Do you have, or are you planning on putting solar on your roof? If so, I have two very important questions for you. First, when was it or when will it be installed and second, was or will the proper installation methods be used? If you are among the majority of people who count on the local building department to insure all is done correctly, get ready for a surprise. They are not responsible. Even though it is the public building jurisdictions in many areas who issue the permit and then approve the final installation procedure, if something goes wrong down the road they are exempt from responsibility. The complete responsibility is between the property owner, and possibly the tenant if such is the case, and whoever completed the permitted work. It is nearly impossible to hold a building department accountable for the very things they approve and sign off on in the private sector. At this point you may be confused as to the nature of this article, considering the language in the tittle. Although this general description of the local building jurisdictions lack of responsibilities are all encompassing, it is within the specifics of roof mounted solar arrays that I wish to focus. I will use an actual recent example to reveal my message. It is important to note here that I am referring to the state of California, so the following information may or may not apply in other states. The California State Fire Marshalls office is the determining entity for all of the fire codes pertaining to how solar is located on roof tops throughout the state. At any given time a local fire chief can override a particular fire code put forth by the state in their local fire jurisdiction should they choose to do so. With such a decision the local fire department assumes shared responsibility in that matter and must grant written permission to the property owner and/or contractor to proceed in a given way. With this information alone it can seem reasonable to trust the decisions of the local fire department who presumably knows their own particular circumstances better than the all-encompassing State Fire Marshall would know them. Unfortunately there is a potential hazard that can put the property owner at great risk due to another entity that typically represents the local fire department in deciding how the solar modules may or may not be located on a roof. As a means to expedite and control permitting costs, the local building departments will frequently perform the plan check and inspections pertaining to the fire codes along with their own building codes. Again, with this limited information, it seems reasonable to have a building department handle all the permits and inspections as a means to save time and money. However, there are two extremely important conditions that a building department must adhere to for this scenario to be successful and protect the property owner; integrity and competence. It would be very naïve to believe this is always the case. In fact, I know it to be otherwise. Before I share my recent example of this, let’s examine why I asked the two questions at the beginning of the article.
First, the installation time frame and second, the method of installation. I am specifically referring to a fire code that went into effect earlier this year (2014). If you have installed prior to this timeframe, this was not an actual code yet; it was simply listed as a “guideline”. The installation method I am referring to is the location of the modules on your roof and specifically the remaining gap (setback) to your ridge and/or gable end. For those of you unfamiliar with these terms I will briefly explain. On a typical roof that has two main slopes descending in opposite directions, the highest point at which these two roof slopes join is called the “ridge”. Also, if the end view of a structure reveals the end wall continuing up past the interior ceiling line to form a triangle shape that meets the two roof slopes on either side, this is referred as a “gable end”. The specific fire code we are examining in this article calls for a minimum 3 foot space to remain from the ridge to the closest edge of the module array. Likewise, a minimum 3 foot space is to remain from the edge of the roof at the gable end to the closest edge of the module array. The 3 foot ridge setback is for venting purposes in the event of a structure fire and the 3 foot gable end setback is considered a potential walkway for firefighters to access the ridge. Please understand that there are more details to these requirements, but for the purposes of this discussion these two basic setbacks are my focus. For additional information on these codes you can go to the California State Fire Marshall website. So now lets’ briefly recap where we are. If you have recently or plan on installing solar on your roof in California, you need a remaining space of at least 3 feet between your ridge and/or gable end and the solar modules. It is very important to understand that this is a fire code not a building code. Just because your local building inspector signs off and approves an installation that lacks these setbacks, does not mean you are protected. You should check with your local fire chief to make sure that these setbacks are met or that they approve otherwise.
A Real Example
I recently received a call from a potential solar client in Woodland, California. I was referred to this man by someone I have known for 25 years. His initial call to me was full of urgency. He asked if I could meet him very soon and provide some answers and an eventual quote for solar on his house. He confessed on the phone that he had signed a solar lease contract the previous evening and was feeling extremely uneasy about it. He only had a few days to cancel the lease contract and wanted to talk to me soon. I met him later that day and spent 30 minutes or so with him. After our initial discussions concerning his utility costs and why he was a good candidate for solar, he provided me a satellite photo that the lease contractor left with him showing the intended placement of their modules. It was immediately obvious to me that they would definitely encroach into the above mentioned setbacks. I then got up on the roof with a tape measure and confirmed this. The client was very disturbed by this awareness. We then made an appointment for me to return in two days with a complete cost quote for my suggested solar system. When I returned two days later, he had already taken the same satellite photo into the City of Woodland Building Department to inquire about the fire code setbacks. At this point you should remember that these are fire codes not building codes. In my opinion, the comments made by the building department employee to this man were completely inappropriate and places him at risk should he proceed with the lease installation (which I am confident he will not). I will reveal here that I am very comfortable with this mans’ honesty and ability to translate an accurate accounting of what he was told by the building department the previous day. The following statements are quotes from the building department employee at the front counter as the client explained them to me. “Yes, the 3 foot setback is a code, but as long as there is a venting opportunity on the other side of the roof this is okay”. Referring to the satellite photo: “This is not a problem”. The newest “California Electric Code” book (CEC) was available in mid-May to early June of this year (2014) reflecting the newly updated codes, of which these fire codes were part of. It is late September 2014, when this potential client received the above information from the building department. If your installation took place after June 2014 you should check with the local fire department. Building departments obviously get all of the updated code books immediately upon their availability. Now lets’ once again recap. A potential client interested in putting solar on his house in Woodland, California prematurely signs a solar lease contract and has strong feelings of regret very soon thereafter. He is referred to me and I absolutely tell him that the solar lease is not good for him, in my opinion. I also reveal fire code issues with their potential installation methods. In an attempt to confirm, he personally goes in the City of Woodland Building Department where he is essentially told to not worry about that fire code. (If you think I am making any of this up, you are drastically mistaken.) So now, due to the salesmanship of a solar lease company and the misleading information from the building department, he is faced with a decision: Who to trust. What would you do?
This situation sadly represents just one of our current misfortunes surrounding the solar industry in America.