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HAZARDS IN THE INSTALLATION AND MAINTENANCE OF SOLAR

PANELS
Copyright Material IEEE
Paper No. ESW2017-03

James R. White Mike Doherty


Senior Member IEEE Senior Member IEEE
Shermco Industries, Inc. eHazard
2425 E. Pioneer Drive 823 Donegal Ave.
Irving, Texas 75061 Oshawa, Ontario
jrwhite@shermco.com mike.dohertV@e-hazard.com

Abstract - Solar panels or modules are becoming popular cannot be shut off. They have some parallels to wind
in residential and some commercial sites for providing power, however in that once the electricity is produced,
either the primary power source or a backup source of the output is conditioned so a clean ac sinewave is
electricity. The advantages seem obvious and on the delivered to the power grid.
surface they seem to be a safe option . Photovoltaic power Figure 1 shows an example photovoltaic system in
systems do have many benefits, but there are also safety use by a utility. The primary negative in this type of power
issues that come into play with them during their generation is that each photovoltaic module produces a
installation, maintenance and during emergency small amount of electricity, so it takes many, many
situations, such as during a fire . This paper discusses a modules to produce an appreciable output.
quick overview of photovoltaic power system construction The example installation has 1.1 million fixed
and then some of the safety issues that may be present. modules to produce 250 megawatts (MW) of power. This
site actually has three generations of equipment. As the
Index Terms - NFPA 70E, CSA Z462, arc flash , arc technology progressed, the installations produced more
flash PPE, electrical shock, Test Before Touch, electrical electricity from the same land area, and became less
safety, qualified worker, lockout/tagout, photovoltaic, PV complicated . PV systems can be fixed or adjustable on
modules, solar energy. one or two axis in order to improve performance.

I. INTRODUCTION

Photovoltaic (PV), or solar power is becoming more


common as the technology brings down costs and
improves its reliability and power output. What used to be
confined to utilities and the well-to-do , utility companies
often offer subsidies for the installation of solar systems
for residential properties.
Utilities are installing photovoltaic systems as part of
the effort to become more "green", as well as to take
advantage of federal subsidies for their installation and
use. The evolution of solar technology has been rapid in
the utility industry, where installations are "old technology"
almost as soon as they are installed . One benefit of this Figure 1
technology advancement is PV installations are becoming Photovoltaic Electrical Power Generation Site
simpler and more efficient.
Photovoltaic panels collect light energy and directly
II. AN OVERVIEW OF COMMERCIAL PHOTOVOLTAlC convert it to electricity by means of polycarbonate/glass
SYSTEMS modules. The output of each panel at the example
installation is 300 W. An older installation at the same site
Photovoltaic systems used in the utility industry produces 70 W per module, so advances in technology
generate electricity much differently than other electrical from the oldest installation to the newest installation
power generation systems. The primary difference is that enabled a sizable increase in power produced. The
there are almost no moving parts, whereas a steam-driven modules are connected into "Strings", with 20 modules per
or wind generator will have a prime mover. Photovoltaic String. Eight Strings are connected together to form a
generating system have no prime mover, as such and use " Table" for a total of 160 modules, with each Table having
the light energy from the sun to produce electric power. an output of 48 kW.
PV systems are more akin to a battery bank, in that they The output of the PV modules is direct current (dc).

978-1-5090-5099-4/17/$31.00 ©2017 IEEE


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Two Tables (positive or negative) are connected to a A. The Shock Hazard
"Combiner" , which adds the outputs of the two Tables (320
panels x 300 W = 96 kW). The two Tables are referred to Although the combined output of a PV Table is 48
as a "Monopole PV Subarray" when they are tied together. kW, the output voltage from each panel is only about 3
There is a positive Combiner and a negative Combiner. volts, so the shock hazard from any Table is fairly low.
Two Combiners are connected into a "Tie Box" (640 Figure 3 shows an arc flash hazard warning label from one
panels total x 300 W = 192 kW) and sends the power to an of the string Combiner Boxes. At this point in the PV
Inverter. The Inverter has seven Tie Boxes connected to it system, it is showing 910 Vdc and 5.79 cal/cm 2 incident
(192 kW x 7 = 1344 kW) and the Inverter produces a clean energy at 18" working distance.
alternating current (ac) sinewave to a step-up transformer.
Figure 2a shows a Combiner, while Figure 2b shows a Tie
Box.
PHOTOVOLTAIC
DC COMBINER BOX
16 STRING PV SOURCE CIRCUIT
NEGATIVE MONOPOLE SUBARRAY

_rowER POINTcumENT 132 AOC


_1'OW01 POINT IIOLTAGE '40 voc
SHOR1 0R0..rT CUOR£H1' IU AOC
~ S'tSTDOVOLTAG£. - _ VDC

Figure 2a Figure 2b
Combiner Tie Box

The flow of power is:


• Twenty modules are connected together to
form a String, which is either positive or


negative dc
Eight Strings are connected together to
form a Table (again, either positive or
----
~ ---
--~
~-­

negative)
o 160 panels (one Table) Figure 3
• Two Tables (Monopole PV Subarray) are Arc Flash Hazard Warning Label on Combiner Box
connected to each Combiner
o 320 panels each Combiner Rubber insulating gloves and leather protectors
o One Combiner is positive and one should always be worn when the voltage exceeds 50 Vac
is negative or dc, so although the shock hazard from individual
• A positive Combiner and a negative modules is very low, modules are not used individually.
Combiner are connected together to a Tie The voltage produced by each Table (160 modules) is
Box and together produce a sinewave about 450 volts and when two Tables are tied together at
output voltage the Combiner Box it is quite high (910 Vdc, as shown by
o 640 panels the label). At this point in the PV system the incident
• Seven Tie Boxes are connected to an energy is still fairly low and arc flash category 2 clothing
Inverter, which takes the sinewave output and PPE would be appropriate. At the Inverter, however,
of the Tie Boxes the incident energy becomes even more of a risk to
o 910 Vdc personnel, Figure 4.
• The Inverter produces a clean sinewave to Safe electrical work practices in regards to the
the transformer electrical hazards are critical. As always the electrical
o 800 Vac workers need to understand the equipment completely to
• Which steps the voltage up to 34.5 kV be considered as qualified. It is evident that the principles
and practices of NFPA 70 and CSA's Z462 must also be
Other PV sites may have different collection fully understood and implemented to be able to ensure
systems, such as using an Inverter for each String, instead safety on the job. As per the published report on Tuesday,
of feeding several Strings into one Inverter. This paper December 17, in 2013 the Ministry of Labour in the
will not attempt to cover all variations or types . Province of Ontario was investigating the death by
electrocution of a 27-year-old apprentice electrician who
III. PV SYSTEM SHOCK AND ARC FLASH was working at a solar farm construction project. He was
HAZARDS found without vital signs in the electrical room for a new
solar farm east of Toronto . The general contractor notified

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the company of some in the eHouse in December 2013. transformer steps the voltage up to 34.5 kVac.
An eHouse is a "prefabricated electrical building" usually The real shock hazard with PV systems is that, like a
put together off site used on many construction sites to battery bank, they cannot be turned off. PV modules are
save time and money. Two workers were directed to make producing electricity whenever there is a light source, any
the necessary repairs to the noted defects. Both of the light source. There have been reports of residential PV
workers were exposed to electrical hazards as they modules producin~ hazardous voltages from the lights
performed the repairs. The power supply to the electrical used by firefighters 11.
equipment, installation or conductor was not disconnected, At the example utility PV system it is common to
locked out of service and tagged a violation of section 190 deenergize the Monopole PV Subarrayl21 by switching the
of Ontario Reg .213/91 . Inverter off and then placing the Combiner Box in the
One of the workers was installing a door interlock in OPEN position. Aclamp-on ammeter is used to ensure the
a high-voltage section of the building when he accidentally output from the PV module involved is less than 1 ampere.
came into contact with the transformer, and was The individual PV module that is having issues is then
electrocuted. He was found by his coworker and disconnected from the String using a special purpose tool
transported to the hospital, where he was pronounced at the cable connector. The cable connector is then
deceased . The company they work for was found to have locked and tagged , Figure 5.
failed to establish and implement written measures and
procedures for complying with the regulation to ensure
workers were adequately protected from electrical shock
and burns, and failed to make a copy of the written
measures and procedures available to every worker on
the project.
Regardless of the generation source be it coal ,
hydro, nuclear, wind or solar the basic tenants of electrical
risk assessment procedure apply. Identifying the hazards,
assessment of risks and implementing risk control
according to hierarchy methods which would certainly
include written measures and procedures need to be
executed for all electrical work.

Figure 5
PV Panel LOTO

B. The Arc Flash Hazard

Just as in the shock hazard, the risk of a serious arc


flash from individual PV modules is almost zero, but PV
modules are not used individually. When connected
~-
=--
- together in Strings and Tables their current output
==.- increases substantially. At the example installation, a
Monopole PV Subarray (two Tables connected together)
will have approximately 142 A of available short circuit
current, with incident energy of approximately 5.8 cal/cm 2
as noted in Figure 3. This level of risk requires category 2
arc-rated PPE and clothing .
Any arc flash incident has the potential to cause
ARC FLASH AND SHOCK HAZARD injury, especially if overcurrent protective devices are not

--
DE-ENERGIZED WORK ONLY maintained in accordance with the requirements of NFPA

..-.- --
IIC"""*'MMDIIIJI;

-
...- - .......-
- -
_0InIIIIIICa:
~
....aIE.
~

.............-
......
..-
70E Chapter 2[31 or CSA Z462 Clause 5. It is well known
that incident energy is proportional to time . If the
......
--- - - overcurrent protective device malfunctions or fails to
function the incident energy can easily double or triple
==.... 1
before an upstream overcurrent protective device
operates. Figure 6 shows the results of an arc flash at a
Figure 4 PV Table.
Inverter Arc Flash Hazard Warning Labels

Each Inverter is rated for 1 MW and there are 250


Inverters at this PV site. There are two warning labels on
this equipment, as there is a transformer and inverter
combined . The output of the inverter is 800 Vac, while the

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become energized and create additional electrical shock
or arc flash risks.
Firefighters are most at risk when working around
PV systems in commercial and residential facilities, as
they are usually located on roof tops and other elevated
structures, so the risk of falls is greater. Utility PV systems
are usually in open areas and, although their output is
greater, present fewer obstacles and are easier to isolate
than residential systems. Commercial PV systems may
present the same issues to firefighters as residential PV
systems if the engineer installs the maximum number of
PV modules and does not properly design the system for
safety.
Firefighters also have to be aware that PV modules
can be damaged during fire operations with the tools they
may normally use, as shown in Figure 9[11. In one test, the
voltage between the array and the support pan was
measured at 833 volts when the PV array was damaged in
this manner.
Figure 6
PV Panel Arc Flash

The incident energy is quite high at the Inverter, as


shown by the label in Figure 4. At the Inverter there is a
risk of the transformer backfeeding the Inverter in addition
to the input of seven Combiner Boxes. As can be seen in
Figure 4, the Inverter has incident energy of approximately
30 cal/cm 2 , while the transformer
2 has incident energy of
approximately 76 cal/cm . Both of these represent
substantial risk to maintenance personnel and the
requirements of NFPA 70E Chapter 1 and OSHA
29CFR1910.269[4[ should be observed , as well as CSA
Z462 - Clause 4 and all applicable Canadian Federal and
provincial legislation.

IV. Other Risks

A. Wind and Solar Heating Figure 9


Arcing Caused by Penetration of PV Module
If the PV module is being changed out after being Photo Courtesy of Underwriter's Laboratories
disconnected and lockedoutltaggedout, the primary risk is
in handling the module, especially if it is windy. At the Underwriter's Laboratories conducted a series of
example site their procedures state that module tests to determine the risks caused by various firefighter
replacement should not take place if wind speed is equal tools and techniques in the referenced study. Some of
to or greater than 15 mph. There can also be some level their recommendations and observations were:
of burn risk if the sun is heating the surface of the PV 1. When using firefighting hoses/water, use a fogging
module. The use of leather gloves will mitigate the risks pattern, rather than a stream. The minimum distance
from this, though . As always a comprehensive execution should be 20 feet from the nozzle to the module. These
of the risk assessment procedures in NFPA 70E and CSA two steps reduce the risk of electric shock to almost zero.
Z462 will allow for not only far safer electrical work 2. Even though some of the modules were damaged
planning but also can used very effectively for the wind during fire conditions, some damaged and all the
and heat hazards as noted above. undamaged modules produced electric current and
voltage.
B. Fire and Fire Response 3. Tarps cannot be depended upon to block sunlight when
placed on modules. If any light can be seen through the
PV modules can catch fire if damaged by debris or tarp, it will not be adequate.
suffer other types of mechanical damage. Most often, 4. Damaged modules can energize support structures and
fires within PV modules are caused by insulation failure, nearby metal objects.
internal shorting or improper installation . PV modules will 5. Artificial light can energize modules and produce
remain energized during a fire if they have a light source. hazardous voltages.
This could create risks involving fire and internal arcing 6. On residential PV installations, the fall risk for the
and shock. The PV module support structure could

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modules is high. Industry Committee (PCIC) Electrical Safety Excellence
Award held at the 60th Annual Technical Conference in
The UL report is 149 pages in length, so all of the Chicago, IL. Mike has been the Chairman of CSA Z462
particulars cannot be addressed in this paper. It is a Technical Committee - Workplace Electrical Safety -
recommended read for those whose jobs may require their Canada since inception in 2006.
responding to a fire involving PV modules. He was an NFPA 70E Technical Committee Member -
Electrical Safety in the Workplace - USA from 2006 until
2015 and is currently on Working Group Article 130.4.
IX. REFERENCES Mike was the official electrical safety liaison between
Canada - CSA Z462 (Canadian Standards Association)
1. Dini , David P.E., Backstrom, Robert Firefighter Safety and the United States - NFPA 70E (National Fire
and Photo voltaic Installations Research Project, Protection Association) from 2006 to 2015. He has served
Underwriter's Laboratories, November, 2011 as the IEEE lAS Electrical Safety Committee -
Construction Subcommittee Chair for last 4 years . He
2. Copper Mountain Solar 3 Module Replacement currently writes a featured monthly column called
Procedure , Sempra U.S. Gas & Power "Electrical Safety 360" in Electricity Business Magazine.
He is a current Associate Member of the Canadian
3. Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace , NFPA Standards Association Strategic Steering Committee
70E 2015 edition , National Fire Protection Agency (SSC) on Occupational Health & Safety in Canada and a
voting member of IEEE 1584 - Electrical Arc Flash
4. Workplace Electrical Safety, CSA Z462 2015 edition, Calculations Working Group since 2001 . Mike was the
Canadian Standards Association only Canadian member of the 20-member collaborative
Research & Testing Planning Committee (RTPC) between
5. Electric Power Generation, Transmission, and the NFPA and the IEEE to investigate the Electrical Arc
Distribution; Electrical Protective Equipment, OSHA Flash Phenomena. He has been the Secretary, Vice-Chair
regulation 29CFR1910.269, April 11 , 2014 and Chair of the IEEE lAS Electrical Safety Workshops in
Denver (05), Philadelphia and Calgary (07) respectively.
X.VITA He has completed many electrical safety presentations,
IEEE papers and tutorials at various professional,
James R. (Jim) White has been the Training Director of business and safety organizations across North America.
Shermco Industries, Inc., in Irving, Texas since 2001 . Jim
is certified by the InterNational Electrical Testing
Association (NETA) as a Level IV Senior Test Technician ,
as well as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)
as a Certified Electrical Safety Compliance Professional
(CESCP). He is the principal member for Shermco
Industries on the NFPA Technical Committee
"Recommended Practice for Electrical Equipment
Maintenance" (NFPA 70B). Jim represents NETA as an
alternate member of the NFPA Technical Committee
"Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace" (NFPA
70E), is NETA's principle representative on the NEC Code
Making Panel CMP-13 and represents NETA on the
ASTM F18 Cornrnittee "Electrical Protective Equipment
For Workers". Jirn is an IEEE Senior Mernber and in 2011
received the IEEE/PCIC "Electrical Safety Excellence"
award. In 2013 Jim received NETA's "Outstanding
Achievement Award'. Jim is a past Chairman (2008) of
the IEEE Electrical Safety Workshop and is the author of
three books available through American Technical
Publishers, "Significant Changes to NFPA 70E - 2015
Edition", "Electrical Safety, A Practical Guide to OSHA and
NFPA 70E" and "Circuit Breakers, a Technician 's Guide to
Low and Medium-Voltage Circuit Breakers".

Mike Doherty is an electrical safety consultant and trainer


in Canada with eHazard and also the president and owner
of Blue Arc Electrical Safety Technologies Inc. He is a
Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical & Electronics
Engineers (IEEE) and an IEEE Petroleum & Chemical
Industry Committee (PCIC) Emeritus. He was the 2013
recipient of the IEEE lAS Petroleum and Chemical