Can Solar Panels Cause Fires?

Can Solar Panels Cause Fires? Guide to Solar Systems Fire Safety

Ian Mutuli
Updated on

With over 2 million solar power installations distributed in the entire U.S., many people may have growing concerns over fire safety. And that poses the question, can solar panels cause fires? Remarkably, solar panel system fires are rare. Nevertheless, many homeowners and business owners like to be informed of all the risks, including solar panel fires.

It is essential to note that even though you can install solar panels properly and in compliance with the current safety codes, solar fires do happen. Luckily, there are several safety processes involved to ensure safety.

How does solar panel cause fires, and what are the safety measures? Let’s look at solar panel system fires in detail.

Do Solar Panels Cause Fires

Solar fires

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When installed properly, PV solar panels do not cause fires. Most PV modules are tested by Underwriters Laboratories (UL). UL subjects them to the rigors of everyday use before they are certified. In the rare occasions where PV modules have been implicated in house fires, the cause has been electrical arcing due to faulty wiring, improper installation, or insufficient insulation.

What Causes Solar Panel Fires

Solar panels have been in use in the U.S. for several decades now. Notably, only a few fires can be linked to PV modules. Unfortunately, electrical systems often risk causing fires, and solar panels are no exemption. However, if you understand what causes fires, you can eliminate the problem.

Causes of solar panel fires

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Solar power panel fires cannot start independently. Fires caused by solar panels have been associated with poorly installed panels, solar panel system sensors, and defective junction boxes, among other things.

a) Poor Installation

 Poor installation of solar panel systems is the most common cause of solar panel fires. For instance, as with all electrical systems, incorrect seaming of connectors can cause arcing between conductors and the ground and lead to hot spots within the systems. This can result in overheating and ignition of nearby flammable materials.

A professional must therefore install solar panels, following the instructions and using the appropriate equipment.

b) Defective Connections

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A defective junction box overheating is the main factor that causes fire outbreaks. The junction box is located where electrical cables connect to the solar panel. If the junction box is of poor quality or the wiring is not properly done, it can overheat and cause a fire. This can be prevented by regularly checking and maintaining the solar panels

Other reasons why solar panels can cause fires are;

  • Poorly designed systems
  • Faulty products
  • Over-voltage
  • Power surges
  • Lightening

Every home and business owner must know that solar PV systems contain live wires with electricity. Therefore, the correct configurations must be followed when making the connections.

Also, the wires should be the right ones for the job. All wires, too, need adequate insulation to avoid issues. Failure to which can cause short circuits, arc faults, reverse currents, and ground faults leading to a fire. It’s worth noting that these problems are similar to those encountered when installing electricity from the grid in your home or business.

How to Prevent Solar Panel Fires

Solar panels

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Some of the safety measures that you can take include:

i) Choose Experienced Solar PV Installers

A qualified solar installer is expected to have a good reputation in the area. Apart from looking at their reputation and years of experience, the solar installer should have the required licenses. This ascertains that they have trusted businesses and are good at what they do. Additional industry certificates are also an indication of a well-trained workforce.

ii) Get Quality Solar Panels and Parts

The temptation to buy low-quality solar panels and parts is high because of the low price offer. They are affordable, but you should avoid them at all costs. Such panels can malfunction and cause fire, leading to higher costs in the long run.

Use quality solar panels to avoid this issue. Such solar panels also come with long-term warranties from manufacturers. The same applies to all the parts that make up your solar panel system. Intrinsically, you should ensure you do not choose counterfeit frames and mounting systems.

iii) Maintain Your Solar System Regularly

A working solar panel system, like any electrical system, needs regular maintenance. Regularly check out any damages from rodents, pests, and other small animals. Look for cable holes and make repairs to avoid future problems.

iv) Avoid DIY Solar Installation

Often, people can rely on DIY solar installation. Even though you may reduce installation costs, any error during installation can lead to fire risks in the future. Solar panel systems are complex and should be handled by trained electricians or solar PV installation experts. This ensures  safety and reduces the risk of solar panels catching fire

Photovoltaic Solar Panels and House Fires

Solar panel house fire

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PV systems may be a fire hazard, especially if firefighters are unaware that a system is installed in the house. Some of these hazards are as follows:

1. The conduit from PV panels to an inverter may remain live with direct current even after the main service panel has been shut off. As a result, firefighters may unknowingly sever live lines making them vulnerable to electrical shock. Some may carry a “hot stick” to aid them in finding live wires, but this does not detect direct currents.

2. Solar panels and batteries contain lethal chemicals that, if released in a fire, are dangerous if inhaled.

3. PV modules are slippery and pose a slip-and-fall risk to technicians, inspectors, and firefighters.

4. Solar panels may block main points and pathways that technicians, inspectors, and firefighters would use to mount, navigate and dismount from a roof.

5. PV modules may inhibit the ventilation of a fire in prime roof locations.

6. The extra weight of a solar panel array may lead to roof collapse if the structure’s integrity is already compromised by fire.

Frequently Asked Questions

Rooftop solar panels

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i) How Often do Solar Panels Cause Fires

Even though there are no clear statistics on fires caused by rooftop PV systems in the United States, a solar system suddenly bursting into flames is rare. Based on a report detailing fire risks in Germany, 48% of solar panel-related fires are caused by the system itself.

ii) Am I Putting My Home at Risk by Installing a Rooftop PV System

Like any electrical system, solar systems properly installed by experts shouldn’t pose any substantial risk to your space. The National Solar Licensing Database provides guidelines about state-specific licensing requirements for solar system installers.

In addition, experts may be certified by the Board of Certified Energy Practitioners program, which provides authorizations for those working with PV and solar heating technologies.

iii) Are there Physical Protections that can be Installed to Minimize Fire Risks

Shutting down PV systems as per the National Electric Code requirements will protect consumers and first responders. Essentially, there should be clear labelling in the building or home indicating the power lines connected to the PV system and where the different components are. This will enable firefighters to get to the power lines quickly and easily.

iv) Is there Any Special Equipment to be Used when Installing Solar Panels

Whether your solar PV is a backup generator, isolated battery storage, or grid-connected system, it should be installed in accordance with current safety codes and standards.

v) What kind of Insurance do I Need for My Solar Panel System

The rooftop solar panels are normally attached to the property and are considered part of it. Therefore, the homeowner’s insurance policies also cover the solar panel system. Alternatively, you might need an additional policy if the panels are ground-mounted or on a carport. Check with your insurance provider.

 vi) Do Solar Panels Pose a Fire Hazard

Solar panels pose an extremely low fire hazard. As low as 1 incident per 10 000 installations. So a house equipped with properly installed solar panels will not catch fire.

Final Thought

Solar panel fire

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While there’s no agreed-upon probability for solar panel fires, millions of safely installed systems worldwide prove that solar system fire is very rare. However, before installing solar panels on your building, it is important to fully understand the risks involved, the leading causes of solar system fires, how to prevent them, and how to insure your assets.

The small fire risk of your solar system shouldn’t be enough to turn off solar installation. It is no riskier than any other electrical system in your building. So as long as you partner with a trusted and licensed solar expert, you shouldn’t worry. Moreover, solar panels have more benefits compared to its drawbacks.

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Ian Mutuli

About the author

Ian Mutuli

Founder and Managing Editor of Archute. He is also a graduate architect from The University of Nairobi, Kenya.