The Benefits and Risks of Solar Panel Systems

When considering converting to a Photovoltaic system (PV) or solar power for your home or business there are plenty of advantages such as:

  • Reducing electricity bills
  • Solar is a renewable energy source
  • Low maintenance cost
  • Low or zero noise
  • High durability and reliability
  • Simplicity of operation
  • Potential rebates and tax incentives dependent on utility carrier and state

In fact, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA®) the nations solar capacity is expected to double over the next two years. It’s important to note that while there are benefits to converting to solar, it’s equally as important to understand potential risks and how to mitigate them. In Liberty Mutual Insurance’s Guide “Insight to Action” the following risks are outlined for roof-mounted solar panel systems:

  • The “Blind Spot”- One of the greatest concerns in solar panel installations is the “blind spot,” in which a ground fault to the grounded current-carrying conductor occurs undetected. This causes a second ground fault in the panel array, which the ground fault detector/interrupter (GFDI) cannot de-energize. These situations can cause serious electrical shock and fire.
  • Roof Loading - Every roof is designed and built to accommodate a predetermined “dead load”, such as an air conditioning unit. Adding an array of solar panels to a roof that wasn’t built to accommodate it can cause serious damage to the roof and even lead to potential structural degradation or collapse over time.
  • Severe Weather - The weight of snow on a roof can add to the danger presented by the weight of the solar panel system. Additionally, hail and ice can cause significant damage to solar panels by cracking their protective coating, exposing live electrical components, and ultimately causing the panels to fail.
  • Wind - The addition of a solar panel array on a roof increases the roof’s surface area, which in turn increases the building’s exposure to wind damage. In windy conditions, the space below the panels can also cause pressurization that can damage the roof.
  • Fire Hazards - Solar panel systems cannot only cause fires, but also make them extremely difficult to extinguish. In a roof fire, heat can get trapped in the space between the panels and the roof and quickly spread, shielded by the panels. Not only will the roof suffer significant damage, but its fire classification rating may also be compromised.

In addition to risk exposures, Liberty Mutual Insurance outlines the following business challenges associated with installing a solar panel system on your roof:

  • Hindering Firefighting - Regardless of where a fire breaks out in your building, a solar panel array can interfere with the efforts of firefighters who often need access to the roof. Walking across a roof with a PV array increases the risk of electrocution, slips and falls, and other serious incidents. If the fire is on the roof,the concealed space between the panels and the roof makes it especially difficult to extinguish. Perhaps the most dangerous firefighting risk of all stems from the fact that, unlike a conventional electrical system, there is no way to turn off a single PV panel or array. Solar panels are always “live,” and contact with them can cause shock or electrocution. In some cases, the entire roof can become electrified, meaning that firefighters would not be able to access the roof at all.
  • Business interruption - If your solar panels are damaged due to weather, short circuits, or any other cause, your business may be interrupted. And if a fire breaks out, any delay in extinguishing it could lead to extensive property damage, which would most likely interrupt your operations for days or even weeks.
  • Question of Liability- Some businesses lease their roof space to contractors that install PV systems for other customers’ use. These arrangements create a number of questions regarding liability in case of a loss: Who is responsible for the system’s maintenance? Who insures the panels — your carrier or another insurer? Moreover, if a fire breaks out in the array and the cause can’t be determined (which is often the case), who is liable?
  • Installation - In such a young industry, the crew that installs your PV system may not be as well trained and experienced as you would prefer. A faulty installation can cause problems with a system from the start, including arc and ground faults that can cause fires.
  • Panel replacement - It’s difficult to predict which solar power players — contractors, manufacturers, etc. — will still be around in a few years. If your system needs replacement panels unique to a vendor that’s no longer in business, you may need to replace the entire array.

The good news is that the following steps from Liberty Mutual Insurance can help reduce your risk and, in most cases, gain all the benefits while minimizing the drawbacks of a roof-mounted solar energy system.

Prior to Installation

  • Work with your agent, broker, and insurer to learn about the potential risks of a photovoltaic system and how to minimize and/or prevent the potential for having loss.
  • Consider installing a PV system in a location other than your roof, such as your parking lot or a nearby parcel of land.
  • Work with your local fire department personnel to get their advice and to familiarize them with your operations and the solar panel system you eventually install.
  • Create and maintain clear exits and pathways on the roof for maintenance and firefighting personnel. Make sure the panels will be installed in a way that allows access to the various sections of the roof.
  • Have a professional engineer evaluate the structural integrity of your roof to ensure it can tolerate the additional weight of the panels and snow. Also, most commercial roofs have been designed to last 20 years. If, for example, your roof is 15 years old, don’t install a PV system you’re going to have to remove in five years — a very expensive operation — so you can replace the roof.
  • Be sure to hire a fully qualified and widely experienced contractor to install your system.
  • Don’t rely solely on a contractor’s or manufacturer’s assurances regarding the panels to be installed. Make sure they’ve been tested and approved by an independent certification laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories Inc. If your area is prone to hailstorms, see that the panel shave also been tested and approved for hail impact.

During Installation

  • Make sure your contractor takes the following steps:
  • Uses expansion joints on all long runs of conduit
  •  Provides disconnects for both the DC and AC sides of the panel array. The disconnects should be clearly identified and readily accessible.
  • Uses correct installation techniques, paying close attention to wire management
  •  Installs additional ground-fault and PV array isolation sensing device
  • Provides sufficient ventilation so air can circulate around the panels
  • Securely installs and attaches the panels to minimize wind uplift
  • Uses ground fault protection devices to de-energize the PV system when there’s a ground fault

Post-Installation

  • Have qualified contractors conduct preventive maintenance on your system ideally twice a year, but at least once a year.

Leasing Your Rooftop

  • If you’re leasing rooftop space to a contractor for the installation of a solar panel array to supply power to a third party, work with your legal counsel and insurer to identify clearly who owns and is responsible for the array.

Existing Systems

  • Review the “Prior Installation” and “After Installation” recommendations to see which ones apply to your system, such as maintaining clear roof exits and pathways and having contractors perform preventive maintenance.
  • Upgrade your system to ensure detection of ground faults.

For more information about insurance for roof-mounted solar panel systems, call our office today at 417.345.5470!