solar panel safety

Solar panel safety: how safe are solar panels?

As with any electrical appliance, solar panels can be at risk to certain electrical damages and dangers, such as solar panel fires and power surges. Luckily, there are plenty of measures 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.

First things first: solar panels are overwhelmingly safe

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, and should be considered in a similar vein as refrigerators and air conditioners when it comes to the danger that 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 installed properly, 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 actually 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.

What solar panel safety issues should you be aware of?

Just like your microwave, toaster oven, house lights, or any other common electrical appliance, solar panels involve flowing electricity. 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 voltage and duration of the surge, it can result in damage to devices that are not designed to deal with high voltage levels.

Electrical surges can be caused by external factors like regional power usage drops and nearby lightning strikes. 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 all but prevented by making sure 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, if wires are damaged, improperly insulated, or otherwise incorrectly installed, an electrical fire can be started.

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

Safety mechanisms for solar panel systems

There are two major and mainstream ways that solar installers ensure the safety of your solar panel system: 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” basically means connecting your solar electric systems to the earth so that excess and dangerous electrical currents can be diverted away from your home and appliances and dispersed into the ground instead.

To protect from electrical surges, some states will mandate that your home electrical panel is updated to include a whole-house surge protector. Whole-house surge protective devices (SPDs) are installed in your electrical box and can cost a few hundred dollars. SPDs work by detecting voltage spikes and diverting 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 consulting 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. Automatic shutdown procedures like SolarEdge’s are triggered when AC current is no longer flowing to inverters, indicating that the attached electrical systems are not working as expected. Therefore, in the event that 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 serve to 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 fire and prevent further damage to your panels or home.

Check out our article about rapid shutdown to learn more.

Compare your options for solar installations

On the EnergySage Solar Marketplace, you can solicit quotes 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/or fires.

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About Jacob Marsh

Jacob is an EnergySage writer with expertise in solar, electrification, and renewable energy. With over five years of experience researching and writing about the home energy industry (plus a degree in Geological Sciences from Tufts University), he brings a unique scientific approach to writing and investigating all things energy.