4 operational risks you should consider when installing onsite rooftop solar

Installing rooftop solar on your company’s facilities brings many advantages, from reducing electricity costs to making strides towards your sustainability goals. Even so, it comes with some operational risks that, if not considered and mitigated, can cost you unnecessary time and money — and in the worst case, jeopardize the safety of you and your employees.

The best way to mitigate these risks is to work with experienced and certified solar contractors. In this article, we will break down the operational risks that you should be asking your contractors about, plus best practices when it comes to mitigation measures, in order to ensure a safe and efficient installation. Download our handy risk checklist to be sure you’re covering it all.


1. Health and safety (HSE) risks

Installing a rooftop solar system often means working on top of tall buildings and using heavy equipment for loading materials. Naturally, this presents a risk for the individuals working on and around the roof, whether due to falling themselves, or panels and other heavy equipment being blown off the roof by strong wind. 

When referring to health and safety, we often consider both individual safety measures (such as a helmet or harness) and collective safety measures (such as rooftop railings or fencing). While both are important, the latter is always essential because even if an individual acts irresponsibly by neglecting a safety measure, the collective measures put in place should prevent an incident.

To mitigate the HSE risks, be sure the solar contractor you’re working with provides extensive training for their workers on safety measures and safe installation practices. Also ensure that they use all necessary safety equipment, such as harnesses and helmets. A professional solar contractor will have proper planning of lifting, including loading zones and warning signs, and also fence off equipment so that it’s stable enough to withstand heavy winds. You can ask your solar contractor directly how many incidents or near misses they have had in a set time period or check their sustainability report, which often reports on these measures.

Lastly, make sure your contractor plans ahead to ensure that in the event that an accident or injury does occur, they have established clear protocols for emergency response.


2. Roof damage risks

When not planned for sufficiently, installing solar panels on a roof can potentially cause damage to the roof, such as leaks, broken skylights or weakened structural integrity.

To mitigate this risk, businesses should work with contractors who are experienced in rooftop solar installation and who take proper precautions to prevent damage to the roof. This should always include carrying out a structural assessment as a first step in site feasibility. The assessment can typically be done based on construction drawings, however, when these do not exist or are not up to date, a site visit is required to measure out the dimensions of load-bearing beams. An additional inspection before installation begins should also be carried out, to identify any existing damage. 

A contractor should compile a roof protection plan prior to installation that contains various roof protection actions, such as building roof protection at landing zones and lining runways and landing zones with rubber mats or foam boards. They should also take measures to protect skylights and keep roof drains accessible.

In cases where damage is done or discovered during construction, a best practice is to document it in a roof damage and repair tracker that logs the location, date and description of the damage. The damage should be temporarily repaired and noted in the tracker. It should be permanently fixed as soon as possible to prevent further damage, and it’s helpful to include photos of the final outcomes. You can ask your contractor to share the damage and repair tracker, as it can be valuable to many stakeholders.


3. Fire risks 

As with any electrical system, a rooftop solar system that is installed correctly should not introduce any significant risk to your building or employees. However, when not installed correctly, solar panels on a roof can pose two discrete fire risks: a risk that the installation itself catches fire (especially if the wiring is poorly installed or if there is a fault in the system) and a risk that if a fire breaks out, the installation will obstruct firefighters from reaching the fire. 

To mitigate the risk of a fire, you should always work with experienced and certified solar contractors who are trained in proper installation practices, use high-quality equipment and have adequate guidelines for material handling. These professionals will know how to install the electrical components of the system in compliance with local building codes and regulations, taking extra caution during cable tightening as loose connections introduce risk. Finally, take care to contact local authorities (such as the fire department or police station) and inform them that there are solar panels on the roof. 

In the very rare instance that a fire does break out, the solar panels can make it harder for firefighters to extinguish the fire if the installation is not well-planned. As such, it’s best practice to design the installation from the get-go so that firefighters can easily access the roof, taking into consideration staircase placement. It’s also important to ensure that the solar panels are not installed near flammable materials or sources of ignition. Entrances should be marked with signs showing that there are solar panels on the roof, and clear labels should indicate which power lines are connected to the solar system and where the different components are, so that firefighters can access them quickly.

In addition, the solar installation must not increase the risk of fire spread. As an example, cabling through or above firewalls must be installed in a correct manner so it does not affect the function of the firewalls and panels should not be mounted on a rooftop directly above firewalls, in accordance with local valid fire safety regulation and building codes.


4. Production interference risks

Some rooftop solar customers worry about the risk of production interference, in which a facility may need to shut down production due to a power outage. While the risk itself is rare, this would most likely occur during the interconnection phase when the solar system is connected to the larger electric utility grid. Luckily, inverter technology is good at adapting to the actual site so that if there is a fault at the factory level, it will disconnect in order to protect the rest of the installation. 

To reduce this risk, it’s critical to work with a contractor that is experienced in the interconnection step. This involves first conducting an assessment of the switchgear and a discrimination study where the switchgear is investigated so that the interconnection method can be appropriately designed. Then, the plan should be set for the final interconnection, in coordination with the site’s responsible electrical engineer and the local utility. 

In addition to these specific risks, it’s also important for businesses to consider the overall project management of the installation process to ensure that risks are properly identified and mitigated. This may include developing a comprehensive project plan, including timelines, budgets and risk management strategies. An experienced solar contractor can provide thorough guidance on best practices for mitigating operational risks during the installation process.

Lastly, quality is key. Ladjouze says: “It’s key to design and install a system that uses equipment that fits the actual roof so it will be durable throughout the lifetime of the project. It’s almost always worth paying more for quality equipment and materials if it reduces maintenance in the future, as that introduces additional costs and risks.

Remember, the best way to mitigate these rooftop risks is to work with experienced and certified solar contractors. Download our risk checklist to be sure you’ve got everything covered.