Over the last two decades, solar energy has gained popularity, with those using it confirming that it is not only a reliable alternative source of energy but also an affordable form of energy.
While there is a lot of good that comes from using solar energy, the lingering question is the adverse effects that the use of solar panels may cause.
Experts on solar panels have cited that fire incidents due to solar panels are pretty low, with the ratio being 1 in 10,000. Most people recognize that most solar panels are reasonably safe to use, but there have been a few reports of random fires with their usage.
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However, conclusive research has not been conducted on the contents of the solar panel precautions one needs to make when using them and general solar safety. These are some of the questions that this article will endeavor to explore.
Can Solar Panels Catch On Fire?
In most cases, solar panels are designed with safety in mind and tend to be fireproof on all fronts. That said, the materials that constitute solar panels have raised concern over the years.
While several materials make solar panels, Solar photovoltaic technology, commonly abbreviated as PV, is a popular application used on solar panels. PV materials are useful to harness energy for solar power because they are environment-friendly materials.
Causative Agents Of Fire
Despite the wide application of PV technology on solar panels, its hot spot effects and DC arcs are the causative agents of fire in most solar panel installations.
It is estimated that the risk associated with PV-related fire in solar panels each year is about 2%. Arc faults and spontaneous combustion are the main weaknesses associated with the PV system, linked to most solar panel fires. (Source)
A study showed that solar panels present risks to any building as far as fire is concerned. Not only can the solar panels get on fire, but they can also spread fire rapidly. It is easy for a small fire to transform into a dangerous scenario for occupants of any building and for people trying to control the fire. (Source)
Can Solar Panels Cause A Fire?
Although a rare phenomenon, solar panel fires result from a deficit in the PV system and are usually associated with arc fault and spontaneous combustion. Research has shown that Arc failure is typically a result of installation errors and poor-quality PV modules.
Additionally, spontaneous combustion results from aging solar panels that do not meet industry standards. It is these deficiencies that cause the panels to light up as a result of higher temperatures and chemical reactions. (source)
Solar panel fire is from three sources
Hot Spot Effect
The PV modules in the solar panels tend to suffer from partial shade from surrounding objects. Such objects include but are not limited to leaves, dust, and other objects around the PV modules that may cause shading.
Un-uniform power generation is another source of shading for PV panels, especially when the temperatures are below 5 percent. The hot spot effect usually arises from the shading effect increasing voltage and currents causing the module to ignite.
Cable Aging Effect
Another cause of solar panel fire is the cable aging effect which, as the name suggests, is a result of aging cables. In most circumstances, aged cables lead to arc failures, resulting in device and circuit damage.
Once a DC arc occurs, the solar panels tend to have three main types of arc failures. The three types of arc failures are parallel arc fault, series arc fault, and ground arc fault.
Series arc fault results from a loose device interface resulting in space and current breakdown spacing. Ground arc results from current flowing from live conductor to earth, while parallel arc fault results from the broken line insulation.
Other causes of solar panel fires are generally categorized under other conditions. Essentially, a general natural phenomenon tends to stress the solar panels’ PV modules.
The stress or pressure on the module is usually quite intense, causing them to crack or even rapture, which in turn causes fire. Solar panel PV modules can tolerate a specific degree of pressure above which they crack and rapture, causing solar panel fires.
How Many House Fires Are Caused By Solar Panels?
For every Solar Panel PV installation, there is about a 2% chance that the PV rays will start a fire annually. It is estimated that of this percentage, we have 0.6% of these fires in residential areas, mainly from rooftop solar panels.
It is estimated that in 2018 there was a 36% increase in fire cases due to solar installations compared to the previous year, with most of the fires stemming from residential areas. According to data from the Fire administration department, there have been 155 solar installation fires, with 84 cases accounting for residential installations. (source)
A proposed solution to help proactively combat solar panel fires in residential areas is IR imaging. Leveraging this technology is believed to be ideal for reducing solar panel fires in residential homes.
If fully implemented, homeowners will be expected to have IR imaging scans periodically to asses for solar panel damage and any abnormalities that could quickly spark fires.
What Are The Negatives Of Solar Panels?
Even though solar panels have been widely used to harness solar energy and save homeowners hefty bills, solar panels (especially those made from PV materials) have several flaws. Perhaps the obvious drawback one can experience from using the panels is the expeditious aging process.
The aging poses fire risks to occupants of any building since gaps in current flows are something that can quickly spark fires. Fire rescue for homes with solar panels is also a challenge because of the structural orientation of the panels as well as the increased weight they add to roofing materials causing them to collapse and quickly spread fires during a fire rescue operation.
The Presence Of Toxic Gases
In addition to fire hazards, solar panels tend to emit toxic gases. Most solar panels contain toxic compounds that tend to release toxic substances when burned.
Apart from fires, aging panels also generate a low power supply which means that the quality of power tends to be lower, which may cause systems relying on this power not to function correctly.
Suppose you are relying on the panels to supply critical power to critical electrical systems in your home. In that case, you need to ensure that you periodically conduct a routine inspection of the quality of the solar panels.
Can Solar Panels Overheat?
Overheating of solar panels is a common occurrence in areas with high temperatures as well as solar irradiance. When solar panels overheat, their effectiveness drops to about 25%.
Research on perforated and non-perforated solar panels revealed that drilling holes help lower the solar panels’ surface temperatures.
The study revealed that drilling more holes on the panels’ surface helped reduce the solar panels’ temperatures significantly, which helped to manage the temperatures of the solar panels and prevented them from overheating (source).
It was also interesting to note that the diameter of the holes had to be of a specific size and above or below the size, the solar panels would still experience overheating.
What Causes A Solar System Fire?
Apart from the solar panels, a solar system may by itself start a fire due to several reasons.
- Damaged Wiring
As is common in any electrical system, faulty wiring can easily cause fires, and the solar wiring system is no exception. Loose or poorly connected wires are hazardous in a solar system and can easily cause fires. Naturally, currents flow to flammable material, and this causes them to be fire hazards.
- Faulty Installations
Another popular problem people tend to overlook is faulty solar system installations. It is brought about by not using experienced professionals to do the job.
Using a reputable service provider is essential when using the system since it will ensure that you can prevent fires by having your system installed by a professional. (Source)
- Faulty Products
The use of low-quality products is another source of solar system fire, which you can easily prevent= with the use of industrial quality products. In most cases, low-quality products increase risks associated with faults which in turn causes the system to be a fire risk.
Most solar panel products have a maximum voltage power that they can tolerate; excessive power can easily damage the system and cause them to be a source of fires. Damages to the solar cells can cause overheating, which can also be a source of overvoltage for the system.
How To Prevent Solar Panel Fires?
The adage says prevention is better than cure for solar panels. To enjoy using your solar panels, consider creating a system of preventive measures to ensure that you have a flawless solar-powered system.
Some ways to prevent solar panel fires include but are not limited to the below.
Invest In Quality Products
Ensure that you purchase your solar system from reputable brands and ensure that they also meet industry standards. Investing in high-quality products may be costly initially, but you are sure to invest in good quality products, which will give you value for money.
One way to know that you are investing in quality products is by ensuring that you get a licensed certificate for the products.
Work With Licensed Professionals
Quality products will not be of value if quacks install them. Ensure you go the extra mile and get qualified experts to install the solar system.
Take time to do your due diligence to ensure that the professionals are licensed, have done a similar job previously, have experience doing similar installations, and can provide the after-sale service.
Protect The Solar Panel System
Duly noting that things like dead leaves and animal droppings can cause blockage rendering specific areas hot spots for the fires. Take time to trim leaves and bushes around the solar system to prevent waste from dropping on the panels.
Ensure that you keep animals away from the system to ensure that they do not destroy wiring works that can damage the system and prevent it from working correctly.
Ensure that you regularly conduct routine inspections to pick out potential hazards before they occur. During routine inspections, ensure you are keen on corrosions, damaged parts, and hot spot areas, which can quickly become problematic.
Engage the services of a professional to do the routine inspection as well, as this will ensure that it is easy for them to check on any tear and wear. It is easy for professionals to identify areas for upgrading or replacing items that have been recalled.
Apart from the routine inspections, ensure that you are keen on special inspections, which are ideal after adverse weather conditions. Take time to check on the system after heavy floods, winds, storms, and extreme heat.
Since such adverse conditions can affect the system doing the special inspection will help to ensure that you can pick out any damage or irregularity.
Monitor Your Solar Panel System
Ensure that you keep an eye on your solar monitoring system as well. To ensure that your solar system works flawlessly, get in the habit of taking down recordings associated with the system.
Regularly doing this will ensure that you can pick up any irregularities associated with power surcharges or overvoltages that can quickly become hot spots for any fire. Ideally, you should do this every month, and one can quickly get professionals to monitor the system remotely with the help of IR imaging (source).
Ensuring that you are keen on cleaning the solar panels is equally important to ensure that dust and dirt do not accumulate, especially on the glass of the solar panels. As is the norm with any installations, ensure that you consult with the manual to use the right products and clean products the right way.
Stay In The Know
Ensure you are also keen on receiving updates on the solar system in your area so that it is easy for you to know any hazards that you should look out for when operating the system.
The solar panel system can be sensitive in how installed, and it is vital to ensure proper planning.
Ensure that you consult with professionals to ensure that you can pick placements of solar panels that are ideal for your home in light of prevailing weather conditions in your area. It is to avoid overheating from solar irradiance and overheating of the panels.
Consider perforating the panels if your area is prone to overheating. Consult with experts to ensure that the structural integrity of the solar panels works for you and not against you.
Solar panels fires are rare but need to be taken into consideration when making the solar committment. Preventive measures are your best bet to ensure that you keep your home and occupants safe. Simple routine checks and cleaning habits ensure that your solar system continues to work correctly. Investing in quality products and working with licensed professionals is critical to ensuring that you can prevent fire hazards.
Ensuring that you consult with professionals and have a plan for putting up the solar system is essential and will ensure that it is easy for you to avoid common mistakes associated with putting up the solar system in the wrong way.
Take time to ensure that you read about solar safety laws in your area so that it is easy to know the steps to take in case of any irregularity.
Solar monitoring systems also come in handy in ensuring that it is easy for you to monitor any irregularity through IR imaging systems. It is also helpful in comparing data from one period to another since they provide tale signs of any irregularity that can easily be hot spots for fire hazards.