As the price of gasoline rises and concern for our environmental impact grows, solar power is becoming an increasingly attractive fuel. Because solar panels collect a resource we could never use up, they are remarkably safer for the environment -- and they are easier on your wallet. Nevertheless, as with all energy resources, solar panels can pose some danger if they are not properly manufactured, installed or maintained.
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What is a Solar Panel?
A solar panel is a grid of wafer-thin disks called photovoltaic cells, which are usually made of crystalline silicon. These PV cells absorb energy when photons of sunlight bounce off the surface and knock electrons out of their orbits. The energy transfers through a special converter called a p-n junction diode, which changes the sun's energy into electrical energy. The polished PV cells are connected with wire conductors, and they are spread on a special layer of thermally conductive cement, which helps keep the panel from overheating. A layer of glass or faux glass usually protects the cells on both sides.
Although solar panels have protective measures to prevent overheating, they must still be installed with a mind toward keeping them cool. While there is little danger of panels spontaneously combusting, solar panels should be elevated off of surfaces so that air can flow behind the panels and cool them. It is also better to install solar panels high off the ground so they receive unobstructed ventilation. If you do not hire a professional to install your panels, you should wear a protective helmet and a safety harness when working above ground, and you should always work with a partner. Check your roof to make sure it can support a solar panel. Faulty wiring can cause a solar panel fire, so have a professional wire the system if you are not knowledgeable in this area. Make sure the wire is big enough to handle the power in your system and that it is well insulated. The system will either need to be grounded or be tied to the grid to protect against lightning strikes.
Solar panels are easy to maintain, but they can get very hot. Materials that touch a solar panel could easily burst into flames. Always keep combustible materials away from your solar panels. Trim back any nearby tree branches -- which will also help keep your panels out of the shade and make them more efficient. Keep your panels clean by hosing them down or wiping them off with a rag and some glass cleaner. Rodents may chew on wires, or the insulation on a wire might be inadequate and melt, so monitor them carefully. An exposed wire could lead to a fire. Install a fuse to protect against shortages, and do not try to replace a fuse or a breaker if you do not know what you are doing.
In 2010, a house in San Diego caught fire, and it exposed a significant problem for firefighters. Most houses do not have a switch to cut the power from the panels in an emergency, so firefighters cannot put out the fire as quickly or effectively. Moreover, a solar energy system used for heat poses a different set of problems than one used for electricity. As such, it is imperative that the system be clearly marked, and that the system have a remote disconnecting switch.
Chemical Safety Risks
Aside from fire hazards, solar panels also pose potential chemical safety risks to the environment and to human health. When solar panels are not properly disposed of, they can leak dangerous chemicals back into the environment. In addition, when raw materials are improperly extracted from the environment to make solar panels, the miners are exposed to severe health risks. When there is a chemical spill at a panel-producing plant, the surrounding environment and population can be harmed. Nevertheless, these risks can be easily avoided through strict regulation, stringent health measures and extensive education.
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- NCTimes.com: Solar fire raises questions about panel safety