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Firefighters Warn Solar Panels Could Prevent Homes From Being Saved In Blaze

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LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Firefighters are warning homeowners about the hazards their energy efficient solar panels pose to crews, potentially preventing them from putting out blazes.

As KCAL9’s Andrea Fujii reports, a fire at an industrial complex outside Philadelphia burned for 29 hours because firefighters say they couldn’t get to the roof since it was covered with energized solar panels.

And L.A. County Fire Inspector Scott Miller says that while there have been no known incidents like that in SoCal, firefighters are now training for how to deal with structures that have the technology.

“We just have to operate with extreme caution – make sure we’re communicating with each other,” Miller said.

Miller explained solar panels add increased weight on roofs, and that most panels contain materials firefighters consider dangerous.

“When we have crews going inside and when we have crews going up on the roof we’re running the risk of having a structural collapse,” he said. “We should have our face pieces on and also when they’re exposed to fire they also release harmful chemicals into the atmosphere.”

Panels are also energized, creating up to 600 volts of electricity. And their on/off switch may be separate from the home fuse box.

“So it’s really important for us not to touch any of the exposed wires because you’re running the risk of getting electrocuted,” Miller said, noting that it can be difficult to know if a house has panels when they’re not visible from the street.

Firefighters say having standardized signage outside the home would help to alert crews, especially at night.

Homeowner Tom Davila was surprised to hear that solar panels can also pose a danger if his home were to catch fire. His solar installer recommended homeowners post diagrams for firefighters to notify them where solar panel boxes are located.

While he admitted he was unaware of the hazards, Davila still says that for him it’s worth the risk.

“When you brought it to my attention I didn’t know anything about that, so I probably would think a lot more people don’t know about that,” he said, noting that since installing panels in his home four years ago, his electricity bills have dropped significantly.

“Usually my electricity bill was running about $800 every two months so it’s cut it down to about five,” Davila said. “I think the benefits it’s been providing – I think are really great.”

Firefighters are meanwhile using instructional videos in their training.

“From our department’s perspective, we’re just going to continue educating our personnel on how to work with them,” Miller said.

The Solar Energy Industries Association released this statement in part: “We’re working diligently to better educate firefighters about how solar works.”

The organization said employees are also “working to improve fire safety through the development of building codes and product standards.”

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