CalFire Setbacks

CalFire Setbacks – and Why Homeowners Should Care…


CalFire is the state of California’s firefighting organization, with a budget of about a billion dollars, and about 5000 full-time employees.

Setbacks refers to the distance that solar panels need to be from the side and top edges of a roof.

The reasons for the setbacks is so that firefighters can access a roof’s ridge line, cut a vent-hole there — to relieve the building’s inside of smoke and fumes — and safely get off the roof.

The problem with the setbacks is that solar panels take up a lot of space, and the CalFire setbacks make a lot of space unavailable — sometimes half or more of the roof area!

Some opportunists say that the issue is (selfish) homeowners who don’t care about firefighter safety. Other opportunists suggest that it’s proof that the (too-powerful) fire fighters’ union doesn’t care about homeowners struggling to pay their utility bills.

It’s neither; the problem is much less exciting. The document was written by very capable individuals who included text that indicated that exceptions to the setbacks were often appropriate. Unfortunately, the wording is subtle, and seems to have been overlooked by many fire jurisdictions looking for black and white answers to sometimes complicated decisions.

Bill Brooks, co-author of the guidelines, did his part to emphasize the intended flexibility in the guidelines in his March 2011 overview. In the preface he wrote: “Without the information contained in this background document, local fire officials may be unwilling to consider alternative means and methods, choosing instead to rigidly implement the IFC. Rigid enforcement creates a process that lacks flexibility, and the complexities of the built environment require flexibility.”

In the body of this same report, Mr Brooks added, “The guideline encourages local jurisdictions to exercise flexibility in the enforcement of these requirements in response to a variety of site-specific issues… PV arrays are often only mounted on one roof face (closest to south) so that other roof faces may be fully open for roof access and venting.”

Mr. Brooks is influential, but one voice can do only so much. With California’s reg now shaping national fire code — the Cal Fire guideline has been included in the 2012 version of the International Fire Code (IFC), and is working its way into the NFPA’s Uniform Fire Code (UFC) — it’s time for those that care about the future of residential solar in America to learn about the CalFire setbacks, and why leading professionals believe they are too-often being enforced improperly.

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