Prepared for solar power? S.A. firefighters lacking procedures

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by Marvin Hurst / KENS 5

Bio | Email | Follow: @marvinhurst

kens5.com

Posted on November 21, 2011 at 11:00 PM

Updated Monday, Nov 21 at 8:42 PM

The number of San Antonians who have solar powered homes has dramatically increased over the past five years.

"We've gone from seven, eight installations five years ago to more than 500 now," said Lanny Sinkin, executive director of Solar San Antonio.

However, there are no solar communities even as builders make it an option as they construct new subdivisions.

"Here in Texas it's a huge industry," said Chris Pitman, the foreman of Hill Country Ecopower. "San Antonio is leading the fight to put solar panels up on top of roofs."

The two solar advocates believe this is an industry waiting to be fully embraced by consumers. Sinkin said what was formerly a rich man's amenity to cut energy costs has become an affordable option for more people. Locally, he credits a rebate offered by CPS Energy. There is also a tax incentive for making your home an alternative energy residence.

The green phenomenon may be moving a little faster than fire services can keep up with. The San Antonio Fire Department does not have a policy on the books to deal with such fires at homes with electrical panels. However, their records show they have not had to battle such a blaze.

According to statistics, structures fires caused by solar powered homes are rare. Yet, the rate of fires happening by any other means puts the energy efficient houses in the same category as a house without solar panels. Fire officials said the homes are not immune to regular blazes.

In San Antonio, fire fighting at such a house has not been a major consideration for firefighters because this is an exception and not a rule. Assistant fire Chief David Martinez said they are trained to look for hazards at all fires.

"There are many, many hazards," he said.

Martinez said they are aware the solar panel homes or photovoltaic structures (PV) are energized with electricity. That means fire fighters know to stay away from them and treat them as a charged residence.

"These new systems are going to require that first responders have a good sense of how to approach this with security in mind and safety in mind," said Pitman, who is also an emergency medical technician.

Structures that have solar panels can conduct 600 volts of direct current. According to a Colorado State University high voltage safety manual, a shock greater than 600 volts results in dangerous current levels including a chance of electrocution.

The standard in solar buildings is to have a clearly labeled disconnect switch to kill the flow of solar powered electricity into the house in case of fires and other instances. However, it's been discovered that doesn't stop all of the electricity.

"There's still the flow of the panels down to that disconnect switch," Sinkin said.

He said there are areas in the country where they are considering a DC switch on the roof as a second measure of safety that would completely take the panels down. It would add an extra layer of security to  fire fighters.

KENS 5's inquiry about tackling fires at solar panel structures prompted SAFD to research the issue with fire departments in Dallas, Houston and Austin. They say none of these departments have a policy or training on the books.

Because the number of solar homes is growing in the Alamo City, SAFD said they are adding their own layer of protection for fire fighters.

"I'm going to get those addresses (of solar homes) and we're going to put those addresses into our computerated dispatch," Martinez said. "When firefighters are responding they won't have to look on the roof."

He said the computer's notes will show which homes are solar powered.

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