In "How Furniture Design Affects Firefighting, we looked at how the spec'ing out of particular materials can cause headaches for firefighters. Now comes news of another unforeseen troublemaker in the battle to extinguish blazes: Solar panels.
Solar panels of course generate electricity, and are located on roofs. The problem is that roofs are where firefighters will typically "vent" a burning building, to release some air pressure on the fire. But smashing or cutting the holes required for venting presents an issue as firefighters can suddenly be exposed to live electricity, even at nighttime or in the absence of sunlight, from a cut solar panel. If the roof in question is metal, you've now got a live roof covered in human beings now exposed to double jeopardy.
Last week, firefighters in New Jersey arrived at the scene of a burning warehouse. Stymied by the solar panels on the roof, the building continued to burn for 29 hours while firefighters were forced to improvise. According to an article on that blaze in Reuters,
Even when systems are equipped with shutoffs, any light can keep panels and their wires energized, [Consumer Safety Director for Underwriters Laboratories, John] Drengenberg said....Experiments, funded by the Department of Homeland Security, have shown that the light emitted by fire equipment can generate enough electricity in the panels that a firefighter who inadvertently touches an energized wire might not be able to let go, a phenomenon known as "lock on."
What is the solution? Solar panels are only increasing in popularity and are arguably a very important key to sustainable living. And if we could figure out how to universally prevent fires, it would already be on the table. In the meantime, designers and engineers are going to have to work out some safety factors, and more importantly, begin a comprehensive education program with emergency personnel for how to safely destroy their product.