The Sun Is Rising on Solar: Growth means safety needs to be top of mind

By Susan DeGrane | May 15, 2023

The growing use of renewable energy represents progress toward reducing carbon emissions and curbing climate change, but as with any advancing technology, there are growing pains and associated risks.

The growing use of renewable energy represents progress toward reducing carbon emissions and curbing climate change, but as with any advancing technology, there are growing pains and associated risks.

During May, National Electrical Safety Month, the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) is spreading awareness of hazards associated with solar photovoltaic (PV) installations, bidirectional current flow to and from the grid and electrical energy storage.

These risks include fires, power loss and lethal ground faults that can injure installers, property occupants and first responders. As on-site energy storage gains popularity, challenges similar to those for electric vehicle batteries have begun, including:

  • Thermal runaway, which occurs when overheated battery cells cause a chain reaction with other cells that results in an explosion
  • Stranded energy caused by damaged terminals that can reignite fires days later
  • Toxic and flammable gases
  • Fires that are difficult to extinguish
  • Additional electrical shock hazards that come with pooling water

Foundational to solar safety are safe installation practices, said Brett Brenner, president of ESFI. 

“For properly installing solar, you need to be able to understand how solar systems connect and interact with energy storage and the grid,” he said. “It’s one thing if you’ve been trained to do the same thing over and over in a sterile environment. It’s another to be able to do it properly out in the field where each location is different.”

Skilled workers are a necessity

Compounding this circumstance, the solar industry’s demand for labor continues to outstrip the supply of skilled workers. The industry remains on track to continue the Department of Labor’s predicted 50% expansion from 2019–2029, he said.

IBEW 134 in Alsip, Ill., and Chicago-area contractors are making a yeoman’s effort to tout the advantages of using IBEW-trained electricians for installing solar.

“Many solar installation companies don’t use qualified electricians,” said Robert Hattier, business representative for IBEW 134. “They don’t offer warranties. They do the work and they’re gone. Unlike them, we’re not interested in creating a transient workforce that travels across the country and floats in and out.”

In a public education effort, Powering Chicago—the local Labor Management Cooperation Committee for IBEW 134 and NECA’s Chicago chapter—made a video of apprentices and journeymen volunteering to replace residential solar installations that had been done incorrectly. The original jobs did not pass inspection by the village of Richton Park, Ill.

For Anne Russell, who struggled for two years to resolve a failed installation that damaged her new roof, contractors chose Enphase microinverters, which satisfy National Electrical Code standards for rapid shutdown. The feature plays a crucial role during installation, daily operations and when first responders must deal with fire.

For Margaret and James Keller’s Richton Park home, contractors installed a SolarEdge inverter using DC-to-DC converters for safety. The Kellers said the redo saved their home and marriage.

Solar’s high rise

Hattier attributed the positive results to solar-­specific training that has been evolving at NECA-IBEW 134’s Technical Institute (IN-Tech) for more than 20 years.

“Solar used to be an elective in our curriculum,” he said. “Now it’s a core class in the second year of the apprenticeship.”

The school converted what was once a large gymnasium to a solar array installation space simulating a pitched roof. It will soon add more indoor instructional space to complement outdoor solar panel setups.

IBEW 134 uses campus tours and events to attract high school students and prospective apprentices. “We’re also using temporary PVs and EV charging stations as a recruitment tool at career fairs to let high school and college students know this is what our industry does,” said Gene Kent, IN-Tech director.

In addition to his position with 134, Hattier is an Interstate Renewable Energy Council certified master trainer PV and executive director and co-founder of the Illinois IBEW Renewable Energy Fund Inc., which manages the Solar Craft Apprenticeship.

The fund is affiliated with 134 and 16 other IBEW locals in Illinois, four high schools, two community colleges and the Cook County Department of Corrections. It will soon expand its reach to the DuPage Probation Department and those who aged out of the state’s foster care system.

Trained labor better supports solar safety, but even the work of trained electricians can vary widely depending on state adoption of related codes. In home-rule states such as Illinois, consistency becomes even more challenging, because code adoption varies widely among county and municipal governments.

Because electricians are more likely to fully understand how electrical systems interact, they have the best chance overall of doing installations correctly.” 

—Brett Brenner, ESFI

“Because electricians are more likely to fully understand how electrical systems interact, they have the best chance overall of doing installations correctly,” Brenner said.

ESFI’s website features a downloadable PDF that can be a resource for installers. The promotional flyer states that connector issues are the leading cause of fire hazards and performance issues in solar installations. It also suggests installers need to abide by NEC 690.33/UL6703, which requires that two parts of connector pairs must be tested together and certified for intermatability when made by different manufacturers.

Joe Matushek, assistant director of curriculum development at NECA-IBEW 134’s IN-Tech, stands with Robert Hattier, IBEW 134 business representative, in the school’s solar installation training classroom.

susan degrane

The best way to assure intermatability and workability is to use only connector parts from the same manufacturer, Brenner said. ESFI also recommends using tools specified by each manufacturer, carefully following their instructions and ensuring parts are kept clean and dry before installation.

Echoing that advice is Jonathan Stewart, managing director of utility systems at the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, which is working to bring about more universal standards among connector manufacturers to enhance intermatability.

“For a large project, like 100 MW, there might be upwards of 200,000 connections,” Stewart said. “It only takes one bad one to cause a real problem, which equates to a very slim margin for error.”

 With many manufacturers and new products coming on the market, problems arise with incompatible connector pairings.

“Very few connectors have been tested for intermatability with different brands,” he said. “For now, the safest approach is to stick with the same manufacturer and pay close attention when working with connectors.”

ESFI’s solar safety resource materials also warn electricians to watch out for loose or disconnected connectors, high temperature and discolored or cracked casings while monitoring systems that sound alarms under fault conditions. For diagnosing and preventing system failure, ESFI recommends using thermal imaging and close visual inspection.

Safety for first responders

Solar safety goes beyond installation, which is why ESFI also provides solar safety information for first responders. It is key for them to understand the properties of a PV system. The information should be available through permitting records or consulting with building department staff, but that is not always the case. 

Next is finding where the PV system disconnects are located.

The National Fire Protection Association offers online solar safety workshops for first responders. 

Nic Malley, fire chief in Robbins, Ill., and others in his department have taken these classes and actual hands-on solar safety training for first responders, fire inspectors and building inspectors that Hattier developed.

“Solar and renewables is going to be the way of the world soon, which is why we resolve to learn as much as possible in order to be safe,” Malley said.

The IBEW 134 classes count as continuing education for fire professionals and inspectors, and are supported by the Illinois IBEW Renewable Energy Fund.

Shortly before attending a three-day workshop with five nearby fire departments, Robbins firefighters responded to a fire on a home with solar panels.

“Had we had the IBEW 134 class, we would have better understood what was involved with power and the shutoffs,” Malley said. “The class was a great help.” 

In all, 10 firefighters and two electrical inspectors from Robbins attended.

The idea for the classes came to Hattier in 2016 when the chief of the Alsip fire department reached out wanting to learn about solar safety.

The fire station is located near the IN-Tech apprenticeship school, and the chief’s request drew empathy from Hattier.

“When we do an installation, we’re working on roofs with harnesses, we understand the hazards. If the weather’s bad, we can stop. But for firefighters, that’s not the case,” Hattier said.

Since co-founding the Illinois IBEW Renewable Energy Fund in 2019, he has trained more than 2,000 firefighters and building inspectors from 75 different departments and 200 communities in northern Illinois.

NFPA 1 and International Fire Code 605. and 605. stipulate that solar arrays should allow a three-foot-wide path on rooftops for firefighters to keep their footing while creating necessary holes to release smoke and toxic fumes.

Shutoffs should also be clearly marked. Hattier is perpetuating his safety education effort across the state. He recently provided first responder solar safety training materials “for training trainers” at the 16 other Illinois IBEW locals.

“A major focus of all our classes is to encourage adoption of current electrical, building and fire codes and standards,” Hattier said.

“Solar safety is big,” said Robert Morris, executive director of the Illinois Fire Inspectors Association, whose members represent 170 municipalities. “We understand the importance of it. We had Bob Hattier make a presentation at one of our conferences. He gave a good overview, and we realize it’s incumbent upon firefighters to know what this is to protect themselves.”

“Awareness is key,” Hattier said. “The more information firefighters and inspectors have, the more things they know to look for. The safer we’ll all be.”

Header image: / ArgitopIA

About The Author

DeGrane is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has covered electrical contracting, renewable energy, senior living and other industries with articles published in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and trade publications. Reach her at [email protected].





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