Solar panel fire hazards increase in Australia
Even amidst the pandemic, 2020 has set a new record for Australia, with more PV installation in the first 9 months compared to any previous year. In fact, the national solar capacity installed by the end of September last year was higher than 12 months installation in 2019.
Before COVID-19 changed the world in March, the Australian PV market was actually 40% ahead of itself year over year. Not even a global health pandemic could fully slow down the rapid growth of the Australian PV industry, with exception to a few mandated operation shutdowns.
As the Australian houses with rooftop solar panels increased, the number of solar panel incidents reported by fire and emergency services has increased too. Such instances are found in all states of Australia. NSW witnessed a spike in solar panel-related house fires. Compared to last year, there is a 20% increase in such cases. In the past three months, Fire and Rescue have extinguished 30 blazes believed to be sparked by panels.
In recent months Fair Trading NSW has spot-checked 100 businesses and fined 20 solar panel operators for failing to meet industry standards. People are being urged to check the FairTrading website to see if their installer is licenced.
Minister for Better Regulation Kevin Anderson warned people to do their research before getting the panels installed. “There are some unscrupulous tradespeople out there who are selling less than the best quality products, not installing them properly and causing fires,” he told.
In 2018, Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor warns of the risk from substandard solar panel installations and has announced an inquiry into the poor practices of this sector. He said the solar industry did not appear to be working in the best interest of consumers and he wants the Clean Energy Regulator to investigate. From the inspection of just 1.2 % of total rooftop installations, the Clean Energy Regulator audit has reported tens of thousands of badly installed and even unsafe rooftop systems.
A report by the Clean Energy Regulator in 2018 found that, out of 3,678 inspections, 748 solar systems were substandard and 80 were deemed unsafe. Based on the sample size, it said around 406,000 installations could be deemed substandard and 44,000 installations unsafe.
As per the systems installed in 2018, 1.69% are potentially unsafe PV systems, 0.5% are potentially unsafe DC isolators near inverters, 0.4% are potentially unsafe rooftop DC isolators, 0.22% are potentially unsafe exposed live parts, 0.09% are potentially unsafe cable junction boxes, 0.1% are unsafe unsecure panel mounting, 0.36% account for other reasons.
Fire and Rescue NSW Superintendent Graham Kingland said solar panel related fires increased five-fold in the last 5 years. It is common to see solar panels cause house and building fires.
After the series of house fires in NSW, Energy Save Victoria is encouraging everyone to get their solar system serviced at least once every two years by a licensed electrician to ensure they remain both safe and efficient.
ESV has commenced site audits seven days a week in order to identify poor installations and unlicensed workers across Victoria. ESV has carried out 470 site visits during 2020 and has identified five instances of unlicensed work being carried out and enforcement action was taken. Queensland Fire and Emergency Services attended at least 16 incidents caused by solar panels in the first half of 2017 and 33 in 2016.
The reasons can be manifold:
Australia uses DC voltages that can pose a serious fire risk. DC isolator and inverters are the main cause of solar related fires. Conventional DC solar systems is banned in the US as early as 2014. An amendment to the DC isolator standard (AS/NZS 5033:2014) to improve product datasheets and ensure isolators can withstand the harsh Australian climate took effect on June 28 2019. By then, over 2 million systems had been installed on Australian rooftops.
Flammable cladding, dodgy electrical cable and other products not sourced from approved manufacturers in the building industry, are some other reasons.
With the rise of commercial, industrial and residential solar PV installations in Australia, there is a genuine need to combat solar panel risks in a safe and urgent manner. Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has an elaborate list of recall due to poor quality solar components.
A notable recall is that of Avanco DC solar isolator switches by Blueline Solar Pty Ltd. High temperature can occur at the internal switch plate, causing the contacts to spread and the polymer support plate to degrade. This poses a risk of arcing and eventual catastrophic failure, resulting in fire. More than 9 nationally operating traders have been using this failed product. ACCC made Blueline Solar Pty Ltd. insolvent.
One Aussie inventor has developed a product PVStop — “a spray-on solution to mitigate solar panel risks by reducing DC output to safe levels to offer homeowners and emergency personnel peace of mind”.
As on June 30 2020, Clean Energy Regulator inspections show a negligible 0.05% decrease in substandard systems. Roughly one in 30 systems have been deemed unsafe and another 17.9% substandard.
The hike in solar installations can result in substandard products and installations. These together with more extreme weather events can cause solar panel risks to increase. Despite being a world leader in residential solar, Australia couldn’t do much to ensure the safety of their solar customers.
In this regard, ACCC insists the owners themselves should have an awareness about their system and its working. If they suspect of having an affected unit, they should have an electrician inspect and replace the DC isolators. Owners should ensure they can immediately shut down the PV system following the standard shutdown procedure.
Over the years we have become increasingly concerned about solar panel risks and associated solar PV hazards. Adequate solar PV industry standards, tools, inspection regimes, procedures or training can reduce such hazards to a greater extent.