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Solar panels proving to be dangerous to firefighters

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Updated: 9/29/2013 10:10 am
PIEDMONT, Calif. (KTVU) -- In a fire, seconds count, and that was why firefighters were speaking out Saturday about the consequences of an added obstacle sprouting up on Bay Area rooftops: solar panels.

Solar panels covered part of the roof of a Piedmont home that was destroyed by a 2-alarm fire on Tuesday.

The cause of the fire was still under investigation Saturday, but Piedmont Fire Chief Warren McLaren was clear with reporters after the blaze was extinguished that the home’s solar panels made fighting the fire that much more difficult.

“Oh absolutely, it made it hard on the roof,” said McLaren.

Concern over solar panels prompted a 2010 report from the Fire Protection Research Foundation that said that the panels were not only potential hazards for tripping or slipping, but the additional weight from the panels contributed to the possibility that the roof would collapse.

Also, the report stated that solar panels could help spread a fire’s flames and if they burn, they release dangerous fumes.

Additionally, thermal systems that heat water could scald unsuspecting fire fighters and photo voltaic systems pose an electrical hazard to working crews.

Piedmont Fire Capt. Dave Swan told KTVU Saturday that solar-powered systems can pose a threat to firefighters even if crews shut off the flow of power from PG&E and the panels.

“We know that even if we find the switch, to shut off the photo-voltaic flow into the house that there's still energy all the way from the panels down to the switch,” said Swan.

As of Saturday, the State of California was considering new building codes and firefighters say they're hoping those new codes will reflect their concerns about solar power installation.

“We have great hopes that it will do two things: it'll make it easier for people to safely install photo-voltaics so we can see more friendly energy being used, and it will make it safer for firefighters to work as well,” said Swan.

Fire officials told KTVU that until the building codes catch up, the key for consumers considering solar was to find reputable installers and check with their city's fire department for their recommendations.
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