Aussie ‘fire tech’ start-up goes global

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An Australian start-up is looking to raise money to promote the development of its unique fire-safety solution which counters the little-known electrical risks associated with solar panels during fires, floods or storms. An unintended consequence of the rapid growth in solar usage is that these electrical risks make fire incidents involving solar panels more difficult to extinguish and place first responders and electrical technicians at risk.

According to Jim Foran, the founder and chief executive of PVStop International, based in Sydney, the main problem with incidents involving solar panels is that there has, until now, been no way for firefighters to detect or turn off the electrical current. Solar panels produce DC electricity, unlike the electrical grid which delivers AC electricity to houses and buildings. Firefighters have what is known as an “AC hot stick” to detect AC current but nothing similar to detect DC current.

PVStop has developed a simple solution, allowing firefighters or electrical technicians to spray a state of the art polymer coating onto the solar panels, which turns quickly into a film that blocks the light and “switches off” the solar panels, allowing firefighters to go about their business without being exposed to electrical risk. At the conclusion of the incident, the film can be easily peeled off the solar panels without causing any damage to the solar panel system and power can be restored.

The three delivery methods for the solution are a portable “fire extinguisher vessel” which is suitable for domestic scale incidents, a “dry pipe” fixed roof system (similar to a rooftop sprinkler system) for larger installations such as factories and warehouses, and a drone delivery system for high-rise buildings, solar farms and dangerous access incidents.

The company is looking for just a few million dollars in its first raising to capitalise on growing opportunities in key countries in which the product, Foran confirms, is receiving growing interest and demand. He says that 85 per cent of all solar installations are in the world’s 10 largest territories. In 2018 there were more than one billion PV (solar) panels installed globally, a figure which predicted to rise to 3.5 billion by 2022.

In Australia, more than 20 per cent of the 9.5 million homes already have solar panel installations and this is forecast to rise to 50 per cent by 2030. Statistics show that 0.4 per cent of properties in Australia are subject to fire each year and any fire at a property featuring solar panels has a need to isolate power to create a safer work environment for first responders.

Fire services, in Australia, the UK, US and Japan have been the earliest adopters of the PVStop technology, as you’d expect. In fact, the London Fire Brigade (the oldest fire brigade in the world) was the company’s first major customer.

Product inquiries are now being received from outside fire and emergency services agencies as forward-thinking companies in the property related sectors (such as building owners and developers) become aware of these rooftop risks and are looking for solutions to mitigate these risks.

Foran believes that the use of the technology will eventually be a “premium play driven by the insurance companies”. Due to the support from major fire service agencies, he says the firm is working with industry stakeholders from across the board to bring education, training and solutions into alignment. “We are strong supporters of the fire-fighting and fire safety industry”.

An interesting aside is that modern household and office furniture tends to be more flammable than furniture from the 1950s, Foran says, which adds to the speed and ferocity with which fires can take hold.

Foran and business partner Luke Williams started the business in 2014. In January this year PVStop achieved a major milestone when they received an accreditation upgrade to a recognised ISO standard, global recognition of the safety benefits of the solution. “The global accreditation process meant our product commercialisation started in earnest,” he says. “We now have granted patents in 16 of the top 20 solar countries in the world… the patent is on the solution ‘method’ rather than specific the coating, which gives us broad and strong patent protection for our technology”.

Until now, competitor systems for isolating power produced by solar panels systems have focused on ‘electro-mechanical’ solutions known as ‘rapid shutdown’. These technological solutions have limitations. For instance, electrical isolation occurs ‘downstream’ from the panels, they require regular maintenance, are more expensive than standard solar panel installations and there are questions around their long term reliability. None of these ‘rapid shutdown systems’ solve the fundamental problem of isolating DC electrical generation at the source, the solar panel cells.

As another aside, with the growing use of Lithium ion batteries for electricity storage in households with solar panels, Foran says, “PVStop mitigates the electrical risks associated with solar panel systems and represents a quantum leap in solar panel safety, however the growing adoption of lithium ion battery storage systems by households presents unanticipated risks which are going to create significant issues for fire and emergency services agencies in the future”. This is another example where safety is lagging behind technology adoption with the potential to place both homeowners and first responders at risk.

– G.B.

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