Ensuring the safety of your solar energy equipment can be complex. You have to address issues like PV panels comprising several energy sources, direct current, and the fact that equipment is often located outdoors. The standards are a good place to start, but it is important to err on the side of caution.
Unlike traditional electrical installations, where end users are like the outlying branches of a main source (the utility), PV installations comprise multiple energy sources, which makes it more difficult to ensure their safety. For instance, on a 500 kW installation, you have thousands of sources, all of which are potential hazards when it is sunny. The type of current – DC – and high voltages add further complexity. In the event of a short circuit, it is more difficult to switch off the current than for traditional installations. Likewise, circuit breakers do not always provide adequate protection against electric shocks. Installing one circuit breaker per source is not feasible, and, even if it were, the fact that circuit breakers trip if the current exceeds a certain threshold makes their use tricky for PV installations, whose current varies very little during both production and short circuits. Equipment wear due to exposure to bad weather or vandalism – solar farms are often in isolated areas and are not equipped with surveillance capabilities, making this risk very real – is also a problem. But there are a few things you can do.
Standard IEC 60364-712 on the electrical installations of buildings does outline some rules for protecting people. However, the current version of the standard does not go into much detail nor is it universally applied. Currently, the entire PV industry, from standards institutes down to installers, is learning as it goes. That being said, the standard is being updated, and future versions will no doubt feature substantial improvements over what is currently available. And, in the meantime, there is no cause for undue concern about the safety of today’s PV installations.
Always err on the side of caution
In most cases, if a PV installation complies with the standard mentioned above and if the equipment is fit for purpose and properly installed, it will work just fine. Until a more complete standard becomes available, it makes sense to err on the side of caution. Concretely, this means ensuring the installation’s capacity is sufficient and choosing quality equipment installed by a licensed professional. In other words, just use common sense! Don’t try to save money at all costs, and plan your budget accordingly. Because an installation with insufficient capacity built using poor-quality equipment can create safety issues, putting both people and property at risk.