• Solar panels are good for the environment and your wallet, but are they safe?

    By: Ted Daniel , Patricia Alulema

    Updated:

    They are marketed as budget and eco-friendly, but there is one thing you may not hear in the solar panel sales pitch: fire hazard. 

    25 Investigates has been looking at a rash of fires in Massachusetts that appear to be linked to solar panels, following a tip from a viewer about a roof fire at his home in Carver.

    A review of state and federal data indicates fires caused by solar panels are rare, but an analysis of news stories and fire department reports reveals the official numbers do not tell the whole story. Our investigation found solar panel fires are not uniformly reported by fire departments and there is no central nor comprehensive database that collects this information. 

    Dave and Stephanie Burek had a small fire but a big scare in their Dartmouth home last year.  

    It was May 2018 when a fire had burned a hole in the roof near the bedroom that their two young children – 7 months and 3 years old – sleep in. The fire occurred in a panel located behind a closet in their children's room and charred their attic ceiling. 

    "Somehow, someway, we are so fortunate that this did not burn our house down or didn't affect our children," said Stephanie. 

    The Dartmouth Fire Department traced the fire to, "a wire from the solar panels," according to the fire report.  

    After the fire, the Bureks had their solar panels removed. Pictures of the aftermath show burned wires and electrical components on the backside of the solar panel. They rented their system from SolarCity in 2015, one year before Tesla bought the company. 

    "When they were taking the panel off the roof, the Tesla worker said 'Oh, it was a bad connector. It looks like a bad connector,'" recalls Stephanie. 

    25 Investigates found there have been at least 15 residential fires in Massachusetts linked to rooftop solar installations between 2017 and 2019, including fires in Dartmouth, South Dartmouth, Harwich and Carver. 

    After responding to the fire at the Burek home, Chief Richard Arruda from Dartmouth District 3 started investigating solar energy fires. 

    "That fire really opened my eyes. I was like 'Wow, is this a problem?'" said Arruda, who worries that rooftop fires can often go undetected until it is too late. "The fire on the roof in an attic of residential structure could definitely be deadly. There's no way to determine your roof is on fire when you're in the house because you have no smoke detection in your attic."

    Massachusetts ranks fifth in the nation for solar power generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, with more than 85,032 homes in the state pulling power from the sun. 

    "Just having the panel on the roof would change the risk because you are introducing an electrical current where one was not previously....so it inherently is increasing the risk," said Milosh Puchovsky, a professor of Fire Protection Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute who has studied solar panel fires. 

    "It's primarily been some sort of failure within the electrical components of the panel," he said. "There could be deterioration of components due to climatic conditions, just age. It could've been a manufacturing defect. It could've been a poor design. It could've been any number of those issues that may have resulted in a failure of a solar panel."

    Puchovsky stresses that rooftop solar panels can be safe and effective if they are properly installed, and most importantly, regularly maintained after installation. 

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    In August, retail giant Walmart sued Tesla for rooftop solar panel fires at seven of its stores. In the lawsuit, the retailer claimed, "Tesla had engaged in widespread, systemic negligence and had failed to abide by prudent industry practices in installing, operating, and maintaining its solar systems---conduct that greatly increased the risk of fire at Walmart sites."

    Earlier this month, Tesla and Walmart released a joint statement when the two companies settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed sum. Part of it reads: "Safety is a top priority for each company and with the concerns being addressed, we both look forward to a safe re-energization." 

    A few months after the fire at their home, the Bureks say they got a voicemail from Tesla that all but confirmed their suspicion that a component on one of their solar panels likely caused the fire. 

    "It said they were trying to schedule us to come to do some maintenance on our connectors on our system because there may be an issue," recalls Dave Burek, Stephanie's husband, who returned the call and spoke to a Tesla representative. "I didn't lead on that I don't have solar panels on my home anymore but I kind of asked him, 'What's this about?' He says, 'It's connectors. Maybe some bad connectors. There may be about some 10,000 customers nationwide.' I then got into, 'Well, thank you for calling to schedule preventative maintenance on our system but we don't have a system on our home anymore because your connectors actually caused the fire on our home.'"  

    The Bureks' insurance company is currently suing Tesla and a company called Amphenol, which manufactures electronic connectors. Both companies deny responsibility. 

    We contacted Tesla for comment, but they did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls. 

    The two experts we interviewed for this story recommend that consumers research the various solar panel options available and ask questions about a device's safety.  Most importantly, they say consumers should make sure their panels are installed by licensed professionals and are regularly and adequately maintained after installation. 

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