So­lar pan­els present chal­lenges to fire­fight­ers

Ed­u­ca­tion, train­ing pro­gram de­vel­ops as ar­rays pop up on more homes

Maryland Independent - - Business - By DAR­WIN WEIGEL Twit­ter: @somd_bized­i­tor

It sur­prised long­time Calvert County fire­man Tim Dele­hanty when he found out that light­ing up a night­time fire scene with flood­lights could put his fel­low fire­fight­ers in dan­ger. The lights and strobes on the trucks can en­er­gize the so­lar pan­els pop­ping up on South­ern Mary­land rooftops.

“Who would have thought it?” the Prince Fred­er­ick Vol­un­teer Fire Depart­ment as­sis­tant fire chief said. “What’s one of the first things we do when we show up at a fire at night­time? We light the place up. Here we are plac­ing our­selves in greater jeop­ardy. We didn’t know. You have to cover [the pan­els]. It’s un­real as to the po­si­tion it places you in. You just don’t know.”

It’s one of sev­eral things he’s learned about so­lar panel in­stal­la­tions in the last two years or so work­ing with Brian Lazarchick, safety di­rec­tor at South­ern Mary­land Elec­tric Co­op­er­a­tive. The two met when Lazarchick was go­ing through Lead­er­ship Mary­land train­ing in 2014 and Dele­hanty gave a pre­sen­ta­tion to the group in his role as fa­cil­i­ties su­per­vi­sor and lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port at the Mary­land Fire and Res­cue In­sti­tute at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, Col­lege Park. Since then, they have been work­ing on a train­ing and ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram to in­form first re­spon­ders, and home­own­ers, of the dan­gers of work­ing around so­lar pan­els and ac­tive elec­tric grid con­nec­tions.

“We saw there was a huge prob­lem and we didn’t re­ally have all the an­swers of what the St. Mary’s, Calvert and Charles county fire de­part­ments were sup­posed to be do­ing around these sit­u­a­tions,” Lazarchick said dur­ing an in­ter­view last week at his Hugh­esville of­fice. He said more than 3,000 homes in the SMECO ser­vice area now have so­lar pan­els.

“If you drive through pretty much any part of the South­ern Mary­land any­more, you’re find­ing these sys­tems pop­ping up on peo­ple’s roofs right and left,” Dele­hanty said. “Every­body was talk­ing about it but no­body was glean­ing any in­for­ma­tion, no­body was putting any­thing out there.”

Lazarchick and his util­ity com­pany col­leagues start­ing get­ting an in­creas­ing amount of ques­tions af­ter the so­lar in­stal­la­tion mar­ket be­gan heat­ing up in 2013, par­tic­u­larly when they were giv­ing “Hot Line” demon­stra­tions to fire­fight­ers around the re­gion. The Hot Line Demon­stra­tion is a trailer with a “mini-neigh­bor­hood” elec­tric grid that can be en­er­gized to show first re­spon­ders and oth­ers the dan­gers of touch­ing parts of the sys­tem.

“We no­ticed as we were go­ing out to the dif­fer­ent fire de­part­ments, we would give our Hot Line Demon­stra­tion and the fire de­part­ments would be ask­ing us what they need to do when they come across these houses that have all these so­lar cells on the roofs,” he said. “Hon­estly, at the time, we didn’t know much about it. We didn’t have an­swers. We just gave the fail­safe re­sponse to stay away from it; treat it as if it’s en­er­gized and it can cause sig­nif­i­cant in­jury to you.”

Their re­search brought up is­sues of “slip, trip and fall” haz­ards from the pan­els them­selves and the con­duit the elec­tric ca­bles run through, Lazarchick said, as well as is­sues with added rooftop weight — 4 ½ pounds per square inch — which leads to quicker roof fail­ures in fires. There’s also the con­cern of toxic and volatile fumes from both the pan­els burn­ing and lead acid bat­ter­ies over­heat­ing in sys­tems with stored en­ergy ca­pa­bil­ity — hy­dro­gen gas and hy­dro­gen sul­fide, to name two. Few sys­tems in the re­gion have bat­tery stor­age but that could change in the fu­ture.

But the big­gest con­cern was the elec­tric­ity flow­ing out of the pan­els in the day­time and at night with enough flood­lights aimed at them. The dan­ger ex­ists on the rooftop as well as in the home where the power is de­signed to flow.

While SMECO has no reg­u­la­tory role in whether some­one in­stalls so­lar pan­els, it is in­formed of the in­stal­la­tion and in­spects the re­quired grid dis­con­nect — that’s the switch that al­lows two-way power flow be­tween SMECO’s elec­tric lines and the home. It’s also the only sure way to stop the power flow from the so­lar pan­els into the home or onto the grid.

The panel ar­rays can gen­er­ate up to 240 volts and typ­i­cally gen­er­ate one amp of power, Lazarchick said. “One amp is more than suf­fi­cient to cause hu­man in­jury,” he said. “It takes less than half an amp to stop your heart.”

The train­ing pro­gram shows the type of dis­con­nect switch used in the SMECO ser­vice area and where they are typ­i­cally lo­cated so they can sim­ply be turned off, cut­ting power to the home’s fuse box. To ren­der the pan­els in­ert, fire­fight­ers will have to cover them with black plas­tic or a tarp to staunch the flow of elec­trons.

“It goes over ev­ery­thing they need to do and it gives a back­ground of so­lar in­stal­la­tions,” Lazarchick said of the train­ing pre­sen­ta­tion. “It’s not 100 per­cent done yet but I ex­pect they’re go­ing to start train­ing this sum­mer. In our Hot Line Demon­stra­tion since [do­ing the re­search], we’ve been pro­vid­ing the fire de­part­ments and first re­spon­ders with the in­for­ma­tion that we’ve learned through this [project].”

Both Lazarchick and Dele­hanty said the fruits of their la­bor will be avail­able to any­one with an in­ter­est in the­ses sys­tems and those that work around them. Both SMECO and MFRI will host the pre­sen­ta­tion on their web­sites, along with any other util­ity com­pany or fire­fight­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion that wishes to do so.

“We al­ready have some train­ing that’s in place that’s based on in­for­ma­tion that we al­ready gath­ered,” Dele­hanty said. “By the end of the year, we might be able to of­fer the on­line com­po­nent that would be avail­able to ever ybody — any­one who would want to ac­cess it. The on­line com­po­nent is the great­est way for us to reach the largest au­di­ence.”

So far, Dele­hanty said he hasn’t heard of any fire­fight­ers in­jured by rooftop so­lar ar­rays, ei­ther here or any­where else in the countr y, though it’s not a rea­son to be com­pla­cent.

“At the same time, you un­der­stand in the back of your mind that sooner or later it’s go­ing to hap­pen,” he said. “When that even­tu­al­ity oc­curs, you want to have in­formed peo­ple who are pre­pared to deal with it.”

Brian Lazarchick, safety di­rec­tor at South­ern Mary­land Elec­tric Co­op­er­a­tive, poses in front of on the large so­lar panel ar­rays at the SMECO So­lar farm in Hugh­esville. The 5.5 megawatt in­stal­la­tion has 23,700 pan­els sit­ting on 33 acres.

STAFF PHO­TOS BY DAR­WIN WEIGEL Prince Fred­er­ick Vol­un­teer Fire Depart­ment As­sis­tant Fire Chief Tim Dele­hanty has been rid­ing fire trucks for more than 44 years. He is also the fa­cil­i­ties su­per­vi­sor and lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port for the Mary­land Fire and Res­cue In­sti­tute at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, Col­lege Park.

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