nAirport Road firm teaches emergency responders of dangers of sun-powered electricity. BY JON RUTTER, Staff Writer
James L. Cramer and Sal DePrisco are putting a twist on sun power.
Unlike burning petroleum, Cramer says, solar technology isn't fostering foreign oil dependency or "killing the planet."
But it could kill you.
DePrisco says that's because the direct current used in solar panel systems is inherently more hazardous than the alternating current in conventionally powered homes.
Residential photovoltaic systems do not typically exceed 600 volts.
However, DePrisco says, "There's enough voltage the electricity wants to jump over to you. ... It fries you."
Solar doesn't pose significant threats to homeowners or commercial enterprises, the men say, but to emergency responders fighting fires.
Hence, you have the Solar Fire Safety Training courses offered by Phoenixlink Inc., Cramer's solar design, installation and servicing company at 116C W. Airport Road, Lititz.
Cramer, who is in the unusual position of singing the praises of solar power while simultaneously warning people of its dangers, estimates the courses have reached 2,000 people statewide in the last two years.
The offerings listed on the company website consists of an introductory two-hour slide show/discussion/Q&A session and an eight-hour intensive class.
"Solar Training generates maybe 3 percent" of Phoenixlink's revenue, said Cramer, who also does residential and commercial energy audits.
"As it is a small, growing program, it hasn't taken full flight."
The issue "really piqued interest" among emergency responders beginning last year, said Craig Elmer, director of the Lancaster County Public Safety Center.
Responders must become solar safety aware, said Phil Colvin, deputy director of the Lancaster County Emergency Management Agency.
"When you run into something like this you need to recognize it. 'This is a solar panel. It's making electricity. And I need to be careful working around this thing.'
"Personally," Colvin added, "I wish there was" a mandatory training program.
Filling the gap are community college courses that teach solar safety to anyone interested.
Cramer and DePrisco, the vice president of Sensible Technical Solutions, West Chester, pooled their expertise three years ago to do solar designing, building, maintenance, advising and training.
DePrisco is a New York native and longtime solar consultant.
Cramer grew up on the West Coast and settled here to be near his wife's family.
The retired Army paratrooper, infantryman and medic notes that he served in the Middle East and makes it a point to hire disabled vets –– four of his six employees fall into that category.
He and project manager, Brian O. Remmey, a retired Army Ranger, were seeking a solar industry mentor when they met DePrisco.
Meanwhile, Cramer said, firefighters were becoming "more and more exposed to solar energy arrays, both on the ground and on buildings.
"I just felt that someone was going to die" because they were unprepared.
The solar industry had exploded in recent years, thanks in part to government incentives for renewable energy.
But while every electrical system must meet the state code, Cramer and DePrisco say, no best practices standard is enforced.
"Every (solar designer) is doing their own thing," DePrisco said.
Many solar electricity systems are consequently poorly grounded, according to DePrisco and Cramer.
Another problem is that solar panels on a roof are not featherweight –– they can total 1,100 pounds per square foot, adding to collapse risk in a fire.
But first responders are not always savvy about these kinds of things.
For example, they may not even recognize solar panels, some of which are built to mimic roof tiles or skylights.
And they might not realize that spillover from firetruck floodlights can power up panels to full voltage after dark.
"Even fire can get these things lit up," according to DePrisco, who said a pervading solar myth is that panels are safe when the sun's not out.
None of this is auspicious when you consider traditional firefighting protocols, like chopping through a roof to ventilate or testing for flames by feeling a door –– which could be metal and could be electrified.
Then there are solar thermal units, which sound more benign but aren't necessarily.
The glycol mixture in these solar-hot-water-generating setups can reach 540 degrees, DePrisco said.
"Who wants to axe through that?"
And not Cramer, who is earning an electrical technology degree at Harrisburg Area Community College.
"We're not trying to scare people," Cramer said, just getting them to respect solar electricity.
"I know what it's like putting my neck in a noose (in wartime) and these firefighters are doing the same thing."
"When you run into something like this you need to recognize it. 'This is a solar panel. It's making electricity. And I need to be careful working around this thing.' "
Lancaster County Emergency Management Agency