fire safety

19 Sep 23

The rate has increased sharply with 66 fires already recorded up until July this year compared with 63 for whole of 2019.

The number of fires involving solar panels has soared after a boom in their use driven by energy bill rises.

Data obtained under freedom of information rules show that there were six times the number of fires involving solar panels last year compared with 10 years ago.

The rate has increased sharply with 66 fires already recorded up until July this year compared with 63 for the whole of 2019, prompting concern from safety experts who are worried about a lack of regulation on who can install them.

NHS worker Tracey Adams and her 13-year-old son Leo were forced from their West London home last month when a fire sparked by solar panels on their roof tore through their council house.

They said the experience was “so traumatic” and the pair have been forced to live in three different budget bed and breakfasts since the blaze, which left the building declared too unstable for them to return to.

The National Fire Chiefs Council said it was “concerned” about the possible risk to building safety, while the charity Electrical Safety First (ESF) said the rise in fires meant “further investigations are urgently required”.

Increasing solar generation is integral to the UK meeting its net zero goals. According to the trade association Solar Energy UK (SEUK), the domestic installation rate is the highest it has been in more than seven years.

However, new data from 45 of the UK’s 52 fire authorities, suggests that the first wave of solar panels installed under the government’s Feed in Tariff (FiT) subsidies introduced in 2010, are increasingly at risk of catching fire.

The UK’s solar capacity shot up from 2010 to 2016 by a factor of 120 but tapered off in 2019 when the scheme was scrapped. There was a more gradual increase (10.5 per cent) in solar capacity from 2019 to 2022 but during the same period, the number of fires involving solar panels spiked by almost 50 per cent.

Safety experts say there was a “gold rush” to install solar panels when the FiT was introduced and that many of these installations may have not since been tested.

The National Fire Chiefs Council said it was “concerned” that the government is trying to make it easier to implement these types of technologies “without considering the risk to building and fire safety”.

Martyn Allen, the technical director at ESF, said an investigation was needed into product quality, as well as any poor installation and maintenance practices.

“We also need clarity of electrical safety legislation to ensure that solar photovoltaic (PV) installations are an integral part of obligatory regular inspection and testing,” he said.

Anyone can install a solar panel in the UK but the work has to be cleared by the local council. The government recommends homeowners use a registered electrician but critics say installers are often unaware of the regulations and that panels are forgotten about and left to deteriorate over time.

In the past, in order to qualify for the FiT scheme, both the installers and the PV components had to be accredited as safe by the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS). However, it has never been a legal requirement and the scrapping of the subsidy means there is less incentive to use an accredited installer.

SEUK acknowledged that there are some “bad actors” in the industry, which “risks undermining the industry’s high electrical safety record through the use of underqualified installers”.

Gareth Simkins, the trade association’s senior communications adviser, said: “We are alive to these concerns and are currently working with government to ensure safety and quality across the domestic sector.”

Captain Richard Birt, who worked for 30 years as a firefighter before founding the platform Solar And Fire Education (SAFE), said the UK needed to adopt a safer type of technology already common in the US.

A traditional solar panel installation generates high-voltage electricity of up to 600V DC in domestic systems. For comparison, the London Underground’s third rail is 750V DC.

Such high voltages are extremely prone to arcing – a common cause of fires, explained Cpt Birt. If installations were faulty in the first place, the risk of fire dramatically increases over time. “If you make the wrong connection, then the honeymoon period, which normally lasts around five years, will be over,” he said.

However, micro inverters can be connected to convert the output to a safer 230V AC. It is vital the UK adopts this technology, said Birt, who thinks that the UK and Europe “are way behind the eight ball on solar panel safety”.

A government spokesperson said the risk of solar panel fires was “extremely low” but that it was “continuing to work with the industry to improve safety”.

It said the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities would consider the need for any changes to the certification of electricians, reflecting the more stringent regulations for high-risk buildings.

SEUK cautiously welcomed such a move. “If it helps take out the cowboys, it sounds like a wise move, though we will of course have to wait for the details,” said Mr Simkins.

Martyn Allen from ESF advises choosing a registered installer who has been assessed for solar PV installations and is aware of the standards that PV products should comply with.

“This will provide a better guarantee of safety and also redress, in the unlikely event of something going wrong,” he says.

Gareth Simkins from SEUK agrees. “The best and simplest way for consumers to ensure that their solar and/or battery installation is conducted by a legitimate company is to make sure that their installers are members of MCS. We require all residential installer members of Solar Energy UK to be MCS-certified and to use products certified by the body to ensure safety and quality.”

Ian Rippin, chief executive at MCS, notes that the MCS standard exists not only for the installation, but also for the products that must be used and that an MCS-certified installation may only ever use products which have been tested for safety and performance to “robust industry standards”.

“To ensure that their home solar remains safe and efficient, consumers should only invest in certified systems made of certified products, installed by a certified contractor,” he adds.

Capt Birt from SAFE recommends homeowners consider retrofitting a micro inverter AC system. While this would add costs, it would only involve replacing the single string inverter with micro-inverters, and homeowners could keep their panels and storage, he advises.

Above all, homeowners must be aware that panels are not a fit-and-forget technology and require periodic testing, according to Gillian Perry, a major loss manager for insurance firm Zurich.

Mr Allen agrees, and adds that homeowners should have their installation regularly checked by a professional – preferably the company responsible for the installation. This would include taking any action advised as a result of the inspection.

Finally, says Mr Allen, “if there are any signs of the installation not working as expected, signs of overheating, the smell of burning or unusual noises – isolate the supply and call the company who installed it”.

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