A Good Samaritan

Last Wednesday, I was in my office/studio finishing up work I needed to do before leaving for JLC Live in Providence. I was expecting my wife to arrive after dropping our dog at the kennel, and when I heard car wheels in my gravel driveway, I thought that she’d just pulled in. A couple of minutes later, I heard pounding on the back door of my house. I got up and saw an unfamiliar bright blue F-150 in the driveway. A guy was on the phone with his back to me and I figured he must be lost. He seemed very intent with his phone call and when I finally got his attention, he shouted, “What’s your address?”

I told him and then he pointed to the studio behind me and said: “Your garage is on fire!”

I wheeled around and saw flames and smoke coming over the peak of the two-story building that houses my office and studio. The guy was on the phone to the fire department and gave them my address.

Panic flooded my whole being. I ran into the studio and grabbed my laptops and a few valuables. The smell of smoke was already coming into my office area. I ran into my neighbor’s yard (the only place you can see the roof) and saw that the fire was coming from my solar panels, and it appeared that the roof shingles under the panels were on fire. I ran to the front of the building and hit the shut off for the array. I also ran inside the building and turned off the main electrical breaker.

Top Notch Emergency Response

The police and fire department got there almost immediately. The firefighters ran their hose from the truck and into the neighbor’s yard. When the water from the hose hit the burning panels, glass exploded everywhere. The water jet peeled back the shingles and the fire persisted for a short while. While that group of firefighters handled the hose, the ladder truck arrived and another group climbed the extended ladder up over the peak of the roof. The flames had subsided but smoke and steam continued to billow from the damaged area.

I accompanied one of the senior members of the firefighter crew into the building and showed him the pull-down access to the attic space just below the roof. He climbed the ladder and confirmed that despite the heavy smoke in the attic, the fire had been confined to the exterior roof.

Back outside, the same gentleman came around the side of the building with an IR camera, aiming it at the various spots on the roof and reporting on the temperature readings. With the charred area still steaming and smoking, they made the decision to foam the roof. In any other situation, the scene would have been comical. Thick, green foam covered the entire roof cascading down the wall and onto the grass like some sort of St Patrick’s Day dessert topping. But the foam did the trick, and when the IR camera readings were all down to safe levels, the firefighters rolled up their hoses and were quickly on their way.

Feeling Lucky

Standing there in my neighbor’s yard shaking and staring up at the glistening foam on the big charred section of my roof, I began to realize how incredibly lucky I had been. First, I was so fortunate that the good Samaritan in the blue F-150 stopped, got my attention, and called the fire department. My office—where I had been working—was directly below the roof section that caught fire, so I was lucky that no one had been injured. I was also incredibly lucky that the fire had not started an hour later when most likely I would have been en route to JLC Live. Without prompt action, who knows how bad the fire would have been.

Perhaps the most fortunate thing was the quick response and actions of the Harwich, Mass., firefighters. They were on site quickly and acted very professionally, and their fast actions undoubtedly limited the amount of damage to my office and studio. I also learned that a firefighter had returned that evening with the IR camera to confirm that the roof had remained cool after the fire was extinguished.

Taking Care of Business

When everyone had left, I went back inside the office to get my homeowners insurance policy, as well as contact information from Tesla, which had purchased Solar City, the company that had installed the system originally. The homeowners insurance was incredibly responsive. It gave me a person who would be handling the whole claim along with all the contact info I would need. The adjuster was in touch with me soon after and made an appointment to go over the damage with me the following Saturday. The company also offered “emergency management” to deal with any immediate problems I might have (such as weatherproofing the damaged roof). I told them that I was waiting to hear from Tesla for their assessment.

Tesla turned out to be the exact opposite of responsive to my problem. Its customer service system was very difficult to navigate just to get to speak with a person. Once I got through, that person would not give me his contact info beyond a first name. He promised to have someone there within the hour to assess the damage and promised to text me his contact info. The text never arrived and an hour later I got a call from a person at their emergency center—over an hour away—promising to have someone there within the hour. To his credit, the person from the emergency center did walk me through making sure the array was shut off at the electrical panel so that I could restore power to the office. I never heard back from them to confirm that the emergency person had made it to the property.

My wife and I left for Providence and the next day when I tried to contact Tesla, I spoke to a different person and got the same promise of a text with contact information. That text never arrived. On the third day, I was ping-ponged between people in the company's office and finally was connected with the person whom I’d talked to originally. I told him that I’d not heard back on either day. This time, I did finally receive a text with contact information.

It was now late Friday afternoon with 100% chance of rain predicted in two days and my studio roof still wide open. All that the gentleman at Tesla could tell me was that my case was “under review,” apparently oblivious to the fact that my charred roof was open to the elements. Saturday, I took matters into my own hands and hired a contractor to stretch a tarp over the damaged roof as a temporary cover.

Lessons Learned

Everyone I’ve spoken to has expressed surprise that a fire could have started in the solar panels. A friend who was formerly a salesperson for Tesla said that because my system was leased, Tesla would be totally responsible for any damages both to the array as well as to the building where the array was mounted. Tesla's lack of response and compassion makes me believe that it will be a long slog to have it assume any sort of responsibility.

Back when I had the system installed (Renting the Sun, April 2014), Solar City was putting in a lot of systems all over the Cape, so it makes me wonder if there are ticking time bombs on any other roofs? In retrospect, I regret not having my solar array installed and maintained by a local company. My guess is that a local company would be doing a lot more to see that the problem is taken care of. The system had been performing flawlessly for almost five years, but given this scary scenario, I’m left questioning my decision to “go solar” in the first place.

Stay tuned for more as this story unfolds.