Solar panel rule changes eyed 

Worries over public safety are rising as fast as new solar panels on rooftops in The City.

As part of sweeping changes to The City’s fire code, Fire Marshal Barbara Schultheis wants to adopt statewide standards for solar panel installation in order to keep firefighters safe. Those guidelines are much stricter than current regulations and could make solar installation in San Francisco more difficult.

Solar panels remain energized by the sun even after they are disconnected from power lines. Rooftop panels are often not visible from the street, and firefighters don’t always realize they are present.

Firefighters dealing with a blaze often punch a hole in the roof at its highest point to allow hot gases and smoke to seep out of the building to help occupants survive. The charge from a solar panel can electrocute a firefighter.

“Roofs are already pretty dangerous places,” Schultheis said.

While city firefighters underwent training in December to help them recognize telltale signs that solar panels are on top of a flame-engulfed building, the new regulations would require bright-red signs to alert firefighters that panels are present.

City officials are working to ensure that the new regulations don’t conflict with current laws. The state recommends that installers maintain a 4-foot perimeter around a roof on which solar panels are installed, while Department of Building Inspection regulations require 3 feet.

More restrictive solar panel standards could make it difficult to fit photovoltaic cells on San Francisco’s notoriously narrow rooftops.

Jeanine Cotter, CEO of San Francisco-based solar installer Luminalt, said the safety of firefighters and of residents is the first priority for installing solar panels. But if more space is required around the panels, she said, that could make installation “very challenging.”

“Particularly in San Francisco, we tend to have small roofs compared to ranch homes in the suburbs,” Cotter said.

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