Electrical safety of grid-connected solar installations in Western Australia - December 2011
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As reported by the Clean Energy Council, 7.6% of Australians have solar systems installed in their homes. The total number of Australian households using solar energy saw a 60% increase in the period 2002 to 2009. Over 10,000 new domestic solar systems were installed in WA between July and December 2011 alone. Such escalation in demand for solar photo-voltaic (PV) systems underpins a need to ensure and monitor that solar PV installations are being properly installed.
In Western Australia, solar systems must be installed by licensed electrical contractors and the installations certified to be safe. All photo-voltaic system installers not holding an electrical contractor’s licence are required to engage a licensed electrical contractor to carry out the electrical installing work.
All electrical installations, including solar installations in WA, are subject to sample inspections by the network operators (such as Western Power and Horizon Power) to ensure that they are safe and meet the relevant safety standards. Inspection rates vary from 10% to 100% based on the confidence that the network operators have in the electrician carrying out the work. On average, sixty new solar installations are inspected every week as part of the sample inspection regime.
In June 2011, in response to reports of potentially unsafe situations associated with installed solar panels, EnergySafety, in conjunction with the network operators, developed an inspection checklist to ensure that grid-connected solar installations in WA were being properly inspected. Network operators forwarded copies of all their completed checklists to EnergySafety for an initial period of three months, to assist with the collection of data on any trends of non-compliance in industry.
EnergySafety conducted a review on the inspection reports supplied by network operators. The purpose of this report is to inform all stakeholders of the outcomes of these inspections.
The main purpose of the review was to gauge the level of compliance of solar installations with applicable Australian Standards and Legislation. All inspections were carried out by electrical inspectors working for network operators and designated under the Energy Coordination Act 1994.
The inspections focused on the 26 items listed on the checklist (refer to appendix A in the report for a copy of the checklist used). The checklist is intended to provide guidance to electrical inspectors when performing inspections. Inspections are not limited to these items on the checklist. All of these items inspected related primarily to compliance with applicable Standards and Legislation pertaining to electrical safety. The inspections did not include any checks on the structural integrity of the installed systems.
Non-compliances were grouped under three distinct defect categories:
- Category 1- Potential fire risk if switch operated at full load. Relates primarily to incorrect wiring of the DC circuit breaker.
- Category 2 - Wiring Rules defects ie wrongly sized protective devices, inadequate mechanical protection of cables, IP index of equipment not suitable for environment.
- Category 3 - Missing or incorrect warning labels.
- 260 inspection checklists were reviewed.
- 131 (50%) of the installations reviewed were defect-free.
- 129 (50%) of the installations inspected contained at least one defect, as detailed below. Inspectors' Orders were issued requiring the relevant electrical contractor to correct all the defects identified.
- 31 (12%) installations had a Category 1 defect.
A high percentage (12%) of installations inspected was found to have ‘incorrect wiring of the DC isolating device’.
AS/NZS 5033:2005, the Australian Standard for photo-voltaic installations requires the use of a double-pole switch to disconnect the PV panels from the inverter and to isolate the solar cable from the panels. Installers can use either circuit breakers or isolators for this purpose. Many installers have been using double-pole DC circuit breakers instead of DC isolators. These DC circuit breakers can either be polarised or non-polarised.
Polarised breakers present a concern because if they are wired incorrectly, they are a potential fire hazard. Manually turning off an incorrectly installed DC circuit breaker while the inverter is still operating at full power may cause the circuit breaker to catch fire. However, if the shut down procedures are followed correctly and the AC power is turned off first, the inverter will turn off and remove any current from the solar panels. This will not present any risk with a DC circuit breaker, even if it is wired incorrectly. Having said this, it is a defect which warrants immediate rectification.
It is evident that a high percentage of electricians are not familiar with the wiring of polarised DC circuit breakers. In the July 2011 edition of the Energy Bulletin, industry was reminded that extra care should be undertaken when using polarised DC circuit breakers. EnergySafety recommended that electrical contractors refrain from using these devices if they were unsure how to wire them correctly.
- 29 (11%) installations had a Category 2 defect.
The electrical installations within solar systems are required to comply with the Wiring Rules. As such, it is a requirement for all components of the electrical installations to be properly selected and installed for the application ie correct current rating of circuit breakers, installation work practices according to the Wiring Rules. Non-compliance with the Wiring Rules does not necessarily indicate that the system is unsafe. However, the installation is deemed to be sub-standard and may pose a safety risk in the future, if the defect is not rectified.
The most common defect identified during the inspections was 'failure to provide adequate mechanical protection to cables'. Clause 3.9 of AS/NZS 3000:2007 requires that all wiring be adequately protected from mechanical damage ie in conduits and/or supported at fixed intervals where accessible eg in roof/ceiling space.
- 69 (27%) installations contained a Category 3 defect.
AS5033:2005, Installation of Photovoltaic Arrays prescribes the labelling requirements for solar installations. The Standard requires that switches, inverters and circuit breakers be identified by marking. Also signage should be affixed to indicate that solar power is installed so that electricians, emergency service workers or others know how to work on or shut down the system safely.
27% of solar installations either had no labelling or incorrect labelling. The majority of these omissions related to the mandatory affixing of a shut-down procedure. Again, while this issue does not pose an imminent safety hazard, the relevant installations do not comply with Australian Standards and should be rectified.
The review revealed an unacceptable level of sub-standard solar installations. Half of the systems inspected contained at least one defect ranging from incorrectly-wired DC isolating devices to labelling issues. While none of those installations posed an immediate electric shock or fire hazard, or was disconnected as a result of the inspections, the defects identified nevertheless require rectification. Inspector's Orders were issued by the attending inspectors to require the electrical contractors to rectify the defects.
The way forward
EnergySafety is working closely with network operators to ensure that that the issues identified during the inspections are addressed. Network operators have been requested to review their inspection practices to treat incorrect wiring of DC circuit breakers, failure to provide adequate mechanical protection to cables, omission of labelling indicating presence of a second energy source and missing shut-down procedures as "serious defects". As such, once the rectification works are completed, network operators' inspectors will re-inspect all these installations, to ensure that the corrective work is adequate.
Additionally, once any one of the above-mentioned serious defects is found in an installation performed by an electrician, a greater sample of their future work will be inspected by the network operators ie the sampling rate will be reset to 1:1. Network operators have also agreed to inspect retrospectively all installations done by a particular electrician once they encounter a serious defect in any of their installations.
EnergySafety will publish the findings of this review in the next edition of its Energy Bulletin. Electrical contractors will be advised that they may be in breach of the legislation if they had certified that a solar installation is safe when, in fact, it is not. Even if their work was not inspected at the time of completion, should an accident or a fire occur, in the future, and the subsequent investigation reveals a defect in their installations, they could still face serious penalties.
EnergySafety will write to all electrical contractors to remind them of their obligations and recommend that they retrospectively self-review their past work if in doubt.
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