empirical data that is needed to quantify the hazards associated with PV installations. This data provides the foundation to modify current or develop new firefighting practices to reduce firefighter death and injury. A functioning PV array was constructed at Underwriters Laboratories in Northbrook, IL to serve as a test fixture. The main test array consisted of 26 PV framed modules rated 230 W each (5980 W total rated power). Multiple experiments were conducted to investigate the efficacy of power isolation techniques and the potential hazard from contact of typical firefighter tools with live electrical PV components.

Existing fire test fixtures located at the Delaware County Emergency Services Training Center were modified to construct full scale representations of roof mounted PV systems. PV arrays were mounted above Class A roofs supported by wood trusses. Two series of experiments were conducted. The first series represented a room of content fire, extending into the attic space, breaching the roof and resulting in structural collapse. Three PV technologies were subjected to this fire condition – rack mounted metal framed, glass on polymer modules, building integrated PV shingles, and a flexible laminate attached to a standing metal seam roof. A second series of experiments was conducted on the metal frame technology. These experiments represented two fire scenarios, a room of content fire venting from a window and the ignition of debris accumulation under the array.

The results of these experiments provide a technical basis for the fire service to examine their equipment, tactics, standard operating procedures and training content. Several tactical considerations were developed utilizing the data from the experiments to provide specific examples of potential electrical shock hazard from PV installations during and after a fire event.

Research Project: Firefighter Safety and Photovoltaic Systems
Report Title: Firefighter Safety and Photovoltaic Installations Research Project
Report Authors: Robert Backstrom and David Dini
Download the Report:
Release Date: November 29, 2011

Firefighter Safety and Photovoltaic Systems