Fires Involving Solar Panel Rooftop Installations

John Gow

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27 Apr 2024

In February 2024, a fire involving solar panels broke out on the roof of a 45,000-square-metre commercial warehouse in Peterborough, England. Although it took eleven fire engines, a water carrier, 15 lengths of hose and an aerial appliance with over 50 firefighters, crews eventually brought the fire under control and saved the £70 million warehouse. Had the fire not been contained, the story could have been entirely different. A disruption to the supply chain could have potentially resulted in the loss of jobs, impacting the lives of workers.

Recent reports suggest a worldwide increase in fires involving solar panel systems. According to data obtained by The Independent, the UK saw a six-fold increase in solar panel fires over the last ten years, with 66 solar panel fires reported between January and July 2023. Only 63 fires were reported for the whole of 2019. With the drive towards net-zero carbon emissions, the demand for solar panels will likely continue to accelerate. It is estimated that the installation of rooftop solar panels reached a 12-year high in 2023.

Standards for Installing Solar Panels

Solar panel installations and materials should comply with the relevant standards and be properly tested and verified before being put into normal use. Systems should specifically be installed in accordance with national guidance (MCS 2012) and manufacturers’ installation instructions. There are various British/European standards that these products should comply with, some of which address the issue of fire hazards.

However, installers are not required to be accredited or registered to install solar panels in the UK, although some schemes do exist. In 2022, Zurich Insurance UK issued a warning to homeowners, urging them to use accredited installers after it was found that fire and rescue services were tackling nearly ten solar panel fires per month.

Along with fire hazards, there are other installation considerations for rooftop solar panels. The work involved is often more than just electrical installation and can include roofing work and other structural changes. The roof’s strength, the effects of wind lift, and the use of certified materials and equipment are all factors that may impact the installation. If the construction does not account for UK weather, rooftop systems may be more vulnerable when exposed to high winds. Repair costs can lead to claims of several thousand pounds.

Fire Hazards and Installation Challenges

As with any installation work, poor or substandard practices can increase the risk of fire. Research conducted by the BRE Group suggests solar panel fires generally result from “poor installation, or the use of wrongly specified, incorrect or faulty equipment.” Other findings indicate that fires often occur in new installations after being exposed to their first week of full sun, which points to a weakness in the quality of the installation or the material used.

Another study by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology found that “solar panels installed on buildings increase the risk and speed of fire spreading across roofs and facades.” However, they also discovered that the risk of fire spread can be significantly reduced if the gap between the solar panels and the roof is increased. Of course, this is dependent on the size of the initial fire.

Fires in solar panel rooftop installations also present several challenges for responding fire services. In addition to the electrical risks, incident response requires working at a significant height. Moreover, if the fire spreads into the roof structure of a building made of light timber construction, the potential for a rapid roof collapse is high.

Successful Recovery Action Starts with a Rapid Response

Solar panel fires generally occur as a result of installation errors and can cause a significant amount of damage, with extensive repairs leading to expensive claims. Given the costs of these types of claims, quickly appointing a forensic team to identify and recover vital evidence can be advantageous to the insurer and increase the chances of a successful recovery action.

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About the author

John Gow
John is a highly experienced Fire Investigator who has provided expert testimony in fatal accident inquiry, criminal and civil court