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Solar flare-up over inspections

City of Santa Rosa, alternative-energy contractors at odds over rules aimed at firefighter safety


Santa Rosa is one of 25 cities in the nation recognized for its strong support of the solar energy industry.

Plentiful sunshine, environmentally conscious residents and innovative public financing options have contributed to the city outshining others when it comes to installation of photovoltaic systems.

Santa Rosa fire inspector Toby Rey measures the placement of solar panels on a new home as Sunpower construction manager Jason Mueller watches last week. (Christopher Chung / PD)

But that success is being threatened, some in the solar industry say, by burdensome fire regulations that reduce the size of many residential solar systems, increase their cost and in some cases may be unnecessary.

Since January, the Santa Rosa Fire Department has been requiring that solar panels on homes be set back 3 feet from the eaves and ridgelines of roofs to give firefighters safe pathways during a fire.

These and other rules regarding solar installations, which have been recommended by the California Fire Marshal’s Office since 2008, were adopted by Santa Rosa and many other cities as part of their fire codes last year.

But solar installers say Santa Rosa stands out from other jurisdictions for its rigid implementation of the rules and an infuriating permit process.

“They have created a whole different layer of bureaucracy that nowhere else has,” said Jeff Mathias, co-owner of Synergy Solar & Electrical Systems of Sebastopol.

Since the Fire Department began enforcing the new rules in January, solar installations now require separate plan reviews and field inspections by fire inspectors. Those are in addition to plan reviews and site inspections conducted by city building officials.

The extra layer of review strikes Mathias as a “completely and totally unneeded redundancy” that adds time, costs and complexity to jobs in Santa Rosa.

“System sales in the city are down, systems we are installing are smaller and the installations are costing more,” Mathias said. “Nobody is a winner here.”

Santa Rosa fire officials say the roof setbacks are critical for firefighter safety and are being enforced fairly and consistently, and that projects that comply with the code receive speedy review at a reasonable cost.

“While people may not like the rules, we’ve been fair and consistent in our enforcement of them,” said Mark Pedroia, senior fire inspector responsible for most solar-plan reviews.

Fire officials say the new fee of $270 for each residential installation should generate about $60,000 annually at the current rate. The fees are designed to recover the cost of administering the program, although the work is being handled by existing staff in the city fire marshal’s office.

Both sides adamant

The outcry by the solar advocates and steadfast defense of the standards by the Fire Department highlight the passions both sides feel about the services they provide the community.

Solar manufacturers, designers and installers feel their photovoltaic systems are a clean source of alternative energy that can help curtail global warming.

To them, additional regulations only create more barriers to wider adoption of the technology and slow the nation’s transition to energy independence.

Fire officials are equally passionate about the safety of firefighters and the residents they protect. They say the setbacks are vital because solar panels can create hazards for firefighters who sometimes need to cut a hole in a roof during a fire.

They acknowledge, however, that they not aware of any incident in Santa Rosa in which a solar panel posed a problem for a firefighter.

Venting is an important technique firefighters use to release the heat and smoke that build up in a house fire, helping prevent its spread and improving the atmosphere inside should firefighters need to enter the structure to fight the fire or rescue someone, Pedroia said.

Balancing these two competing demands was the job of the state fire marshal’s task force, made up of firefighters, building code officials and solar industry representatives, which met for seven months to draft the 2008 guidelines. They suggested setbacks, clear labeling of electrical components and cut-off switches to help firefighters perform their jobs safely.

The rules prohibit panels from being placed within 3 feet of the ridgeline of a roof, 3 feet from the eaves, and 18 inches from the valleys created by the intersection of two roof sections. The guidelines allow local fire departments to waive those requirements as long as other means of roof access are available.

Before January, because the guidelines were not part of of the city’s building or fire code, building inspectors had no authority to require those setbacks, said Michael Whitaker, Santa Rosa’s chief building official.

But with City Council approval last year, the Fire Department began enforcing the rules in January, much to the chagrin of installers.

“We look different because we’re doing it and that aggravates the contractors,” Pedroia said.

Complaints continue

Fire officials said they have done their best to explain the reasons for the rules, but many installers remain unconvinced.

Solar firms across Sonoma County continue to complain about the new regulations in general and the way they are implemented in Santa Rosa in particular.

“The general consensus among all of us has been that the setbacks are bad for us and honestly they aren’t particularly necessary,” says Noah Hallett, a designer with Advanced Alternative Energy Solutions in Petaluma. He also is a member of Solar Sonoma County, the nonprofit consortium that promotes solar energy and efficiency programs in the county.

“This particular case is one where we’re really butting heads,” he said, referring to Santa Rosa.

One solar designer, Michael Eschenbach of Solar Works in Sebastopol, was so frustrated that when he heard the Fire Department wanted to increase its fees for the new reviews, he denounced it at a City Council meeting in June as as “adding insult to injury.”

The department had proposed increasing its portion of the permit fees from $11 to $270 for residential solar installations.

The fees, which the department says brought Santa Rosa in line with other communities, were approved by the council in June and went into effect July 1.

Eschenbach said that roofs in the city are often chopped up into so many smaller surfaces that adhering to the setbacks reduces the usable space for solar on a typical roof by 35 to 50 percent. This reduces the size of solar systems, revenue to the company and taxes to the municipality, and makes going green less attractive for many homeowners.

“There is no doubt that we have lost jobs because of these regulations,” said Solar Works CEO John Parry.

But Pedroia said he’s not aware of any project that wasn’t able to be modified to successfully to meet the setbacks. People haven’t withdrawn applications or contracts because of the regulations, he said.

System designers acknowledge that in most cases projects are getting done. But they say the setbacks increase costs because of the need for more efficient — and expensive — panels to maximize the energy generation from the smaller area.

Permit data shows the city approved 126 solar permits between January and July, compared to 111 for the same period last year, a 14 percent increase. All but five this year have been residential installations.

That’s a far smaller increase than the prior year, when permit applications rose by a rate of 40 percent.

“Working very well”

Interim Fire Chief Mark McCormick said there was a learning curve on the part of the city and the installers when the new regulations went into effect, but most of the kinks have been worked out.

“It’s a good concern and we should address that and we did address it, and it’s currently working very well,” McCormick told the council in June.

There is value in having consistency in how the various cities in the county implement the rules because agencies often assist one another in fires, McCormick said. It’s safer, particularly in a chaotic environment like a hot, smoke-filled roof, if firefighters know what conditions to expect, he said.

The department allows minor exemptions to the rules in certain cases, and has an alternative process designers can go through to get more significant exemptions to the code if they can demonstrate fire safety concerns can be resolved another way, he said.

That process costs an additional $250. Pedroia said he’s processed just one such application and it was for a project that ran into trouble because work was started without permits.

In response to some of the criticism, the Fire Department has examined its turnaround time for permits. It found that 33 percent were approved the same day, 53 percent within two days, and 14 percent took more than a week, Pedroia said.

Different in Sebastopol

What really seems to burn some installers, though, is that in other communities, fire officials don’t get involved at all in the permitting of solar systems that conform to the guidelines.

Sebastopol, for example, leaves its solar permitting in the hands of its building official unless some exemption is required. “There’s no reason for me to look at it if he says it meets the code,” Fire Chief John Zanzi said.

And when Zanzi is asked to sign off on an exemption, the city doesn’t charge extra and installers say reasonable requests are often granted.

In one case, Zanzi said he allowed panels to fill an entire surface of one side of a steep section of roof because just on the other side was an open roof face with a gradual incline that the firefighters could use instead.

“We try and look at each situation because we realize the solar guys have demands,” Zanzi said.

In Santa Rosa, however, fire marshals tell designers that the city doesn’t waive the setbacks, even when there are large swaths of open roof nearby. Nor do they waive them on uninhabited spaces, such as garages.

The city even requires both a plan review and inspections for solar arrays that aren’t mounted on the roof, but on the ground near the home, to ensure the panels are not too close to vegetation.

Julie Carlton, a clean energy advocate for Santa Rosa, said the city helped organize one meeting between fire officials and the solar industry to improve communication about the new rules. A similar forum will be held later this month at the North Bay Builders Exchange, she said.

“It’s not just an issue for Santa Rosa,” Carlton said. “It’s an issue that all the cities are struggling with.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

14 Responses to “Solar flare-up over inspections”

  1. Grey Whitmore says:

    love the usual crazies on here.

    hey, i want to be a fireman on the roof of a building on fire trying to unlatch a solar panel ….

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  2. Skippy says:

    It looks as though Big Green has met Big Govt.
    Of course, they both want to micromanage every aspect of our lives, homes, businesses etc.
    Without the force of law behind their silly self-serving agendas, regular folks would be able to live a life of relative freedom.
    It’s actually delightful to see them flailing against each other!
    Maybe someday we will end public employee unions and the global climate change hoax before they both bankrupt us…for no good reason.

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  3. Ali Ghorbani says:

    Our society functions because we have rules and for the most part we follow them, but the issue here is not the “rules”, but how they are enforced and without paying attention to individual cases. For example we need more clear definition of “non habitable spaces/structures”, currently SR fire department views garages, warehouse, workshops, day use buildings, etc. all the same as a house with bedrooms.
    I believe the rules are too stringent as they are today and there is room for improvement, therefore, we should keep an open mind to making adjustments and optimizing it as we learn more about the reasons behind the rules and introduce new technology. I envision a society without fire department as we know it today by simply applying existing technology. Here are some suggestions: In addition to smoke detectors and fire sprinklers, add melt away skylights, windows and doors that opens up after detecting heat or smoke, etc. “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure”……..

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  4. paul says:

    history has proven that the group process of decision making produces the dumbest solution to ANY problem. Add monetary incentives, the need for added revenue, the arrogant reasoning of the FD (their are numerous examples of this), SR city officials noted use of hoeowner “fees” to pay its own bloated wages, there is no likelyhood of reasonable solution to this dispute. And SR officials are not interested in whether something is green or not.. They are ONLY interested in their PERS rate.

    The fire dept. could care less about green if it interferes with their pay or retirement. They are also known for making rules that protect them and not the public. For example, public buildings, even ones that host childrens’ functions, ones where there are several adults in charge of MANY young chidren, several per adult, must have exterior locking doors which cannot be locked open and MUST lock upon closure. Adults unable to remove all children at the same time CANNOT return to rescue the remaining children. This is to make sure that a firefighter cannot encounter backflash without a key. When firefighters were asked about this the answer was about the firefighters, not the reason for the fire fighters actual need in the first place, the rescue of human victims now locked inside. Intelligence is not the functional result of group decision making.

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  5. FIRE HOT ! says:

    Check out this 60 sec roof vent video.

    Imaging dealing with PV panels on that job!

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  6. Dogs Rule says:

    You can’t guarantee the safety of firemen. They fight fires. Hello?

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  7. Pearl Alquileres says:

    I didn’t mean a “release” (as in quick release) that completely un-tethers the panel but more of a hinge on one end & release on the other end.
    Wiring is flexible & could be easily positioned to move a little at the hinge. The panels only need to be moved enough too quickly & temporarily gain access to the roof.

    Bottom line… this is just another example of good intentions being shoveled onto the road to hell to make some brain dead bureaucrat feel good about saving us poor fools from ourselves.

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  8. What We Need is More Regulation says:

    This hasn’t been reviewed enough to protect the unsuspecting citizens of Sebastopol and Santa Rosa. We need more regulations, inspections and more permits to ensure the safety of all who live under these panels and who have to fight fires to save lives and houses.

    There is nothing prettier than a roof filed with plastic sheets and pipes that cost thousands and need replacement within 7 to 10 years. Green is the way to go (if you can afford it.)

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  9. John says:

    @Pearl/Bear – Wouldn’t work. There are a lot of hot electrical connections and with all the activity on the ground during a fire, having large solar panels being moved around on the roof possibly falling off onto someone wouldn’t help things.

    And Bear, remember the regulations were created by a group of officials AND industry leaders…not without “thought” as you say. SR is simply enforcing them. If the plan review and inspection takes 2 hours, then that’s what is charged to pay for the cost of staff. If Sebastopol wants to be more lenient and put 100% trust into the contractors and building dept to make sure it meets those regulations that’s fine.

    @GAJ – If a room only emcompasses one side of the ridge cutting a hole in the other side trying to control a room and content fire won’t help….it would make it worse.

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  10. Info says:

    Holes are cut directly over the fire so not to allow the fire to spread. If the fire is under the side with the panels and the hole is cut on the other side of the roof the heat and smoke will not be released, causing more damage and a greater fire spread.

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  11. bear says:

    Pearl, I agree with you!!!!!!!

    This is what happens when State codes are adopted without thought. The City can modify state codes if they want to, and if the perception of liability is reasonable.

    Sebastopol has figured it out. I guess they get paid more in SR, so it will take longer!

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  12. RAW says:

    The reason is called money. They created the system and then charge money to support it. It is called expanding government. They are very good at it in Santa Rosa.

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  13. GAJ says:

    Perhaps a firefighter can explain why this needs to be done when the panels only go on one side of a roof with the other side completely accessible for chopping holes if necessary.

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  14. Pearl Alquileres says:

    Why can’t they just install them with quick release latches so the firefighters can quickly move them out of the way?

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