Updated: Mar 27, 2021
In Nigeria where regulations are in the best cases, largely weak and unenforced in most cases, there has not yet been any reports in the national media of fire outbreaks involving solar panels. In Australia, however, where one out of four rooftops have solar panels installed on them, between October and December 2020, over 30 blazes believed to be sparked by solar panels were extinguished. These reports would lead to a nationwide crackdown on installers and dealers.
In the United States also, solar fires are still being classified under the 'other' category by the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA). But in 2015 alone, 25 fires involving solar panels were recorded. In 2017 and 2018, 41 and 56 solar fires were recorded respectively making a total of 155 solar fires, with 84 of those in residential installations and 71 in non-residential installations.
In August 2019, both Walmart Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. sued Tesla-owned Solar City saying that its solar panels had caused roof fires at their stores or warehouses. In the high-profile lawsuit, Walmart reported that more than 7 fires had broken out on solar-equipped Walmart rooftops in three states from 2012 to 2018. Days after Walmart filed the lawsuit, it was reported that Tesla had been working since summer 2018 on a nationwide project to replace connectors, optimizers and other solar system components that could start fires as a way of limiting any potential negative impact of the components involved.
A report by the UK government found that of more than 1 million solar panel installations, a total of 58 fires have been found to be caused directly by those installations.
In Japan of over 2.4 million solar installations, 13 solar-related fires were recorded over a 10-year period.
In Germany, which has 1.4 million solar installations, only 120 fires have been traced to solar panels in the past 20 years.
Though these very low numbers show that solar panels are an extremely low risk of fire outbreaks and though in the wake of the Walmart and Amazon lawsuits, the solar manufacturing industry has responded very well with technological improvements in the quality of their panel offerings, solar fires are nonetheless a very real financial and life risk that demand owners to adhere to the best installation, operation and maintenance practices.
What Are the Possible Causes of Solar Panel Fires?
All electrical fires, (about 44,000 of them reported globally every year) depend almost entirely on the nature of the electrical equipment themselves and the installation.
1. Poor Installation
As in all electrical appliances, poor installation of components is one of the main risks of solar panel fires. In solar panels particularly, if the connectors are not installed well enough, heat accumulate in the electrical parts of the panels and become released in the form of fires.
At SolarKobo, we believe that a properly designed and installed solar system with proper use by the owner presents no fire risk to the owner. The best installations, even though they may cost more in the short run, are often the ones that follow the industry standards.
A proper use of a solar power system means usage that is in compliance with the ratings of the panels. It also means carrying on proper maintenance checks whenever it is possible to do so. Since the majority of solar panels are installed on rooftops, this may seem daunting but in the event where functional anomalies are detected in the solar electricity system and everything else is accounted for, the solar panels themselves should be checked for faults.
2. Defective Parts and Components
A 2018 UK government report which investigated 80 solar panel fires in the country found that 58 instances were caused by the solar electricity system itself. The report also found that the majority of these fires originated in the isolators with “the most likely cause of fire as electrical arcing”. (The Walmart fires were found out to be caused by arcing.) An electric arc, with temperature reaching up to several thousands of Celsius, is formed from the breakdown of a gas that produces a prolonged electrical discharge leading to combustion. A fire will start when a damaged live wire sends electric sparks into the arc.
Design and manufacturing flaws in the panels themselves may lead to fire outbreaks. But all solar modules are tested to comply with international standards for electrical performance and safety before being introduced into the market. All modern inverters now includes ground fault, overload, over-temperature and arc fault protection to minimize risk. Buying and installing the best brands eliminates concerns about engineering flaws that may lead to fires.
Defective parts in the solar module, for instance, the junction box that often comes with electrical parts like the bypass diodes, as well as faults in the inverters and change-overs can lead to panel fires. These too need to be installed and used properly to avoid placing the user at the risk of solar fires and the attending financial and psychological distress.
Post-installation maintenance, the detection and replacement of damaged parts can save solar panel owners lots of money in the long run.
What to Do Following a Solar Panel Fire?
In the case of a fire outbreak from your solar panels, immediately disconnect the system using the panels, if doing so does not pose any physical harm to you, and call the hotlines of the fire service in your area. (We always add a 'power breaker or circuit breaker' switch along the solar wire line to the charge controller to all our installations as a way of making its easy for the panels to be disconnected from the system that uses them in the case of any emergencies. Though this is often added with lightning in mind, it can serve in a fire emergency.)
Though solar panel fires are rare, however, just like every electrical system with live wires, fire outbreak involving solar panels are a real risk. In any case, technological improvements have been made in recent years to help ensure safety. Also, all modern inverters now includes ground fault, overload, over-temperature and electric arc fault protection to minimize the risks of fires and failures in the panels that may lead to fire outbreaks.
SolarKobo has university-trained engineers that provide the best possible installation services in Lagos and elsewhere in Nigeria on order. We believe that a properly designed and installed solar system with proper use presents no fire risk to the owner.