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I-Team: The Hidden Dangers Of Solar Panels

BOSTON (CBS) - Solar energy is hot again. Installations jumped 20% last year, and are expected to go up another 30% this year.

That is certainly good news for the environment, but it is also concerning for firefighters.

A massive fire burned for 29 hours at a large industrial building outside Philadelphia recently. Smoke could be seen for miles, but firefighters couldn't get on the roof to fight the blaze.

The problem? The building was covered with 700 energized solar panels.

Robert Duval of the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy says those panels generate enough electricity to electrocute someone. The panels are always generating power, even on a cloudy day.

But there are other issues firefighters face. Duval explained, "Visibility is very poor to start with and you are walking around on a roof and you've got concerns about whether you are going to step into something. . .the walkways are very narrow because they maximize the use of the space on the roof. They put as many panels as possible."

Duval said the panels also create another load on the roof. "Gravity is always going to win in that situation, and the roof will collapse if the fire is not suppressed underneath it."

Public safety officials agree solar systems are safest if they are part of the original building design. That isn't as easily done in the Boston area, which has lots of older buildings.

"Getting retrofitted safeguards into these existing buildings is harder," said Boston Fire Marshall Bart Shea.

Another big challenge is keeping up with emerging technology. For example, asphalt shingles are now being marketed that are actually little solar panels. They might be cosmetically more appealing, but they are even harder to detect.

"The worst case scenario is pulling into a situation that you don't know existed," said Shea.

There is now a push to require solar power buildings to be clearly marked, or perhaps put into a central registry.

A spokesman with the Solar Energy Industries Association told the I-Team, "The solar energy industry takes safety very seriously. We are working closely with firefighters and organizations all across the country on the development of enhanced codes and standards for solar installations. We also intend to ramp up our educational efforts so firefighters have a better understanding of how solar works."

Those kinds of actions provide some relief for Shea. "It is a concern for us, and the unknowns are really what drive our tactics at this point."

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