Los Angeles residents are all too familiar with the looming threat of wildfires. As of this writing, 16 large fires burned through the state of California, scorching 410,000 acres and displacing over 40,000 California residents. That includes the Valley Fire, burning just outside of Los Angeles in the San Bernardino National Forest.
Unfortunately, this may be the new normal for our state, as climate change makes wildfires a year-round threat. What does this “new normal” mean for your solar installation in Los Angeles? Can your solar panels survive a fire, and if not, who will pay for the damage?
A Year-Round Fire Season
It wasn’t so long ago when Angelenos could breathe easy for most of the year. Wildfires threatened only in the late fall as vegetation dried out and offered easily kindling. Large fires were thankfully few and far between. We don’t live in that world anymore. Continuing and extended droughts mean that wildfires can sprout up any day and quickly burn through dried vegetation. It also means that Angelenos need to be prepared for bigger, more destructive wildfires.
Nothing hit this point home like the devastating Thomas Fire that started at the beginning of December in 2017 and tore through the city of Ventura. By the time it was finally 100 percent contained in mid-January, the Thomas Fire had destroyed over 1,000 structures, including many homes. No Los Angeles resident will soon forget the hazy sky, the tinge of smoke in the air, and the vivid images of homes in flames over that un-merry holiday season.
Even as wildfires get stronger and more frequent, solar installations in Los Angeles have proliferated. The City of Angels is at the forefront of solar adoption, meaning that solar panels and wildfires are likely to meet more frequently in the future. If you are considering a solar installation in Los Angeles, here’s what you need to know about how fire may affect your panels.
Can Solar Panels Survive a Fire?
Solar panels are built to endure the elements, and they can survive some pretty brutal weather, including snow (a rarity in Los Angeles), heavy winds, and even hail storms (up to a point). The truth is that data about how solar panels perform in a fire just isn’t available. However, it’s safe to say that they certainly aren’t fireproof! If you lose your home to fire and you have solar panels on your roof, it is highly likely that you will lose your solar panels as well.
What’s more important is to ensure that solar panels do not cause or exacerbate fires. Manufacturers are continually improving their panels, which includes making sure that their solar panels meet building and fire codes and do not contribute to wildfires.
How Hot Can a Solar Panel Get?
Is it possible for solar panels to survive even if flames are nearby? This is a tricky question to answer. A lot of work has been done to test how much heat a solar panel can handle, but this typically refers to normal environmental heat, not the heat of flames.
Solar panels are designed to withstand a lot of heat. After all, many of the largest commercial solar arrays are in some of the hottest, driest parts of the country. Even residential solar installations in Los Angeles can endure high temperatures since roofs tend to be hotter than the ambient temperature on hot days.
We do know that solar panel performance begins to drop when temperatures climb above 77 degrees Fahrenheit and that they can continue generating energy even up to temperatures as high as 149 degrees Fahrenheit. Does this still hold true when flames are licking the edge of a roof? We don’t know, but if flames are close enough to affect the temperature of a solar panel, focus on evacuating your family (including pets!) as quickly and safely as possible. You can worry about your Los Angeles solar installation later.
Solar panels can be replaced. Lives can’t.
Who Pays When Solar Panels Are Damaged by Fire?
What if the nightmare comes true and a wildfire destroys your home, including your solar panel installation? Your first focus should always be on ensuring your safety and your family’s safety, but when all the flames are out and the ash has settled, will your solar panels be covered by insurance, or will you have to replace them out of pocket?
While it is hard to find the positives in such a bleak scenario, one silver lining is that most home insurance policies do cover rooftop solar installations. When you install solar panels on your roof, most insurance policies consider it a part of your home. Therefore, your system should be covered without any premium hikes.
You’ll definitely want to double check and make sure that your policy covers your solar panels. If not, you may need to request a specific rider to cover them, which will increase your premium. It’s also important to recognize that your homeowner’s policy is less likely to cover solar panels on a carport or a ground solar installation.
Don’t forget that in the event that your solar panels are damaged or destroyed in a fire, you’ll still need to pay your insurance premium before you can receive payment and that it may take weeks or even months for your claim to be processed and approved.
Solar Pro Tip: As you begin the process of purchasing solar panels, double check your homeowner’s insurance to make sure it will cover your Los Angeles solar installation. Next, review your coverage limits. Even a modest solar system can cost over ten thousand dollars. If your solar system pushes the value of your home above your insurance coverage limit, consider adjusting your policy. Otherwise, you could be paying out of pocket to replace your panels if your entire home is destroyed in a wildfire.
Leased Solar Systems and Power Purchase Agreements
If you currently (or plan to) lease your solar installation or have entered into a power purchase agreement with your solar provider, then the solar provider owns the system. If the system is damaged or destroyed in a wildfire, they – not you – are responsible for repairing or replacing the system. We suggest contacting your solar installer as soon as possible after a fire to report damage. They will likely have to deal with a big jump in repair and replacement requests, and homeowners who are slow to make a claim will find themselves at the back of the line.
Solar Panels and Smoke
You don’t have to be directly in the path of a wildfire to be affected by it. When a big wildfire hits, even far off communities may have to deal with smoky air and ash.
Smoke in the air isn’t good for your lungs, and it can even hurt the performance of your solar panels. When fire burns vegetation and other things, it releases soot and aerosol particles, like carbon, into the air. These particles actually absorb sunlight, which means less light hitting your solar panels and generating energy.
The biggest wildfires can take days or weeks to wrestle under control. If you live in a neighboring community, you may notice that your solar panels are less efficient. The level of the drop off in efficiency will depend on how close you are to the fire, the direction of the smoke, and the direction of the wind. It may be interesting to check out your solar installation’s performance before and during a fire to see how its performance changes as a result of the smoke in the air.
Solar Panels and Ash
Fire creates ash, and high winds can blanket neighboring communities in a fine layer of the stuff during a wildfire. Chances are that if you go outside and find a layer of ash on your car, there’s also probably a layer of ash on your solar panels as well.
Anything that covers your solar panels will prevent sunlight from hitting the solar cells, which will lower the output of your Los Angeles solar installation. Even if your community wasn’t directly affected by a wildfire, it’s useful to check on your solar panels to make sure they aren’t caked in ash.
If you do notice ash on your solar panels, you can easily fix the problem. In many cases, it’s as simple as spraying down your panels with a hose. If you notice that the hose bath doesn’t entirely clear the ash from the panels you may need to use a spray bottle and soft sponge to get off that last layer of crust. Use an anti-water-spotting solution if you notice water spots on your panels.
Please, please, please be careful when climbing ladders and doing any type of work on your roof. If you don’t feel entirely comfortable cleaning your solar panels on your own, contact a service to assist you.
Solar Pro Tip: Make sure to use a soft mop or microfiber cloth to scrub your solar panels. Do not use hard brushes, or you could scratch and damage your solar cells!
The Future of Los Angeles Solar Installations in the Age of Fire
The increasing severity of wildfires across California is a direct result of the ongoing drought conditions our state faces. Climate change is here, and wildfires are just one of the negative effects it brings to Los Angeles. One of the primary drivers of climate change is the burning of fossil fuels to create the energy that powers our city, our vehicles, and our homes.
If you want to help fight climate change, one way to do that is by investing in solar panels for your home. Solar panels produce energy using the clean, renewable energy of the sun instead of burning dirty fossil fuels. We Angelenos may need to accept that wildfires will be a persistent threat, but that doesn’t mean we have to also accept that climate change will continue to get worse. We can make a difference and lower our carbon footprint with every decision we make.
If you want to make the decision to switch to solar energy, contact Semper Solaris and schedule a free energy analysis for your Los Angeles home!