what are the drawbacks to solar tube lighting

Solar tube lighting is an affordable way to harness clean energy and let natural light into your home, but it has its challenges and limitations. Do the drawbacks to solar tube lighting outweigh the benefits?

What is solar tube lighting?

Most commonly used to light up corridors, stairwells, and darker corners of homes, solar tube lighting is a natural and eco-friendly alternative to artificial light bulbs.

Solar tubes, sometimes also called tubular skylights, light tubes, sun tunnels, or daylight pipes, are essentially a narrow tube that runs from your roof to the ceiling to deliver sunlight directly to your home. The tubes are lined with a reflective material to intensify the sunlight, and capped with a clear dome on the roof to keep leaves, rain, and other elements out.

solar tube lighting scheme
Source: Wikimedia / Stefan Kühn

The tubes can be from 10 to 22 inches in diameter, and the length will depend on the distance between the roof and the ceiling. More advanced systems may include battery storage to provide light at night or on dim days, or a mechanical chase (a large opening in the attic plane) to deliver light to lower levels of a building.

Solar tube lighting is commonly used as an affordable alternative to natural skylights, as it doesn’t require a great deal of effort to install. If you’re an experienced DIY-er, you may even be able to install solar tube lighting yourself.

What are the pros of solar tube lighting?

Solar tube lighting is often seen as an affordable and easy-to-install alternative to natural skylights. However, the benefits go beyond affordability.

The main advantages of solar tube lights are:

  • They run entirely on solar power – The only thing you’ll need to power your solar tube lighting is direct sunlight.
  • They provide warm, natural light – Solar tube lights provide natural light that gives your home a welcoming feel, boosts vitamin D, and helps to improve sleep.
  • They’re affordable and easy to install – For a minimal investment you can bring natural light into your home. As well as being much cheaper than skylights, they also require a lot less effort to install without the need for dry-walling or framing.
  • They’re suitable for small areas – Unlike skylights which take up a lot of space, you can usually install solar tube lighting into smaller spaces like hallways and pantries.
  • They help you save on energy bills – With solar tube lights, you’ll use much less artificial lighting, and may be able to eliminate it entirely on sunny days, slashing your electricity bill.
  • They’re eco-friendly – By cutting down your electricity use, you’ll help to reduce carbon emissions and air pollution, thus being kinder to the planet.

With so many advantages you may think that solar tube lighting is a magic solution, but is all this too good to be true?

What are the drawbacks of solar tube lighting?

If you’re considering installing solar tube lights in your home, it’s important to be aware of the potential pitfalls. These drawbacks are not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it’s important to weigh these up before you make a final decision.

Solar tube lighting is not suitable for every building

Solar tube lighting has certain requirements which don’t always work with every home. In particular, you need to be able to install the tubes somewhere with not more than 20 feet between the ceiling and the roof.

Solar tubes designed for flat roofs are also rare, with between a 15 and 60 degree slope being ideal. So if you have a flat or highly sloped roof, solar tube lighting may not be for you.

Solar tube lights only work when it’s sunny

Given that solar tube lighting works by channeling light from the outside, it will only work when there’s plenty of sunlight. This means that they don’t provide light at night and minimal amounts on cloudy days.

Furthermore, if your roof is shaded for part or all of the day this will also reduce the amount of light that comes through.

However, there are some advanced solar tube lighting designs that use solar to charge a battery so they can give light even when it’s dark.

Solar tube lighting is not very customizable

Solar tube lighting has limited options for customization. You can’t do much to change the aesthetics of this kind of lighting.

Additionally, solar tube lighting doesn’t come with any kind of ventilation, so you won’t be able to use it to let in fresh air or moderate the temperature of the building.

Solar tube lighting doesn’t provide strong light all the time

Solar tube lighting is ideal for bringing a bit of extra daylight into dimmer parts of your house. However, they’re not a consistent, powerful light source like conventional lights.

This does depend on the amount of sunlight available – on sunny days, one solar tube can provide as much light as around three 100-watt bulbs, enough to light up 200 square feet. However, they won’t deliver so much light on cloudy days.

Furthermore, solar tubes are less effective the longer they are, so longer tubes can provide less powerful light.

Solar tube lighting is susceptible to extreme temperatures

Solar tube lighting is not the most durable, particularly when it comes to extreme temperatures. Solar tubes are typically housed inside an acrylic tube which is prone to cracking when very hot or very cold.

Additionally, high humidity can cause condensation in solar tubes which may affect performance and cause damage over time. If you live in an extremely hot, cold, or humid climate, you may be better off with alternatives such as a more durable glass skylight.

Solar tube lights have a minimalist appearance

Solar tube lighting is typically small and discreet. This means that they’re not very distinctive and will not add much to your home’s décor.

On the other hand, you may see the unobtrusive and minimalist look of solar tube lighting as an advantage if this matches your style and décor.

solar tube vs regular ceiling fixture
Solar tube (left) vs regular ceiling light fixture (right)
Source: Flickr / amandadevries

Solar tube lights won’t give you a view

If you’re tossing up between skylights and solar tube lighting, one of the main differences to consider is that solar tube lighting doesn’t give you a direct opening to the outside. Therefore, you won’t get the outside views and feeling of space that you’d enjoy with a skylight.

Key takeaways

Solar tube lighting has its advantages and its pitfalls. The drawbacks to solar tube lighting include inconsistency and a lack of versatility and customizability.

Add to this that they’re not suitable for very hot, cold, or humid climates, and their minimalist aesthetic doesn’t appeal to everyone.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should avoid solar tube lighting.

There’s no black-and-white answer – solar tube lighting can be a great option for some people, and not the best choice for others. Whether this solution is right for you depends on a range of factors, including where you live and the amount of sun you receive.

If you’ve found this summary of the drawbacks to solar tube lighting helpful, go ahead and share it with your family and friends.

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