Normally, people install skylights – basically just windows built into the roof. But skylights have several problems:
- They’re incredibly energy inefficient. Even a good, double glazed, low-e unit is a poor insulator.
- If they’re not facing the right direction, they don’t let any direct sunlight in during the winter and too much during the summer.
- They’re difficult to keep clean unless the roof slope is gentle.
- They’re prone to leakage due to ice dams created because of heat loss around the windows
A sun tube works differently than a skylight. Instead of being large windows in the roof, they’re typically smaller, about one foot to sixteen inches in diameter. Right away, this is beneficial because energy loss is directly related to the area of the opening. So a 16″ sun tube has an area about one third to one fifth of a typical skylight.
Sun tubes are built with reflectors so that they bring light into the house even as the sun moves to a variety of different locations. Usually, they are set up to reflect the Winter sun optimally but they can work well year round. I’ve installed several in my own home and really like them. One is in my office, which is on the north side of the house and never gets direct sun through the windows. However, the slope of the roof is such that for most of the year, the reflectors on the sun tube can capture sunlight and direct it into the normally gloomy room. Here’s a cheesy video demonstrating how these products work.
During the summer, sun tubes brighten rooms without heating them up like conventional skylights. If you’ve ever stood under a skylight during the summer, you know what a problem this can be. You can get a tan under some skylights! That definitely doesn’t help your air conditioning bill. Solatubes bring in the light, but due to their relatively small size and the way they work, the amount of heat that they bring into this house is very low.
Installation of sun tubes is easy. I installed one myself, and I’m no carpenter. I just followed the directions and it went in easily. Granted, I am pretty good with a saw and don’t mind crawling around the attic. However, if you’re not up to it, there are usually “factory certified” contractors who have been trained to do the installation.
There are a variety of manufacturers of sun tubes, but my favorite is Solatube. They have residential and commercial versions are well made and easy to install. Please note – I have no business relationship with them. I’m just a happy customer!
Another nice feature of sun tubes is that they can act like light fixtures when you need electrical lighting. A simple bulb holder can be installed into the tube. Yes, it blocks a little of the light, but I’ve found this to be well worth it in the rooms where I’ve installed them.
Are they perfect? No. If you don’t like white, round plastic portholes in your ceiling, you’re out of luck. Additionally, the tubes are fairly cheap and easily damaged if you’re not careful. However, you only handle them during installation, so that’s not a big deal. They also need to be installed in rooms directly below the attic or roof because it’s a sun tube! It only directs light a few feet from the roof into the room. So they’re ideal for ranch houses or upstairs rooms but of no use on the first floor of two or three floor homes.
Other than that, I love these things. There are some rooms in my house where I almost never have to turn on the lights. If I could have, I would have installed several in my kitchen and living room.