Solar tubes/sun tunnels vs. Skylights: An overview

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Cross-section of a home with solar tubes

Property owners install skylights to add natural light to their homes or businesses. However, other options are 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.

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A solar tube, commonly called a sun tunnel, is a skylight alternative for channeling sunlight to a building's interior. This technology lets sunlight enter 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 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; instead, they are best used as an alternative to a natural skylight. While you won't get a view of the sky like a skylight, they are usually a lower-cost product that can be an easy-to-install and reliable alternative to skylights.

Due to easier installation and lower materials costs, solar tubes can make a minor 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.

Advantages of solar tubes

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

  1. Lower overall cost

  2. Easy installation process

  3. Energy efficiency

An exciting 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 direct sunlight, which can heat your home and drive up air conditioning costs. Comparatively, the indirect light from a solar tube transmits much less heat energy, leading to more efficient air conditioning use.

Advantages of skylights

Traditional skylights have several of their 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. It 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 hot 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.

Solar tubes are a lower-cost, energy-efficient natural lighting alternative to traditional skylights that most property owners can use. 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.

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 classic solar tubes with mounting attachments for various roof 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.

Although the phrase "sun tunnel" can be used as a substitute for "solar tube," Velux 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.

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, including solar tube products and skylights.

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