In just a few months apart from each other, seven of Walmart’s solar systems caught on fire. What did they have in common? They were designed, installed, owned, and maintained by Tesla.
Walmart is a company that sees the value in solar energy, and they’ve adopted the technology heavily. The SEIA’s 2018 Solar Means Business Report lists Walmart as having the fourth-largest amount of solar capacity among US businesses. Most of Walmart's solar projects are owned and operated by a 3rd party, and Walmart has agreed to purchase the power through a power purchase agreement.
They are, understandably, shaken. In addition to filing a suit against Tesla, they are calling for the removal of all 240 solar systems that power Walmart stores across the country.
What caused this abnormal amount of system fires? Despite what the narrative suggests, it’s very rare that a solar system catches fire. Overwhelming evidence shows that it was due to faulty installation practices, which drives home the importance of working with a well-qualified solar installer who does great work they stand behind.
Ensuring Fire Safety of PV Systems
The consensus among industry experts is that solar PV systems pose no more of a risk than any electrical appliance. Because solar panels have live wires, there will always be some type of risk for fire - but in the same way that an air conditioning or a refrigerator may catch ablaze.
As long as your solar system is installed properly and does not operate while it’s been damaged, you should have nothing to worry about.
Even Walmart, who has every right to be a little jaded towards solar energy, recognizes that it is not solar energy itself that caused the fire, but instead, faulty installation. In the court summons, Walmart states:
“To state the obvious, properly designed, installed, inspected, and maintained solar systems do not spontaneously combust, and the occurrence of multiple fires involving Tesla’s solar systems is but one unmistakable sign of negligence by Tesla.”
What Causes Solar Panel Fires?
What should you look out for when working with your solar installer to make sure your system is safe and properly installed? Fires can be the result of a few different things.
Some solar systems may be doomed from the start. If your system was poorly designed, there may be an increased risk of fire. But even if the design was perfect, a poor installation job can lead to issues. Damaged equipment, whether installed that way or occurring over time is one possible way a solar system could catch fire.
Another practice that, if done improperly, can cause fires is the electrical work and connections. Watch for faulty connections or cable insulation breakdowns that may induce electrical faults. Electrical faults, like arc faults, short circuits, ground faults, and reverse currents are a risk with all and any type of electrical equipment, but that doesn’t mean we should live in the dark. As long as your electrician or solar installer follows the proper procedure, the risk for damage is extremely small.
How to Select a Solar System Installer
When it comes down to it, the number-one thing you can do to decrease the already-low risk of your solar system catching on fire is to work with a quality solar installer. Solar energy is not inherently dangerous - but contractors who are not living up to industry standards are.
Don’t let this story stop you from experiencing the many benefits that solar energy has. Partner with a quality contractor and you’ll be in the clear. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you’re selecting a solar installer.
Customer reviews have changed the way so many of us make purchasing decisions. They give us insight into what it’s like to work with a company through the experiences of those who have already done so.
When you’re looking for a solar installer, be sure to tap into this treasure trove of helpful information. If you see trends - good or bad - it’s likely that those reviews accurately represent what it’s like to work with that company. Likewise, if you see outliers, take them with a grain of salt. From competition to disgruntled employees, some people may have left a fake, dishonest review.
Experience can tell you a lot. Before partnering with an installer, take a look at their past projects. If they’ve installed a ton of systems just like yours, they’ve likely worked through the kinks and established efficient ways to handle the challenges. If your project type is new to them, they can still do a great job, but you may want assurance that they know what they’re doing.
Solar is a relatively young industry, but you’ll know an experienced contractor when you see one. Look for certifications from industry boards like the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) and Solar Energy International (SEI).
If you find a solar installer that goes above and beyond the manufacturer, it’s a sign you found a good one. The more robust the warranty, the better work they’re likely to do.
If they’re willing to stand behind their work and put their time and money on the line, they’re probably going to do some quality work (as long as they’re a healthy, profitable company). And if something goes wrong, your solar installer will be there to make it right.
Be sure to check out how long they’ve been in business and look for signs of a stable, healthy company. A five-year warranty doesn’t mean much if the installer closes shop a year after your installation.
Just because you team up with a specific solar installer doesn’t mean you’ll have installers only from that company working on your project. Some solar installers use subcontractors throughout various steps of the installation process.
While there are plenty of reputable solar subcontractors out there that do fantastic work, look a little more into companies that use them. It’s always better to go with an installer with a full, in-house team that completes every step of the process – from design to installation to monitoring and maintenance.
Great solar installers (and companies in general) invest in training and education for their teammates, which means industry experts are working on your system. You won’t always get that with subcontractors.
Mission Statement and Company Values
Lastly, take a good look at the company’s vision and values. For many companies, their mission statement is the heartbeat of their organization, and their values outline how they achieve it. They’re more than just words on a webpage – they should drive the entire team.
Don’t rush into making a decision when it comes to choosing a solar installer. It’s a big decision and making the right one could save you from some big headaches down the road. For more tips on the solar installation process and teaming with the best company, check out these resources: