Top 3 Solar Safety Issues and How to Avoid Them

solar panels on roof at sunrise - solar safety issues and how to avoid them

The solar industry is a rapidly growing sector for those interested in green energy and jobs. However, like with all workplace environments that deal with manufacturing, installation and maintenance, solar panels come with a certain degree of risk. 

As magical as turning solar radiation into usable electricity sounds, solar panel installation comes with hazards that have even led to several fatalities. 

Although it is a growing industry, the hazards aren’t unique. Fortunately, there are standards in place to help cover them. These control measures and standards help mitigate risk when dealing with energy-generating resources.

Are Solar Panel Systems Dangerous?

Solar panels themselves aren’t entirely dangerous once properly installed, but workers in the industry are exposed to potential risks such as:

  • Falls
  • Arc flashes
  • Electrical shock
  • Thermal burns
  • Stress injuries
  • Cuts and sprains

When you think about it, solar industry workers deal with large, heavy panels and other equipment high off of the ground. From a safety point of view, it pays to be aware of the types of risks and to put preventive measures in place before they occur. 

1. Falls, Sprains, Burns and Strains

The large dimensions of solar panels make them awkward to lift and carry—especially when unloading them from a truck up onto a roof. This type of heavy lifting can cause several types of injuries, such as:

  • Strains
  • Lower back injuries
  • Pulled muscles
  • Sprains
  • Burns
  • Falling

Workers in the industry can reduce their risk of these types of injuries by first always working in pairs and using the correct lifting technique. Second, workers should never climb ladders while carrying solar panels but instead use inspected cranes or other ladder-based systems. 

Additionally, regardless of whether the system is grid-tied or an off-grid solar system, the panels will heat up quickly when exposed to any sunlight. If workers don’t wear the proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), they could suffer from burns. 

In addition to wearing the proper PPE, the panels should always be covered with an opaque sheet to prevent heat from building up. 

Solar installations come with a higher risk of falling because there’s less space to work in as the rooftop fills up with more panels. It’s best to select the right type of ladder for the job, keep work areas clear of obstructions and use safety nets. 

Although taking steps like ensuring ladders are placed on dry, level ground may seem tedious, it’s a step that helps ensure stability. If you’ve ever climbed a ladder, you know the heart-stopping feeling when it suddenly shakes beneath you. 

2. Electrocution

high voltage symbol - solar safety issues and how to avoid them

As with any other system that generates electricity, solar panel systems come with the risk of shock or electrocution. The human body is remarkable, and a small 10 milliamps (mA) current would feel like nothing more than a quick jolt. However, the slightest increase can turn a harmless current into something potentially fatal. 

Anything above 50 mA is when extreme pain, respiratory arrest and even death become a possibility. If a worker were to be exposed to 120 V, that would mean they were exposed to 200 mA, about four times the potentially lethal amount. Electrocution is a high-risk factor that can be avoided by using the proper control measures, such as rapid shutdown systems.

Electrical shocks are another safety risk to consider. These generally occur when a circuit shorts from loose wiring, improper ground, corroded cables or any combination of these. In order to avoid shocks, it’s best to check for these potential triggers around output conductors, the grounding conductor and inside the combiner box. 

3. Arc Faults, Flashes and Explosions

Arc faults are one of the most common causes of a potential fire with any electrical system and are not the first thing you think of when using a solar ROI calculator to determine your costs.

However, it’s undoubtedly one safety issue that you must stay on top of to prevent a costly repair or system replacement. 

An arc fault is when a high-powered discharge occurs between at least two conductors. The heat resulting from the discharge causes wire insulation to deteriorate and causes an arc or spark to trigger a fire. 

Solar panel systems come with the risk of two types of arc faults—parallel and series. A parallel arc fault is caused by an unintended current between two or more conductors, and a series fault is caused by a disruption in the conductor’s continuity. However, both types are often caused by a ground fault. 

One way to mitigate this risk is to install an arc-fault circuit interrupter or circuit breaker. They detect low-level arcing currents that are generally not strong enough to trigger a traditional circuit breaker and shut off the current or outlet. 

If you’re working on a larger solar array with a medium to high voltage level, there’s a good chance that you’re at risk of an arc flash. The risk is increased in situations such as when a technician checks for faults in energized combiner boxes. 

Arc flashes release concentrated radiant energies and hot gases that can be up to four times the temperature of the sun’s surface. These only occur when an arc fault has access to large amounts of energy. 

Generally, these are potential issues only for solar panel systems that use over 400 V. This means panels for homeowners and communities that use solar inverters with a 500 V maximum input or more are still at risk. 

In order to mitigate the DC-side, large solar panel systems should use several string inverters that can connect to multiple parallel strings. This is a much safer option than using a couple of large central inverters that must utilize combiner boxes. 

The AC-side of the risk can be mitigated by using arc-resistant switchgear. This gear helps redirect any arc flash away from people and equipment. 

Staying Safe with Solar Panels

As the world continues its increased demand for renewable energy, the demand for solar power will continue to remain at an all-time high.

Whether you’re installing solar panels or getting a system installed, it pays to understand the potential safety risks to keep an eye on and avoid them as best you can. Protecting yourself and the solar panel system from any potential hazards means adhering to safe work practices and using the right equipment. 

Feature image: Nuno Marques; Image 1: Markus Spiske

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