solar tubes

Solar tubes/sun tunnels vs. skylights: an overview

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Many property owners install skylights as a way to add natural light to their home or business. However, there are other options available; if you’re looking for a reliable and cost-effective way to add more sunlight to your property, solar tubes may be the way to go.

Solar tubes overview: how do they work?

A solar tube, commonly referred to as a sun tunnel, is a skylight alternative for channeling sunlight to a building’s interior. With this technology, sunlight enters a metallic tube through a clear covering protruding from your roof. The natural light is then channeled along the length of the tube and into your building by a highly reflective polished sheet metal material that acts as a continuous mirror.

Most solar tubes don’t actually produce any solar electricity, but some newer products have integrated photovoltaic technologies to provide artificial lighting when the sun isn’t shining. Solar tubes are generally not a replacement for electric lighting; rather, they are best used as an alternative to a natural skylight. While you won’t get a view of the sky like you would with a skylight, they are usually a lower cost product that can be easy-to-install and reliable alternative to skylights.

How much do solar tubes cost?

Due to easier installation and lower materials costs, solar tubes can end up making a smaller dent in your wallet compared to skylights. As a rough estimate, you can expect a solar tube installation to cost about half as much as a skylight. For example, a solar tube might cost between $500 and $1000, while a skylight might cost closer to $2000.

Solar tubes vs. skylights: pros and cons

Advantages of solar tubes

There are a few main benefits of installing a solar tube on your home:

  1. Lower overall cost
  2. Easy installation process
  3. Energy efficiency

An interesting advantage of solar tubes over skylights is that they can increase the overall energy efficiency of your home, especially if you live somewhere with a hot summer season. This is because skylights provide your home with direct sunlight, which can heat up your home and drive up air conditioning costs. Comparatively, the indirect light from a solar tube transmits much less heat energy, therefore leads to more efficient air conditioning use.

Advantages of skylights

Traditional skylights have several of their own benefits:

  1. Direct view of the sky
  2. Can add resale value to your home
  3. Can be opened and closed for ventilation

The most visible advantage of skylights over solar tubes is the view they can offer; solar tubes only let light in.

Disadvantages of solar tubes

Solar tubes aren’t perfect for every situation. Here are some drawbacks of solar tubes to keep in mind:

  1. No view of the sky
  2. Susceptible to damage in extreme temperatures
  3. Can’t be opened

The outside-facing end of a solar tube is often an acrylic dome, which can more easily be damaged or cracked when subjected to extremely hot or cold temperatures. If you live in an area where summers are especially warm or winters are especially cold, a skylight may be a better choice given the durability of the glass.

Disadvantages of skylights

Sun tunnels are an alternative to skylights because they solve some common problems associated with their traditional counterpart. Here are some drawbacks of skylights that solar tubes offer a solution to:

  1. More expensive
  2. Lower energy efficiency during warm weather
  3. UV ray penetration

Due to the direct lighting from skylights, harmful UV rays can shine through and into your home, which leads to furniture damage and fading and can even cause sunburns and other skin issues. Indirect light from solar tubes has UV rays filtered out by the acrylic top on your roof and will be much safer for the furniture and people in your home.

Should you install a solar tube?

Solar tubes are a lower-cost, energy efficient natural lighting alternative to traditional skylights that most property owners can take advantage of. If you’re looking for an inexpensive way to introduce natural light to a space in your home and don’t need the full view of the sky that a skylight provides, a solar tube is a great way to save money and naturally light up a room. On the other hand, skylights fit the design of some homes more appropriately, and having a full view of the outdoors is an appealing and unique feature of skylights.

Solatube: a leading solar tube company

One leading company specializing in solar tube products is Solatube, founded in the 1980s in Australia. They offer products for residential and commercial applications, ranging from their classic solar tubes with mounting attachments for various roofs types to larger products for commercial buildings with a lot of space to light up. They offer several unique attachments to their solar tubes, giving customers plenty of options when it comes to customizing the appearance of their lighting.

Velux: the original Sun Tunnel manufacturer

Although the phrase “sun tunnel” can be used as a substitute for “solar tube”, the company Velux actually has a product line known as Sun Tunnels. Velux is another major solar tube company to be aware of. Their Sun Tunnel line comes in two versions: rigid and flexible. The main difference between the two products is the material the actual tunnel is made from; flexible Sun Tunnels are made with bendable material, and as such, they take less time to install and can bend around obstructions in your attic.

Install solar panels on your property to harness the sun’s energy

Solar tubes don’t produce electricity, but you can run your entire electrical lighting system and home on free energy from the sun by installing a photovoltaic solar panel system. The best way to find the right solar installation for you is to compare multiple quotes on the EnergySage Solar Marketplace, where you can receive solar quotes from local, pre-screened installers. Some solar installers double as home contractors and can help you examine lighting options as well, including solar tube products and skylights.

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About Jacob Marsh

Jacob is a researcher and content writer at EnergySage, where he focuses primarily on current issues–and new technology!–in the solar industry. With a background in environmental and geological science, Jacob brings an analytical perspective and passion for conservation to help solar shoppers make the right energy choices for their wallet and the environment. Outside of EnergySage, you can find him playing Ultimate Frisbee or learning a new, obscure board game.

4 thoughts on “Solar tubes/sun tunnels vs. skylights: an overview

  1. M. Meehle

    I have had a Solkatube for 20 years and like it very much. However, lately the house seems to be warmer that it should be and in winter possibly a draft from it? Does it need to be maintained in some way?

  2. Barb Sieck

    My house exploded in blow torch style when a fire very suddenly went fiercely out of control due to two recently installed solatubes. The initial fire source was determined to have been from a lamp issue. This caused the thin plastic ceiling disk & rooftop plastic to get very warm on a mild June late evening, & their melting caused the open tubes became sudden powerful blow chimneys. If the house had been occupied at the moment, an arson investigator assessed “No likely escape” from the ravage. The slow moving fire bursting into a violent force has proven to me that solatubes can be a major hazard.

    1. Mark Henne

      Interesting comment. I also had a fire in a house with a Velux Sun Tunnel. Our fire investigator estimated that the temperature at the ceiling of the top floor reached about 2000 degrees F. The plastic bezel melted, but the glass in the middle and the top lens did not. I understand that had the top and bottom lenses been destroyed, this would have created a “chimney,” and the fire would have been worse.

      I miss my Sun Tunnel, and will be installing three of them in my new home. I know a lot more about fires, and how building construction can affect them. My opinion is that it’s a risk, but not a “major hazard,” and that the benefits outweigh the risks.

  3. Geoff

    I put in a skylight when I put on a new roof. A few years later, I put on solar panels. The skylight prevented me from adding another solar panel. In hindsight, the best thing to do would have been not put in the skylight, add another solar panel, and use the solar panel to run all the LED lights I want. It would have been less expensive and probably more energy efficient.


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