Want to add natural light to a drab room? Skylights and solar tubes are two options to consider. Your roof orientation, design taste, budget and energy-efficiency goals all come into play when weighing these choices.
Our guide explores the main differences between skylights and solar tubes — how each one works and which one might be the better fit for your home.
Skylights are windows installed onto your roof, typically made out of plastic (acrylic and polycarbonate) or glass. They offer views of the sky and allow the sunlight to reflect into your room.
Plastic is the more affordable option, but it comes with its share of limitations. It can discolor over time. And it does not block UV rays well unless you have a glaze or shades installed. In turn, your furniture can fade in color due to overexposure. Conversely, glass does not discolor and offers higher durability due to its safety glazing, but it’s more expensive.
Skylights are also versatile. They come in a variety of shapes, and some skylights open so you can ventilate the room.
The orientation of the skylight is a critical factor. The slope affects when you receive sunlight and how much. If you need more light in your home office for morning work, then having one installed facing east could provide enough light to accommodate you.
Solar tubes have a pipe design, ranging in diameter from 10 to 22 inches. The top contains a weather-proof dome that absorbs sunlight and prohibits UV rays from entering your home. Reflective surfaces move the light through the tube. Once it reaches the bottom, a diffuser, installed on the ceiling of a room, emits a bright light.
While smaller in profile, solar tubes pack plenty of power. They can disperse as much light as three 100W light bulbs.
On the cost end, solar tubes are easy and inexpensive to install. You can add them to any room in your home, making them a wise addition if you want to reduce your energy consumption without making dramatic changes to your home’s architecture. Moreover, there is minimal heat loss or gain with solar tubes because of their smaller size.
Skylights vs. solar tubes
Skylights and solar tubes vary in cost depending on the size of the project. Skylights start in the low hundreds, while ventilated models are more expensive, starting. Solar tubes range from about on average.
Installing both options can run you anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on how many you’re installing and the company doing the work — and, in the case of skylights, the style you choose.
Winner: Solar tubes, in most cases
Skylights offer homeowners more options in style and function. You can buy models that open, providing fresh air into your home or that vent warm air outside. You can also explore different shapes, sizes and construction materials to match your design preferences.
Alternatively, solar tubes possess a basic design. The smaller pipe configuration allows you to gain natural light without having to make a significant design change to rooms. However, this also means you don’t have much room for customization if you opt for solar tubes.
Admitting natural light into your room shouldn’t come at the expense of the items inside. Long-term exposure to UV rays fades the color of fabrics. Solar tubes prevent this from happening by blocking these rays at the surface. It keeps them from damaging furniture, artwork and more.
With skylights, you have more risks for UV rays intruding because the surface area is much larger. There are ways to reduce these risks with glazing, solar shades and blinds. Solar tubes provide natural light with less UV exposure, making them a better option overall.
Winner: Solar tubes
Skylights require a more intricate installation. You have to account for the roof orientation. The lower the roof slope, the more susceptible it is to solar heat gain and loss. The US Department of Energy recommends installing the skylight 5 to 15 degrees above your latitude.
Unless you are an expert do-it-yourselfer, you’re likely to need a professional to do the work. And because of the effort involved, it can add significantly to your overall costs.
Conversely, installing solar tubes is more convenient and less time-consuming. And if you hire a pro to do the job, you might pay less than you would with skylights. Overall, when comparing project costs, complexity and time to complete, solar tubes edge out skylights.
Winner: Solar tubes
Skylights accumulate dirt and other debris. Therefore, you need to clean them regularly. And that generally involves climbing up on your roof.
Solar tubes are typically easier to maintain. The curved design reduces the amount of debris collected on the dome, and many come vacuum sealed to prevent the penetration of dust and other items.
Winner: Solar tubes
Efficiency and climate considerations
Skylights have a larger surface area than solar tubes and are therefore prone to more solar heat gain. Solar heat gain means the area around your skylight home becomes warmer, forcing your air conditioner to work harder and your energy bills to increase. You can mitigate this by placing your skylight in a shaded area, having the manufacturer apply special glazing, or installing exterior blinds.
While a skylight’s solar heat gain proves challenging in the summer, it can be beneficial in the winter months. Because your skylight attracts more light, it takes in more energy. And when your room is naturally warmed by the sun, your furnace does not have to work as hard.
There’s less heat loss with solar tubes because of the smaller surface area. It’s a more energy-efficient option, especially for those living in warmer climates who are more concerned about solar heat gain.
Winner: Depends on your climate
Which one is right for you?
Skylights and solar tubes each fill a room with natural light. Your choice depends on your design tastes, budget, climate, roof orientation and other factors. For some, the appeal of a skylight is too good to ignore. The clear views of the sky, the energy efficiency gained in the winter, and the possible increase in appeal when reselling your home make it a wise choice. However, solar tubes might entice others. They come with a simple design and a generally lower price without much solar heat gain.
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