Solar tubes are an excellent alternative to artificial light. Solar tube lighting systems are perfect if your home has few windows and you want to add more natural light to your space.
When used in place of skylights in a building, solar tubes, or sun tunnels, allow the building’s interior to be illuminated by natural sunlight.
Pros and Cons of Solar Tubes
The tubular skylights pros and cons have a lot to do with personal preference and aesthetics.
Whether you call them solar tubes, tubular skylights, or sun tunnels, we believe the pros outweigh the cons. Here’s a table to help you decide.
|Pros of Sun Tunnels||Cons of Sun Tunnels|
|Affordability||Multiple tubes needed to light large rooms and hallways|
|Easy installation||No view of the outdoors|
|Sleek, modern indoor look||Don’t provide ventilation|
|Flexible installation (around joists and trusses)||Don’t provide light at night (with exceptions)|
|No electricity needed|
|Uses 100% renewable energy – the sun!|
The best part about installing a DIY solar tube kit is that you don’t have to choose between illumination and energy consumption.
The days of sitting in a poorly lit room to avoid turning on the lights is over! Solar tubes bring the outdoor sunlight indoors to illuminate your space all day long without using any electricity.
Table of Contents
- Pros and Cons of Solar Tubes
- How Do Solar Tubes Work?
- Solar Tubes Vs Skylights
- Are Solar Tubes Worth It?
- What Are the Best Solar Tubes?
- Do Solar Tubes Add Heat?
- Do Solar Tubes Leak?
- Do Solar Tubes Work at Night?
- How Much Do Solar Tubes Cost?
- How Many Solar Tubes Do I Need?
- Pros of Solar Tube Lighting
- What Are the Drawbacks to Solar Tube Lighting?
- Wrapping Up
How Do Solar Tubes Work?
Sunlight enters a clear, waterproof cover on your roof. The sunlight is directed into a continuous metallic tube mirror made of highly reflective polished sheet metal.
The tube channels the natural light down the tube and into your building. Most solar tube lights or sun tunnels have a diffuser disk at the bottom to ensure the light is bright but not dazzling.
Solar Tubes Vs Skylights
Solar tube lighting and skylights both vector natural light into a home, but they operate very differently.
|No view outside||Adds an exterior view|
|Brings in natural light||Brings in natural light|
|Light is diffused||Light is most natural (not diffused)|
|No change to the thermal envelope||A drastic change to the thermal envelope|
|Can be fully insulated||Cannot be insulated at all|
3 Differences in Solar Tubes Vs Skylights
There are 3 main things that usually sway homeowners in whether they should choose a skylight or solar tube lights to augment their home’s lighting.
- Exterior view – A skylight adds a view of the sky and weather from the inside of the home. This can be a lovely addition to any home. A solar tube adds bright diffused lighting with no additional views.
- Heating and Cooling Efficiency – Solar tube lighting is drastically more energy efficient than a skylight. A skylight causes huge solar heat gains in the summer, usually requiring that it be covered. A solar tube adds bright light without allowing additional heat into the home.
- Insulation – A solar tube or sun tunnel can be fully insulated along the attic tube. This keeps both heat and cold from transferring into the home via the tube. A skylight can’t be insulated in any way without cutting off the light from the window.
A solar tube is clearly a superior choice in nearly all categories except aesthetics. A skylight can make an attractive design choice for the home. A solar tube looks like recessed lighting.
The benefit of that look of recessed lighting is it takes up hardly any real estate on the roof or in the ceiling to provide a massive amount of ambient light.
Are Solar Tubes Worth It?
This is a tricky question because it depends on your motives. If you want to simply save money then no, they aren’t worth it. If you want to go green and decrease your carbon footprint, then yes, they’re great!
Let’s do a little math to figure this out.
- It costs, on average, about $5.50 per year to run a single 15-watt LED bulb for 10 hours a day (about the number of hours you’ll get from your solar tube).
- Each solar tube casts about the same amount of light as 3 15-watt LED bulbs. That’s about $16.50 of savings per 3-bulb LED light fixture per year.
- If you install a basic $250 solar tube it will pay for itself in savings on your electricity bill in about 15 years.
- If you use solar tube lights to replace incandescent bulbs you’ll come out ahead in just over 2 years.
If you don’t mind waiting for the payoff then you can know you’re saving almost $17 bucks a year on your electricity bills for every light fixture you replace with solar tubes.
If you install solar panels to offset the rest of your electrical use you could theoretically go to zero non-renewable energy consumption.
Solar power lighting could provide 100% of your needs. The solar light tubes would light during the day, then solar panels would provide the electricity needed at night.
However, when you are considering the pros and cons of solar tube lighting vs skylights there isn’t a good cost comparison.
The cost to run your HVAC to compensate for the new gap in the home’s thermal envelope plus accessories to temper the light and heat coming in the skylight make solar tubes a clear winner.
What Are the Best Solar Tubes?
Our absolute favorite is the Velux 10″ Low Profile Sun Tunnel. It has a reflective efficiency of over 98%, installs like a dream, and has a 20-year tube warranty for a great price!
If you have a standard residential roof with a 15-60 degree pitch, this is your best bet.
Our top favorite for flat roofs is the Natural Light 10-inch Skylight Kit. It’s scary to cut a hole in a flat roof, but this skylight sealed really well and we had no trouble with leaking.
We love the lighting efficiency and ease of installation, so we highly recommend this kit if you have a flat roof.
Do you want other options? We’ve got you covered. Check out our full write-up on the 5 Best Solar Tubes on the Market in 2022!
Do Solar Tubes Add Heat?
Solar tubes can be insulated to have almost zero impact on your home’s thermal envelope.
- The dome on the roof is sealed against the weather
- The tube running through the attic can be completely insulated against heat and cold
- The ceiling is fitted with a thick rubber gasket that holds the tube and diffuser in place
These measures protect the home from any thermal gain or loss due to the installation of solar tube lighting.
In fact, because homes that use solar tube lights usually use less electric lighting the effect can be net positive in terms of thermal stability.
Do Solar Tubes Leak?
Most solar tubes have at least a 20-year warranty on leaks. Because they are installed with flashing just like any other rooftop vent like attic vents, bathroom vents, etc., they usually never leak.
We recommend that homeowners check all rooftop vents yearly as part of the roof and gutter maintenance routine to ensure that flashing is all intact and sealants are in place and unbroken.
This can help you catch potential problems before there’s damage.
Do Solar Tubes Work at Night?
Regular solar tubes do not work at night. They direct sunlight into the home when the sun is shining so they are dark at night. They will bring in quite a bit of moonlight when the moon is full.
However, some solar tubes are equipped with a small solar-powered light inside the tunnel that will charge during the day and then emit a soft light at night.
Some sun tunnels have this solar LED light as an add-on while others include it in the design.
Some homeowners add a solar light into the tube aftermarket, which can void the warranty on the solar tube light.
The solar tube light is a perfect alternative to a traditional skylight because it doesn’t cause solar heat gain in the summer, yet it brightens a home with minimal roof and ceiling intrusion.
How Much Do Solar Tubes Cost?
Compared to traditional skylights, solar tubes are easier to install and cost quite a lot less. The cost of installing a solar tube light is, on average, half that of installing a skylight.
You can get a top-of-the-line Velux sun tunnel with an LED solar nightlight included in the package and install it yourself for less than $550 bucks.
If you want a regular sun tunnel you can get off-brand tubular skylights with a weather resistant acrylic dome for about $250 bucks. Of course, that’s for a DIY solar tube kit.
Expect the cost to double (at least) to have solar tubes installed by a pro.
How Many Solar Tubes Do I Need?
You’ll need 1 solar tube for each small room. A 10-inch solar tube illuminates 150-200 square feet. That’s a room that’s about 15×13 or so.
10-inch solar tubes are perfect for illuminating these rooms.
- Small bedroom
- Laundry room
- Breakfast nook
- Small entryways
10-inch solar tubes can also be installed in multiples to cast uniform lighting down hallways or to illuminate larger rooms consistently.
A 14-inch solar tube illuminates 250-300 square feet. That’s a larger room about 15×20.
A 14-inch solar tube is perfect for illuminating larger rooms.
- Living room
- Dining room
- Large bedrooms
- Family rooms
- Large entryways
If you choose a larger solar tube you’ll need a bigger rough opening in the ceiling and the roof but you’ll get a lot more captured sunlight into the room.
These can also be installed in multiples to illuminate large rooms with bright ambient light. Each one looks like a recessed light fixture – a modern and unobtrusive design choice.
Pros of Solar Tube Lighting
The sun tunnel system is best for people who want natural light but also want protection from excess heat.
Unlight a skylight that provides patchy light that is too bright and hot in certain places, the light from a solar tube is consistent and diffused – optimal for interior lighting.
It is also great for those who have trouble opening or closing standard window blinds due to limited mobility and disabilities, as they provide light consistently without needing to be touched.
Here are a few of the best benefits of having solar tube lighting in your home.
- Solar tubes can provide the lighting equivalent of three 100-watt incandescent bulbs (or 3 15-watt LED bulbs)
- They increase the natural lighting in your room without any ongoing cost
- They are much cheaper than traditional skylights but provide better ambient lighting
- On the inside of the home they look like a regular light fixture
Let’s take a look at some other top benefits of adding solar tube lighting into your home!
Solar Tubes Provide Free Natural Lighting
One 10-inch solar tube light provides the equivalent of three 100-watt incandescent bulbs on a sunny day.
This can fully illuminate a 200-square-foot office. It can serve as primary daytime lighting for bathrooms, closets, laundry rooms, and small bedrooms.
On sunny or even partly cloudy days, you will not need an electric light. You will save money while gaining additional convenience.
If you need light at night as well, choose a solar tube kit with an electric light built in to the tube. Keep in mind that these lights are dimmer, more like nightlights.
They probably aren’t a good idea for bedroom lighting, but for bathrooms, closets, and hallways the added nighttime illumination is perfect.
Solar Tubes Have Design Flexibility
As a result of their size, solar tunnels are not easily spotted when entering a room. Solar tubes are subtle design elements that add light without attracting attention.
Solar tube kits allow you to increase the amount of light in your living room or bedroom without modifying the room’s architecture.
The installation points don’t have to line up vertically between the ceiling and the roof. The tube can flex around joists and trusses to bring the light wherever you need it.
Solar Tubes Can Be Installed in Multi-story Homes
Skylights can only be installed in rooms next to the roof. In 2-story homes that means only the upper story can get solar lighting. There are 2 negatives to getting solar lighting using a skylight in a 2 story house.
- The upper story is hotter in the summer. The upper story already is hotter because heat rises. Add the solar heat gain from skylights and the upper story of the home can be unliveable. Homeowners will spend much more on summer cooling for the upstairs.
- The lower story is colder in the winter. Because heat is rising into the upper story during the winter, more of it is also going out the skylights. This makes it harder and more expensive to heat the downstairs of a multi-story home.
Solar tubes don’t have this problem! The mirror tube can be run through walls or interior closets to bring natural sunlight to dark downstairs rooms.
Keep in mind that if the tube has to contend with wiring, plumbing, and ductwork in the wall it can get difficult and more expensive to run the tube downstairs.
Solar Tubes Don’t Leak
Traditional skylights have a reputation for leaking. This is because they collect leaves and other debris so rain and snowmelt collect around the seals of the skylight.
The accumulated water can then make its way under the roofing material into your ceiling causing roof, attic, and ceiling damage.
The small domes on sun tunnels are sealed with flashing just like any other vent on your home so they’re leak-proof. The installation is the same as bathroom fans, sink ventilation, gas ventilation, HVAC ventilation, and fireplace chimneys.
Solar Tubes are Cheaper to Install
Installing solar tubes is less costly than installing skylights because they do not require any drywall or structure modifications.
Installation by a professional costs around $1,000 or less in most parts of the United States. It takes just a few hours – a single afternoon and it’s up and “running!”
You can install DIY solar tube kits by yourself for just the cost of the kit plus any tools you don’t already own.
However, if you want to run the tube from the roof to a downstairs level you’ll probably want to hire a professional unless you’re confident you can run it without causing an electrical hazard in the wall.
What Are the Drawbacks to Solar Tube Lighting?
We think the pros far outweigh the cons of solar tube lighting, but there are some drawbacks you should know about before you decide what’s best for your home.
Here are 3 main drawbacks to solar tube lighting.
Solar Tubes Have Less Lighting Control
Because of their compact size, solar tubes offer fewer options for managing the amount of light entering a room.
A skylight, like a window, gives you more control over the amount of light you let in.
Skylight shades are similar to window shades, but skylight diffuser shades offer a wide range of alternatives for dispersing light in the room.
You can also put a UV-blocking film on the skylight to protect your rugs and furnishings from fading.
Vented or opening skylights allow you to enjoy the sun and fresh air by opening the skylight like an awning window.
On the other hand, you can’t ventilate a solar tube in any way. It is a closed system.
While this also makes solar tube lighting incredibly energy efficient, it operates exactly light a light that stays on all day and turns off at night.
Solar Tubes Offer Little Interior Design Improvement
Adding a skylight to a room can make it appear larger and airier and provide a constantly changing view of the passing clouds.
Luxurious and connected to nature, they help create a relaxing atmosphere.
Solar tubes appear no different than recessed lighting. The impact on interior design is minimal at best. Solar tubes are for energy efficiency and green living rather than a luxurious aesthetic.
Solar Tubes Are Not Suitable for All Homes
You may be unable to install solar tubes because of the sort of roof you have. A roof slope of between 15 and 60 degrees is ideal for most solar tubes.
If you have a flat roof you’ll have to look for a solar tube kit that’s designed to be installed on a flat roof without leaking.
Asphalt or wood shingle roofs are the most common roof types for DIY solar tube installation kits.
You’ll need to get a special flashing kit for metal and tile roofing installations.
Condensation on the inside of the tube is common in humid climates. Before installing the tube, you can minimize this problem by wrapping it with R-15 batt insulation.
A solar tube is a practical solution if your home could use a little more natural light – primarily in the smaller rooms – but you do not want to spend a lot or change the look of your rooms.
On the other hand, for those who want to make a big impression on the appearance of their rooms and are willing to pay for it, a classic skylight may be the best option.
Bright windows transform a room’s atmosphere. From being dismal to being warm and inviting, space is transformed by natural light.
Solar tube lighting could be a good option for you if your home has few windows and you want to add a little extra brightness without adding heat and dazzling light to your space.
Your decision about solar tubes should be based on your knowledge of the pros and cons of this renewable natural light source.
We love solar tube lighting because it is a green way to illuminate interior spaces without losing the energy efficiency of heating and air conditioning units.