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Solar Panel Adds Sun Power to San Rafael Fire Department Engine

Issue 5 and Volume 3.

A solar-powered fire engine? Well, sort of …

The San Rafael (Calif.) Fire Department’s (SRFD) Engine No. 52 is topped with a solar energy panel that generates energy needed to charge the crew’s battery-operated gear and the onboard computer.

“Unlike a lot of other departments, all our stuff is charged on the engines themselves—our radios, thermal imaging [equipment], cell phones, everything,” says Fire Engineer Dave Holland, who personally pushed for installing the panel.

“I run solar in my house, and have been trying to sell the idea to the fire department for some time,” Holland says. “They finally agreed to try it out with one engine.” The panel has worked so well in its first 6 months that Holland will install a second panel on the truck, bringing full solar capability to the busy fire engine. “The most you’ll see on a pumper is two big panels like that,” Holland explains. “That generates 8 amps, which is just what you need.”

Switching to solar energy for charging these devices means a constant energy source on the engine—one that doesn’t rely on keeping the engine running during downtime. In addition to saving wear and tear on the engine (and the environment), charging with solar energy increases the lifespan of the engine’s six batteries and the alternator.

The department is in the process of installing panels on a second city pumper, and has plans to install panels on a wildland rig. “That’s when you really need it,” Holland says of the wildland engine. “You can’t leave the engine running all the time.”

Solar Specs

Holland did the research to select the panels for his company’s engines. All panels that the SRFD has purchased are produced by Uni-Solar (United Solar Ovonic in Auburn Hills, Mich., www.uni-solar.com) and are model US64, which cost $260–$300 apiece.

The choice of vendor was a simple one: “There’s really only one company creating a panel that’s unbreakable,” Holland explains. “Most panels for houses and other buildings are made out of glass; this one has a heavy plastic covering, so you can walk on it. And the size of the panel was perfect—it fit flawlessly, like it was made for it.”

Interested in trying out solar energy for your department? Don’t worry if you’re not located in sunny California. “Solar works any time there’s light out, even on cloudy days,” Holland notes. “We usually park the engines outside anyway, and that’s a relatively busy engine. But when I back the engine into the barn at night, the fluorescent light charges the panel—not enough to work all the time, but it is charging.”

Other fire departments around the country have added solar power to station houses, but this may be the first time that panels have been mounted on a fire engine. If your department is looking for ways to keep equipment charged on a busy engine, you might consider jumping on the solar energy bandwagon.