Sun, Sep 01, 2019 - Page 16 News List

Tesla solar panels catch fire and lawsuits start flying

Fires reported by homeowners, Walmart and Amazon are likely to worsen woes at Tesla’s solar unit, adding to the automaker’s struggles

By Dana Hull and Brian Eckhouse  /  Bloomberg

One evening last year, David Burek noticed charred wood and a burning smell in his attic, near his young sons’ bedroom. He climbed a ladder and saw a melted connector wire from the solar panels installed on the roof of his North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, home.

Firefighters rushed over and discovered that flames had burned through the shingles, the roof and a support beam. Luckily, a recent rain had doused it.

A month later, a fire broke out on the roof of Ken Tomasello’s home in Waldorf, Maryland, sending a section of the ceiling crashing onto a bed. It ultimately caused so much fire, smoke and water damage that Tomasello and his wife had to live in a hotel for more than a year.

The two homes had something in common: SolarCity, now a unit of Elon Musk’s Tesla Inc, had installed their rooftop panels. While these are just a pair of relatively small incidents at a company with about 400,000 solar customers — one of the biggest such portfolios in the US — they add to the growing concern about the safety of Tesla’s solar systems.

In the past couple weeks, Walmart Inc and Amazon.com Inc have said that Tesla systems caused roof fires at their stores or warehouses.

Those were commercial installations. The Burek and Tomasello episodes show there are potentially also problems with residential systems, a much bigger part of the company’s sputtering business.

Further underscoring those worries, Tesla has reached out to homeowners across the US to tell them they need preventive maintenance.

The company says the remediation effort is designed to ensure that systems last 10 to 20 years.

In an interview, Burek said he heard from Tesla in October last year — about five months after his panels had been removed.

“When I called Tesla back, they said our system had been flagged for bad connectors,” Burek said. “I told them there was no system to maintain because they’d already caused a fire on my roof.”

Although not tracked nationally, rooftop solar fires are rare.

Tesla said its customers’ risk of fire is seven times lower than they face from home wiring and lighting.

“While we strive for zero risks across all of our products, this rate of risk presents less of a household danger than a home washer or dryer,” the company said in a statement.

News about fires threatens to worsen the woes at Tesla’s solar unit, which in turn would only add to the recent struggles for the automaker.

Tesla’s main electric car business faces a host of challenges: Musk’s tweeting has drawn scrutiny from federal securities regulators, the company has yet to report an annual profit and Tesla’s stock is down about 33 percent this year.

Tesla bought SolarCity in 2016. It is losing market share, reporting only 29 megawatts (MW) worth of installations in the second quarter, down from a high of more than 200MW in 2016.

Much of the reason: strategic shifts, including an end of door-to-door sales and marketing through Home Depot Inc.

Its shortcomings are all the more evident as solar is taking off in the US and around the world.

Sarah Wilder, director of curriculum development and instruction at Solar Energy International, a nonprofit focusing on technical training, said that a shortage of qualified workers can lead to a decline in system quality.

Faulty components, shoddy workmanship or wiring, or a combination, can cause fires, Wilder said.

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