The smell of smoke is all too familiar to many Aussies during summer as bushfire season rolls around. But this year, things might look a bit different. The recent declaration of an El Niño event promises drier conditions and an increased risk of fires throughout the summer period. This is being taken seriously by officials who have already declared total fire bans in many regions, while proactively backburning around the country. All up, experts are reminding Aussies to stay on high alert.
Aside from the fires themselves, bushfire season is often accompanied by blackouts (a power outage) and brownouts (where power flow is minimal and appliances can’t draw enough power to work as intended), when fires take out parts of the electricity grid. Strained power grids combined with hotter-than-usual conditions likely mean that Aussies will become all too familiar with blackouts this bushfire season as well.
So what can homeowners do to get through bushfire season blackouts? Solar battery systems have emerged as a lifeline for homeowners, offering not only a sustainable source of power but also a critical safeguard against the electrical uncertainty accompanying bushfire season.
Before we start, we need to make a very important distinction: bushfire season is in effect throughout summer and spring, and having a battery system can assist with associated power outages. However, if your home is at risk of being directly affected by a bushfire, it’s essential that you maintain contact with emergency services, local officials and your installer for more detailed instructions on how to proceed. See the latter part of this article for general advice on battery system safety if your home is threatened by a bushfire.
Why invest in a battery system for bushfire season when I already have solar?
If you’ve already got solar, you’re no stranger to the benefits of generating your own electricity while the sun is shining. However, during a nearby bushfire, smoke and blackouts can cease that power production, even though the sun’s out.
Bushfires can produce a thick smoke that’s full of ashy particulates. Not only can the haze reduce the effectiveness of your solar’s ability to soak up the sun, but the pieces of ash can settle on your solar panels and further impede solar production. Bushfire smoke can also create cloud cover and severe storms known as pyrocumulonimbus, which can block the sun and further prevent your solar panels from producing power.
If your solar production is impeded by one of the above scenarios, you’ll likely end up purchasing power from the grid. But, it’s also worth noting that if the grid is down, your solar will stop producing power too – even if the sun is shining.
When you’re producing power from your solar panels, not only are you powering your home, but you’re also connected to the grid to export excess power back for a feed-in tariff. However during a grid outage (i.e a blackout), this connection is cut to ensure that no excess power is flowing to the grid. This disconnect allows repair crews to safely assess and repair the cause of the outage without flowing electricity, meaning that even if the sun is shining, your solar alone will not produce power in a blackout. With a fully charged solar battery system in place, you’d be able to utilise your own previously self-generated and stored energy during those periods, without affecting the safety of repair crews.
Using that self-generated power, you’d be able to keep your essentials running, including lights, communication devices and Wi-Fi – keeping you connected, and able to stay up-to-date with outage updates and more.
Why do blackouts happen during bushfire season?
It’s not uncommon for bushfires to create an overload in the grid. Not only could a bushfire threaten power lines and breakers in your area, but the excess heat and smoke can cause strain on the grid and risk widespread outages. Bushfire season takes place during the warmer months, which can produce temperatures over 40 degrees celsius in some regions. In fact, this summer is predicted to be Australia’s hottest yet, according to climate experts.
During these hot spells, it’s common for more people than usual to use their air-con, both to beat the summer heat and to keep airflow in their home relatively clean. This is especially true for people with breathing difficulties, who would cycle their air-con to avoid being triggered by lingering smoke from a nearby bushfire. However, this level of usage can put a lot of pressure on the grid and potentially trigger a blackout or brownout. Additionally, bushfires themselves can directly affect powerlines and other electrical hubs that can cut power to your home.
For example, in 2020 a severe bushfire on the VIC/NSW border caused a blackout in over 10,000 homes while the grid was overwhelmed – something that experts believed was caused in part by hundreds of thousands of air conditioners running at once.
Bushfires are unpredictable, and have been known to threaten power lines and other important power assets that can affect the grid’s ability to provide power to nearby homes. In the event that a power line, breaker, or power station is affected by a bushfire, a simple repair will not do the trick, meaning you’ll be without power for a significant period. In the same bushfire disaster mentioned above, not only were people without power due to grid strain, but direct fire damage left thousands without power for a significant period. A damaged unit at a coal-fired power station remained down for over three weeks, causing a shortfall in supply, and causing rolling blackouts across the VIC/NSW border area.
Although the 2020 VIC/NSW fires and grid strain examples are fairly extreme, they illustrate why it pays to have a battery system in place. Not only can a fully charged and online battery keep the fans running during a blackout on a hot day, but it can also provide much-needed power to your essentials (like your lights, refrigerator and Wi-Fi).
How can I ensure my battery system is ready for bushfire season blackouts?
If you’re thinking about adding a home battery system to your property, it’s important to safeguard your essentials. Making sure that you speak to a certified Installer about setting up a backup circuit is a great first step, to ensure that your valuable stored energy can still be used in the event of a blackout.
If you’ve already got a home battery system in place, being attentive to its charging patterns may be helpful in ensuring it’s full and ready in the event of a bushfire season blackout. Many manufacturers offer some sort of monitoring software to make this easy for you. When it comes to Redback, the MyRedback app and Redback Portal give you 24/7 access to your generated energy, usage charts, battery status and more. By getting a baseline understanding of how your battery system behaves, you’ll be able to optimise your power usage to ensure your battery is full when you need it most.
On that note, it’s also possible to charge your battery with power from the grid, if it’s available, to ensure you’ve got access to as much backup power as possible when you need it most. Each manufacturer will have their own process to follow to get your battery system charged from grid power. With Redback home battery systems, you can log into the Redback Portal, click on the ‘Control’ tab, and click the ‘Schedule’ button. You can then type in the amount of power required to charge your battery and click ‘add’. If you’re not sure how much capacity your battery has, you can check your portal details, or, if you’re still unsure, you can get in touch with your installer for advice.
Want to maximise your solar even further? If the grid is online and the sun is shining, your solar system alone may be able to power many of your appliances. Setting up appliances such as washing machines and pool pumps to run during the day while the sun is shining is a great way to utilise the sun’s power rather than tapping into your stored energy. Of course, if the grid is online, being sensible about the amount of energy being drawn from your battery is important. You can keep track of how much energy remains in your battery with the MyRedback app, and adjust accordingly. Prioritise essentials during this time to ensure you have enough power available for the coming days, just in case there’s no ‘fix date’ advised when the blackout has occurred.
It also pays to understand what the backup capabilities of your battery are. For example, a hybrid system with blackstart capabilities such as the Redback Smart Hybrid, can charge your battery when the sun is shining, even if the grid is down. This has the potential to keep your essentials powered during a multi-day blackout.
Are there other things I can do to prepare for bushfire season?
Bushfire season brings with it, an inherent sense of anxiety about fire risk. If you’re worried about the coming bushfire season, you’re not alone. But there are some things you can do. A part of your usual summertime bushfire preparation, there are some additional safety measures you can put in place to ease any anxieties about your solar and home battery system’s safety:
- While you’re cleaning your gutters of debris and dried leaves, ensure your solar panels are clean.
- If your home battery system is installed outdoors, keep grass, plants and trees trimmed and away from the unit.
- Do not store anything flammable near your battery system or inverter.
- If your battery system is installed in a garage, ensure a bollard is present to avoid collision risk.
- If you are looking to install solar or a battery system, check that your manufacturer has a cooling or shutoff option in place if overheating occurs (read more about Redback’s safety protocols here).
- Do not run additional heat sources near your battery system or inverter (like a fire pit or barbecue).
- Keep your installer’s details handy and accessible, in case you have any questions about your installation or require any additional maintenance or safety advice.
- If you’re wanting to ensure your battery remains full, you can set it to Conserve mode when it’s at 100%. With Redback, you can log into the Redback Portal and follow prompts in the Settings tab to do this.
It’s also important to note that smoke can act as a conductor for electricity, meaning it can jump further during bushfires. For example, if there is a fire directly near a damaged power pole, the minimum safe distance would increase to 25 metres. This is worth keeping in mind if there is bushfire smoke or haze present in your neighbourhood.
What if my home is affected by a bushfire?
Below are some steps that you can take with your home battery system if your home is, or is expected to be, directly impacted by a bushfire. It is important that the below steps are only to be taken if it is safe to do so, and provided they are not against the advice given by officials during the disaster.
If you have a home battery system in place and you’re placed on alert by officials for a nearby bushfire, you can shut down your battery system (if safe to do so), as per the manufacturer’s instructions. On the main switchboard, you can also switch off the Solar Supply Main Switch and Backup A.C Isolator off.
That said, if any damage is visible or suspected, or if saturation during firefighting has occurred, do not touch the system and contact an electrician for assistance.
Following the event, regardless of the amount of damage the bushfire has caused to your property (even if it hasn’t gone near where the battery is installed), the property should be checked by an electrician before it is re-energised. Overall, it pays to be cautious listen to officials.
If you are concerned about your battery posing its own fire risk, you can read more here. But in general, Redback batteries have an Energy Management System (EMS) which constantly monitors the batteries and has a feature called ‘interlock’ which will automatically shut down the system if anything abnormal, including overheating, is detected.
As the notion of bushfires and extended fire seasons becomes an unsettling reality, taking steps to prepare for related power outages is beneficial. Investing in a Redback solar battery system offers a safe solution that not only helps you save on power costs and reduce your carbon footprint, but also provides vital security during blackouts and smoke-covered days.
If a bushfire is threatening your home, immediately call 000.