Ever since a fire chief in New Jersey let a warehouse burn for days because of his concerns about dealing with the solar power system on the roof, we are seeing a spate of these stories now migrated to concerns about residential solar as well. We think the risk is greatly overstated, but it turns out that allaying a firefighter’s fear of solar is one more argument for using Enphase microinverters.
We wrote about the New Jersey issue back in September and the fire chief was quoted as saying, “with all that power and energy up there, I can’t jeopardize a guy’s life for that.” Now no one wants to see anyone injured because of a fire, and certainly not because solar was on the structure that was burning. (The cause of the fire has not yet been disclosed.) But was that really the only option—avoid the roof and let the fire burn for days?
Worse still, now we are starting to see a steady drumbeat of similar stories with a residential slant.
Take this story that aired on a local news outlet with the scary title: Firefighters Warn Solar Panels Could Prevent Homes from Being Saved in Blaze. While the homeowner is thrilled to be saving money, he is unaware of the danger he is facing until it is presented to him—by the reporter. But how great is that danger, and what can be done to minimize it?
For one thing, here in California there are already State Fire Marshall guidelines that require set-asides on the roof to allow firefighters access and space to vent the roof as needed, without having to cut into areas covered by solar.
As for the concern about turning the system off so that dangerous amounts of power aren’t present on the roof, well, that is where the benefit of microinverters, such as those that we use from Enphase Energy, comes into play. When you shut off the power at the ground-based AC disconnect switch, the entire array is powered down. The solar conduits coming down from the roof are rendered inert, harmless, with no power present at all. This is the safest possible environment for firefighters with solar and the fire inspectors that we have dealt with readily understand, and appreciate, the difference.
So, should a homeowner pick a solar power system based on avoiding fire danger? Perhaps not; but if you are the sort that worries about such things, you should know that microinverters give you one more benefit—firefighter safety—over older designs. To maximize that benefit, we just need a generally accepted sign to mount on our systems that will let firefighters know what sort of solar system they are facing.
Our friends over at Enphase Energy had a significant announcement a week or so ago, touting how their tried-and-true M215 microinverter had just been improved by redesigning it to feature integrated grounding, just like its bigger sibling, the new M250’s. We wrote about the value of integrated grounding last year when the M250’s were introduced, and it is a really great development, cutting install time, reducing hazards on the roof, and making the installed system safer for everyone. Enphase has even created a dedicated webpage to explain the benefits of integrated grounding. What’s not to love?
Unless, that is, you are the City of Los Angeles. You see, the Building and Safety department of Los Angeles is a universe unto itself, a universe where good news goes to die. To LA, it doesn’t matter that the M250 and the new M215 have been independently tested and found compliant with all of the relevant standards for inverters. No, LA doesn’t care—they insist that these products be submitted to LA for its own testing.
Now just who does this help? Well, presumably the folks who work in LA’s lab get to stay employed but somehow the permitting process shouldn’t be a jobs program. No, all this does is add cost (directly to Enphase who has to jump through these hoops, indirectly to everyone else) and delay into the process. We have sold projects that are delayed in LA while we wait for this nonsense to get resolved. Indeed, it is just this sort of abuse of the process that causes us to have a 7 kW threshold for projects in LA—anything smaller is just not worth the agitation.
To be clear, it doesn’t have to be this way. We have already installed projects in Pasadena and surrounding cities without difficulty using integrated grounding. No one else has had a problem—the units are appropriately listed so you are good to go. But not so in LA.
Everyone talks about how reducing “soft costs” is the key to making solar viable in a post-subsidy world. If so, here’s a prime example of a soft cost that offers zero value to the process and needs to be eliminated—but it is far from an isolated example.
We suspect that the Garcetti Administration could make this go away tomorrow—so why don’t they? Given the Mayor’s claim to green cred, why not call a meeting with appropriate stakeholders: installers (including small installers), manufacturers, and department heads and lets cut through this unnecessary nonsense and make it easier to install rooftop solar in the biggest city in the biggest solar market in the country. It’s about time.
We have used Unirac’s products exclusively since we started in this business some seven years ago. We have worked with Unirac to supply donations to the owner of a wind-damaged array and for the USC team at the Solar Decathlon. We trust their products and believe in the company.
But what we have heard recently leaves us pleading, “say it ain’t so.” In response, here’s our Open Letter to Unirac Management:
To: The Decision-Makers Regarding Solarmount Evolution
From: Jim Jenal, Founder & CEO, Run on Sun
Subject: Say It Ain’t So
Dear Folks -
You may not know me, but many in your company do. I am the owner of a solar installation company in Pasadena, California, and I frequently blog about issues in the solar industry. Today my issue is your apparent decision to discontinue the Solarmount Evolution product. Folks, with all due respect, this is a terrible decision. Please let me explain.
We have always used your products on our projects - whether conventional Solarmount, tilt legs, Clicksys, Fastfoot, or Solarmount Evolution - Unirac has been or brand of choice. We appreciated our shared values - maximizing the durability of the systems that we were installing for our clients.
But one thing about conventional Solarmount always bothered us - the design of the end clamps that you featured.
That design has just never felt right - for a couple of reasons. For one, there’s the angle - no matter what you do, that clamp is never truly perpendicular to the rail. Over time, as things expand and contract in the sun, that nut is almost certain to loosen a bit and that clamp just looks like it longs to go “somewhere else".
But then we encountered a serious failure and that got us worrying about a second issue.
That T-bolt is stainless steel but it is sitting in an extruded aluminum channel. I had seen an overly enthusiastic installer torque that bolt right through the channel - clearly not following procedures, but then there’s lots of folks out there who don’t follow recommended torque settings! But when I saw what could happen when bad installation practices encountered a generational windstorm, I really became concerned.
Here that T-bolt has chewed its way completely through the aluminum channel resulting in a catastrophic failure of the array. When we came upon that failure, we turned to you to help us make it right - which we did, together.
The solution involved your Solarmount Evolution product and, having installed it once, I vowed I would never install conventional Solarmount again. Why? Because you had truly created a product that was superior in every sense: vastly stronger, clearly more secure over time, and even easier to work with on the roof!
Look at the difference between the end clamp on the left versus the one above and ask yourself - which of these would you want securing a solar array to your roof for the next twenty-five years? Not even a close call, is it?
You had done what every quality manufacture strives to do - you had built the better mousetrap. We told everyone we spoke to about the benefits of your new product and we used it exclusively on all of our projects thereafter.
We heard some people complain that it cost more than conventional Solarmount. Frankly, we didn’t notice and we didn’t care. The product was so demonstrably superior that what difference did it make if it cost a few cents/Watt more? We certainly didn’t ever lose any business because we specified it - but I can say with total knowledge that we closed some deals simply because of it.
So now we hear that you are going to discontinue the product altogether.
We would implore you to rethink this decision.
Some products, like some television shows, take a while to catch on with the public. After all, NBC nearly failed to pickup Seinfeld, a program that many critics ultimately considered one of the best ever aired. Solarmount Evolution is that good - but it needs a longer run to gain traction in the industry.
Here’s a suggestion - you are rolling out a new product for use with commercial flat roofs that greatly reduces your costs in providing that solution to the industry. Take some of that money that you are going to save thanks to that new product and plow it back into major marketing for Solarmount Evolution. (Maybe hire Solar Fred to handle the campaign - who better to kick start a product in this field?)
Solarmount Evolution deserves another season - it would be tragic if you were to cancel a hit before it gets a chance to find its audience and shine.
Jim Jenal, Founder & CEO, Run on Sun
We have previously reported on - and been critical of - the handling of defective solar tile systems installed in new “solar” homes built by Centex. Now we are happy to report that after much delay, Centex is stepping up to the plate and replacing defective solar tile systems with new, conventional solar arrays. Here’s our update.
Centex Solar Home in Pleasanton, CA
First some background - between 2006 and 2009, Centex built “solar” homes like the one at the right in Pleasanton, California. These homes featured solar roofing tiles that became the subject of a recall by the Consumer Products Safety Commission and were manufactured by Open Energy Corporation, which became Applied Solar, Inc., which became Applied Solar LLC - which then went bankrupt and ceased operations.
That left Centex to address these problems and as we previously noted, they were taking their time in doing so and were asking homeowners to sign an especially pernicious release of rights before agreeing to undertake repairs. Then this summer, Centex stopped making repairs altogether after a series of fires broke out in homes that had been “repaired". Clearly what was needed was for the old tiles to be completely removed, the roof restored and a new, conventional solar array installed.
Well now we are happy to report that Centex has agreed to do exactly that.
Based on an independent review of the OE-34 panels, Centex is not confident in their long-term viability and safety. Because of this, we are pleased to inform you that we will replace all existing OE-34 solar panels with new solar panels at no cost to homeowners. This includes all homeowners who have previously had their systems repaired.
In short, we believe resuming repairs is simply not sufficient to address the issues with the original solar panel system. When repairs were suspended and investigations underway, all homeowners were instructed to turn off their systems. We remind you to continue to keep your solar system turned off until the new system is installed.
Our goal is to replace all existing solar panel systems by February 2014. This replacement schedule is aggressive, but we have retained several companies to conduct the necessary work that entails: removal of current solar system panels, installation of new roof tiles in their place, and installation of a new raised-panel solar system. We estimate that it will take approximately two days per home for the removal and installation process.
This is very good news indeed and we applaud the decision by Centex to take this step. Finally these homeowners will have the “benefit of their bargain” and once again have the opportunity to live in a solar home.
The letter identified the solar modules to be used as coming from either Hanwha or ET Solar and had links for more information about each of those. Unfortunately, those links appear to be broken so we have uploaded the datasheets for the identified solar modules. Here they are:
We will continue to monitor this story and we encourage affected homeowners to provide us with info about their experiences with this repair and replacement program in the comments below.
We saw a piece today about a fire on a distribution warehouse in New Jersey that was gutted in part because the local fire department was afraid to interact with the solar power system on the warehouse roof. As solar makes greater inroads on commercial buildings, what can we as an industry do to address this concern? (H/T SolarWakeup.com)
The distribution center, owned by Dietz & Watson, was a refrigerated warehouse that supported over 7,000 solar modules according to news reports. From Google we get this image of the center in happier days:
This is a very large commercial array by any measure - even if those are 200 Watt modules you are looking at a 1.4 MW install on the roof, to say nothing of the additional capacity installed in the carports to the west.
It is also a very nicely designed array with clear access paths throughout the roof and plenty of potential areas that could be broken open to allow for venting (although I’m sure from a fire fighter’s perspective, they would always want more).
Sadly, this is how it looked during the fire:
Here is the view of the blaze taken from the raw video recorded by local TV station NBC10:
This image makes clear that the NE quadrant of the building has been extensively damaged - the black area is where the solar panels have been completely destroyed.
The image also makes clear that the fire department chose to fight this fire from the ground, spraying water and foam onto the roof as opposed to going on to the roof itself. (There was no explanation given as to the cause of the fire.)
The local reporting indicated that the fire crews were concerned about possible collapse of the roof due to the amount of water being poured onto the fire. But they also mentioned the concern over possible electrocution:
Firefighters had to pull back at some points because the fully-charged solar panels posed the risk of electrocution.
“With all that power and energy up there, I can’t jeopardize a guy’s life for that,” said [Delanco Fire Chief Ron] Holt.
So what to make of all of this?
There can be no doubt that solar installations have the potential to make the already dangerous business of fighting a fire more hazardous. Strings of solar panels can produce as much as 600 Volts DC and as a general rule, there is no way to shut them off from the ground. While a DC disconnect on the ground could isolate the array from a ground mounted inverter, there is still potential in the conductors leading from the roof to the inverter. If those conductors are shorted together - due to either a fireman’s actions or the fire itself - there is the potential for significant arcing and possibly even electrocution.
Of course, one way to reduce that risk is through the use of microinverters or AC modules. With a microinverter, the only conductor runs are AC which can be safely switched off from the ground meaning that any conductors coming from the roof to the ground will be safe. The individual solar modules can still produce power, but there are no strings to slice into or suddenly short to create a dangerous condition on the roof. While microinverter systems are not generally considered on systems of this size, Enphase recently announced the use of their products on a 2.3 MW commercial array - possibly larger than this one.
Which begs the question - would that have mattered here? Maybe, maybe not. The question really is a function of how well would the local fire department understand the difference? When we talk with local fire inspectors, they are always appreciative of the added safety to be found with microinverter systems but how well does the inspector’s understanding extend to the fire crews reporting to that fire? Would they have trusted that the claimed safety was real and moved more aggressively to fight the fire on the roof? Or would they have elected to play it safe?
The solar industry can work to develop safer products - which microinverters surely are - but that won’t matter if local fire crews aren’t educated as to how best to fight these fires. Interestingly, while local codes require solar installers to provide all sorts of largely useless signage on our arrays - for example, specifying the nominal AC voltage and current as if that would make the least difference to anyone - there is no requirement to indicate whether the type of inverter being used. Absent such signage, how would a local fire crew know what they were facing?
Maybe our friends at Enphase can design a placard to attach to our AC disconnect switches that advises the local fire department that throwing that one switch renders the conductors coming down from the roof safe.
So much of what we must do in the solar industry is education - this is perhaps one area where we need to improve our efforts.