Why Is California Limiting Your Solar Roof Space?

Randy Zechman, CEO, Clean Solar

Randy Zechman, CEO, Clean Solar

This commentary is reposted courtesy of Randy Zechman of Clean Solar, a San Jose, Calif., based solar installer. It first appeared on the company’s blog and is cross-posted with permission.

By Randy Zechman

New solar panel restrictions will limit your roof-space options in California. Effective Jan. 1, 2014, all California cities and counties will mandate more stringent solar roof setback guidelines regarding the solar panel placement on your roof.

This will limit many homeowners from getting their optimal solar system.  Many try to maximize or oversize their system to lower or zero out their electricity bills.  This may no longer be an option as the new roof restrictions mandate a 36-inch setback from the roof ridge line, which is often the optimal location for solar panels.

Current guidelines have left the interpretation of the roof setbacks for solar open to local jurisdictions, often providing flexibility to accommodate changes.

Setback refers to the distance that solar panels need to be from the side and top edges of a roof.  Setbacks are for firefighter roof access to the ridge line. The problem is, the new setback guidelines make ideal solar roof space unavailable — sometimes as much as half (or more) of the roof area.

The good news? You can still use your optimal roof space for solar panels (often closer to the ridge) if you pull a permit for your system before the end of 2013.


  1. disqus_1olJlhaVIM says:

    I think that the real point here is that they want to limit the amount of solar power you can generate…found this after reading about Ron a.d Sarah Hall in southern California who were told that they could not use the panels installed because it was feared they would sell the excess ( or give it away ). I’ve read about similar nonsense in other states…utility companies pay state lawmakers plenty to get what they want.

  2. How often do firefighters vent a concrete tile roof?

  3. I partially agree with the new code. Here’s why; When there’s a house fire the purpose of venting the roof is to allow the heat to escape, which lowers the danger of the firefighters to do their job inside the house and reduces the chance of explosions. It’s not just so they can fight the fire from above, so the new rule may have some merit. However, when planning an install you may be able to make a case that the roof could be vented in another area (opposite side of ridge?), especially if it’s closer to a better access point.

  4. As an installer I have a problem with the 3 foot setback from the ridgeline if you can access it from the other side.

  5. Don Hughes says:

    FYI: Nonhabitable group U structures including garages, carports, shade structures, trellises etc are not subject to this section of the CRC.

  6. timbalionguy says:

    Its much easier to prevent a law from happening than it is to change it later. California, in particular, has never seen a bill it doesn’t love. If you have introduced a bill in either house, and it gets voted down, you can ask for a ‘courtesy revote’. If it still doesn’t pass, and it is the first year of their two year legislative session, you can then make it a ‘two year bill’, and the bill will be reintroduced in the second year. A couple years back, a draconian bill to mandate sterilization of virtually every dog and cat in the State almost made it through this entire process. On the the last two days of the second year of the session, they attempted to bring it up for a vote eight(!) times. On the eights attempt, a Senator was heard to say ‘Let’s neuter this bill’. It was voted on an did not pass. If such extreme legislation can make it so far through the California Legislature, little wonder the State is in so much trouble. After the firefighters are done diminishing your solar panel area, the bird folks will be next. then the architectural folks after that. Finally, the cruelty-against-silicon folks 😉 Eventually, you will be allowed one (1) solar panel on your roof in this ‘greenest of States’, but only after getting permits from 14 different agencies!.

  7. Just Electric and Solar LLC says:

    Anyone heard of the IBC? We have followed their rules ,,,always!!!

  8. Maike Hennig says:

    Have they also thought about solar roof tiles as an alternative? Are the new restrictions limited to solar panels or also roof tiles/shingles?

  9. Don Hughes says:

    And for the record: California is not trying to “limit” something. Don’t go getting it twisted! California is trying to make it easier for jurisdictions to enforce new Firefighter safety codes, yes, actual codes! contained in the 2012 International Fire Code. In California they have decided that in order for the Building Officials to plan review and inspect for these new safety codes they would codify them in the California Residential Code. If they didn’t do this there would be a huge slow down in processing times, and a huge increase in fees for all new solar pv systems due to the fire marshal’s office now needing to get involved and ensure compliance with those new fire code sections. I didn’t put it in quotations because I just wrote it on my FB page.

  10. Don Hughes says:

    It’s not just California, and the current guidelines are non existent unless your Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) has adopted the California State Fire marshal guidelines as a local ordinance to enforce. In January the 2013 California Codes will be adopted by most jurisdictions and the state FMO guidelines will be codified in chapter 3 section 331 for the most part for.
    In the rest of the Country the International Fire Code IFC codifies the Cal-fire guidelines in chapter 6, section 605, and any jurisdiction across the country can adopt and enforce the International codes.
    IREC has a great inspection checklist that explains all of the IFC inspection requirements. It’s a great inspection tool, I know the authors 😉

    • Chris Herman says:

      It is a bad precedent, because code officials would rather adopt something that is already in existence than start from scratch. And they will use the term “code consistency” because that sounds like a good thing. Getting one model code for the whole country may have made things easier in some ways, but this is a big country with vastly different climates. One size does not fit all !! We need to be diligent about not losing too much ground on this issue. As unpleasant as it may be to volunteer your time to work with the fire and code officials, it is necessary for solar advocates to help protect our industry and help save the planet. Get involved in a technical advisory group or your state building code council before you lose more valuable roof space.

      • Don Hughes says:

        Just fall back to the old standard of bad mouthing the code officials Chris, that’s really productive.

  11. timbalionguy says:

    You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. For instance, if I could put panels on my roof, and I lived in CA, that would reduce what I could install by 15-20%, a significant amount. If California wants to be so ‘green’ they need to quit passing counterproductive legislation, something they are famous for. There are other ways to deal with firefighter access.

  12. nathanhoover says:

    It does make some sense maybe, but I am sure glad I have my system in place and am using all my roof space. My roof is small and I wouldn’t have been able to do a decent system with 36″ setbacks.

  13. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a fire department successfully save a small residential structure which was on fire by roof venting or doing anything on the roof. With response times as they are now in most areas structures which are on fire when a fire department arrives are usually left to burn out without so much as a single fire boot touching the roof. Lot’s of water going everywhere but no roof walking. While fire pathways make real sense on larger structures, when it comes to small residences this is a requirement for a theoretical practice of days gone by. I would say this rule should be applied only to structures of a defined square footage and up.

    • I’ve got 30 years in the fire service and am also a NY State Code Enforcement Officer. Your statement is to say the least incorrect with regard to fire service ventilation practices. If you are not involved in the fire service and have no training in that area you shouldn’t be commenting on the methods we use to do our job.

      • Chris Herman says:

        I would like to see statistics on the odds of a home catching on fire and how many firefighters have been unable to do their job because of solar panels. It seems to this non-firefighter that climbing onto the roof of a burning building is not a wise thing to do. Many jurisdictions do not employ vertical ventilation tactics, and their insurance is less because of that. It takes less than 20 min. to burn through a 2×6 and with many roof systems made with manufactured trusses, the firefighters have no way of knowing if the roof is capable of supporting their weight. Being a building designer with 27 years experience, I can speak with authority on the wisdom of climbing onto a burning roof, with unknown structural integrity.

      • Mike,
        I was a volunteer fireman for over 10 years. You know what I say is true so don’t pull an imagined rank on me buddy. Fire fighting 90% of the time is protecting adjacent structures.

        • Darren Sims says:

          I was a fireman for 25 years and I’m saying that what you say is absolutely not true. Fire fighting is not hurt by solar panels.

  14. We did some workshops in CA in October about trees and solar. A lawmaker from Sacramento who helped write many of these new laws was in attendance, and was surprised at some of the backlash. We agreed to meet again to look at revising some code with unforseen consequences.

    This may be one of those laws that could use a re-write. Before we go off accusing folks of this or that, maybe we can take a step back, think for a minute, and advocate for a fix.



  15. licensed solar installer says:

    All building code adoptions are done with sound research from industry experts. Your company’s C-46 license does not make you an expert on building codes or fire safety codes. Also, your article is misleading as California is not limiting solar roof space. It is defining where the solar panels can go. Roof design, shading, and home orientation limit way more solar installations than this ever will. I also love the fact that you are not even a license holder, just a CEO with a qualifying partner.

  16. Why not develop a firmly attachable low profile anti-skid panel specifically designed for the roof ridge line that would be an asset to firefighters not a hindrance?

    • Don Hughes says:

      And they ventilate the roof through this panel, how? Firefighters are not going to take an axe to a pv module. Although, they did do that as part of the PV firefighter safety studies. Education is the key here.

  17. Andrew Truitt says:

    While this is a difficult pill for the solar industry to follow, safe firefighter roof access is an important consideration for customers and system developers. I’m no firefighting expert, but the Cal-Fire guidelines (which lead to similar regulations in the International Fire Code) were developed with input from both firefighting and solar industry experts. The are many reasons that a roof might not be suitable for solar, but there are often other options such as ground/pole mounts, canopies, or community solar developments, though I think that in the long run the number of roofs that don’t go solar because of firefighter setbacks will not be huge. As the Dietz & Watson fire in NJ recently showed us, fire safety is a real issue that the solar industry needs to be out in front of for many reasons (e.g. insurance risk, public safety, PR…).

  18. Frances Babb says:

    The 2012 International Fire Codes allow for arrays to go all the way to the ridge as long as fire fighters can access the ridge for ventilation purposes from the other side of the house. A couple of cities in Colorado have come up with some creative solutions to fire fighter access which ought to be reviewed by industry professionals to see if they can work with the International Code Council to implement. Going all the way to the ridge makes for more aesthetically pleasing arrays and allows for more appropriately sized systems. I hope that industry professionals rally together to help find mutually beneficial solutions to this issue.

  19. Some possible explanations:
    1. It is a coordinated effort by the fossil fuel industry/utilities, using co opted (partially brain/soul dead) politicians to restrict renewable energy development.
    2. Shallow thinking fire fighters who think savings themselves a few extra steps to find a suitable roof traversal route is worth destroying the livelihood and health of an entire industry.

    • If you have no knowledge or training in the fire service you would be best served to not comment on it.

      • Chris Herman says:

        The status quo WILL be maintained by whatever means are necessary and available. You’re only paranoid if they really AREN’T out to get you. Solar is disruptive technology. There are a LOT of people making a LOT of money on the way things ARE. They don’t want change. On the bright side, there is a provision in the code for alternate means of compliance. So if you are reasonable with the code official and present a viable option for fire access and vertical ventilation, they CAN approve it. Meaning, you could mount panels up to the ridge, where they will most often have the best exposure to the sun. Setting them down from the ridge can also cause problems in places where it snows a lot.