Display - front desk

Pre-normative research on the fire safety of solar building envelopes

What we did and why

The VBA supported research by RMIT University through a research grant to better understand the fire safety risks associated with the installation of solar panels on the facades of multi-storey buildings.

Building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) is an emerging technology that integrates photovoltaics (PV) into building elements (e.g., external wall cladding, roofs) to harvest solar energy, with the potential to meet the future energy needs of buildings. While it has not yet been widely adopted nationally or internationally, demand for its adoption will likely increase due to a greater need for alternative energy, particularly for high-rise commercial buildings. BIPV is not a conventional passive material in terms of how it might react to a fire but is an active system that may contribute to fire ignition and spread.

Fire safety is of vital concern in the use of BIPV in buildings. It is essential that BIPV use on building facades and roofs to replace conventional building materials does not adversely affect the safety of building occupants and fire fighters, or the structural performance of buildings. Limited studies exist for the building industry to fully understand the fire risks of BIPV and the requirements applicable to BIPV modules, both as elements for electricity production and as building elements.

RMIT University’s Associate Professor Rebecca Yang led the research. Further information about RMIT’s research on solar energy adoption in the building sector and urban environment is available from RMIT University.

What we found

The research identifies fire safety hazards of BIPV in terms of ignition, propagation, and hazards to fire rescue operation. The research analyses the current regulatory and industry standards for the different aspects of BIPV including international comparisons.

The research identifies opportunities for further research to reduce hazards relating to BIPV product innovation, development of test configurations to measure and mitigate the risks posed, and investigation of the impact of the risk of electrical shock, toxic gas emissions, and falling debris on evacuation and firefighting strategies.

What difference this made

While RMIT’s research is a scoping study and confined to limited aspects of BIPV, it identifies important gaps in the current knowledge of the fire safety risks of BIPV and regulatory requirements to address these risks.

We have shared the report and its insights with key regulators and stakeholders to help inform policy, regulatory and fire-safety considerations arising from the use of BIPV on building envelopes.

Further research is required to:

  • better understand the fire safety risks of BIPV as an active energy system in buildings
  • explore how the National Construction Code (NCC) framework may be broadened or strengthened to better capture potential risks of emerging technologies such as BIPV
  • identify any gaps that may exist in building approval processes that increase the likelihood of this emerging technology not being considered in a holistic way, and
  • identify legislative or regulatory changes that may be required to ameliorate safety risks.

This research complements research the VBA is already supporting to achieve a technologically advanced and innovative industry and a safe built environment including projects undertaken with the Building 4.0 Cooperative Research Centre (automated materials tracking); and other fire safety research undertaken by the VBA, including the fire safety of rendered EPS on Class 2 to 9 buildings of Type A or Type B construction.