Solar panel safety: Are solar panels safe?

Solar panel safety.

As with any electrical appliance, solar panels can be at risk of electrical damage and dangers, such as panel fires and power surges. Luckily, plenty of measures are in place to ensure your solar panel installation is safe. This article will discuss some of the common safety concerns around solar panels and what mechanisms are in place to prevent dangerous solar panel scenarios.

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For the vast majority of homeowners, solar panels should not be cause for any safety concerns. Solar panels are essentially an additional electrical appliance in your home. They should be considered similarly to refrigerators and air conditioners regarding the danger they bring to your home.

Electrical surges are not uncommon for grid-tied homes, and most homes are already equipped to prevent damage from surges. When appropriately installed, solar panels will not cause fires, a claim backed by a 2013 German study that concluded only 0.006% of the 1.3 million photovoltaic systems in the country at the time caused a fire. Of that, 0.006%, about one in five of those fires resulted in large amounts of damage. In the very rare case that your solar panels cause a fire or are damaged by a home fire, there is a good chance that your solar panel warranty or home insurance will cover any damages that your home incurs.

Solar panels involve flowing electricity like microwaves, toaster ovens, house lights, or other common electrical appliances. As electricity is generated and moves through wires around your panels and into your home, problems may occasionally. The two most common safety concerns around solar panels, electrical surges and fires, are typical of other electrical systems.

Electrical surges

An electrical surge happens when higher-than-normal voltages flow through electrical wires. Depending on the surge's voltage and duration, it can damage devices not designed to handle high voltage levels.

External factors like regional power usage drops and nearby lightning strikes can cause electrical surges. It can also result from sources inside the home, such as turning on large appliances like refrigerators and air conditioners. Importantly, internally-caused surges often stem from faulty wiring and can be prevented by ensuring your home's electrical systems are up to date.

Solar panel fires

Solar panel fires usually arise as a result of electrical problems. Like any electrical device, an electrical fire can be started if wires are damaged, improperly insulated, or otherwise incorrectly installed.

The most common area for solar panels to cause electrical fires is at your system's combiner box, where wires from all your panels connect before flowing through an inverter.

Solar installers ensure the safety of your solar panel system in two ways: solar panel grounding and rapid shutdown.

Solar panel grounding

When installing a solar panel system, one of the key ways to keep yourself safe from electrical surges is to ground your panels. "Grounding" means connecting your solar electric systems to the earth so that excess and dangerous electrical currents can be diverted from your home and appliances and dispersed into the ground.

Some states will mandate that your home electrical panel be updated to include a whole-house surge protector to protect from electrical surges. Whole-house surge protective devices (SPDs) are installed in your electrical box and can cost a few hundred dollars. SPDs detect voltage spikes and divert excess current through a grounding path. For solar customers in southeastern states like Florida and Alabama, where lightning strikes are common, it may be worth outfitting your home with an SPD (or at least consult your solar installer or electrician). In most cases, the standard 200 amp panel required for solar installations is the only equipment you will need.

Rapid shutdown

According to the National Electrical Code, all rooftop solar power systems must also have a "rapid shutdown mechanism" installed. Popular solar inverters like those by SolarEdge now include automatic rapid shutdown functionality and require no additional equipment. Automated shutdown procedures like SolarEdge's are triggered when AC current no longer flows to inverters, indicating that the attached electrical systems are not working as expected. Therefore, if your home electricity system has been damaged, your panels will automatically shut down to prevent health hazards or further damage.

Rapid shutdown mechanisms for solar panels also prevent harm or injury to first responders should there be a fire in your home. By shutting down the electrical systems connected to your panels, firefighters can safely contain the fire and prevent further damage to your panels or home.

Check out our article about rapid shutdown to learn more.

On the EnergySage Solar Marketplace, you can solicit quotes for solar projects from qualified, pre-vetted installers in your area. If you have a question or concern about fire or surge protection for your solar panels and home, you can leave a note on your profile outlining your question, and installers will know that you want more information about what they can do to mitigate the potential risk of electrical surges and fires.

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