What is a solar tube?

These devices collect, reflect and diffuse natural light

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A solar tube brings outdoor light into your home through a pipe that runs from your roof to your ceiling. It lights your home by capturing, transmitting and diffusing available daylight. The main advantage of solar tubes is that they get natural light inside without bringing in excess heat.

Below is a brief overview of solar tubes that can help you determine if solar-tube technology is right for your home.


Key insights

  • Solar tubes bring natural light into homes while keeping excess heat out.
  • The total cost of a solar tube is between $650 and $2,150 with installation, and some models are eligible for tax credits.
  • Solar tubes are more energy-efficient and cheaper than skylights, but skylights offer outdoor views.

How solar tubes work

Solar tubes (also known as light tubes, tubular skylights and tubular daylighting devices) bring natural light into your home through a covered opening on your roof. The light comes in through a tube to your ceiling, where it passes through a diffuser and illuminates the room.

Solar tubes are visible on your roof — they typically look like a small, clear dome or a thin, metal chimney. Inside your home, the diffuser looks like a typical recessed light fixture.

Solar tubes are energy efficient and let natural light into your home without affecting the temperature of the room — more traditional natural light options, such as skylights and windows, have large surface areas that radiate cold in the winter and heat in the summer. A solar tube’s smaller opening and diffuser let sunlight in while keeping excess heat out.

While solar tubes only work during the day, it’s becoming more common for them to have a small solar panel and battery to power an LED light once the sun sets. Many of the LED lights installed in solar tubes are pretty sophisticated — some even come with on/off switches and dimmers.

» MORE: What is passive solar heating?

How much do solar tubes cost?

Expect to pay $650 to $2,150 for the purchase and installation of solar tubes. Many companies offer DIY kits that range from $250 to $600, but leaks are a common issue with rooftop lighting, so it’s probably best to have your solar tube installed by professionals unless you have previous experience.

Below we’ve included the total purchase and installation price for two popular solar tubes.

Solar tube purchase and installation costs

If you install solar tubes with integrated technology that generates energy, you should qualify for the federal solar tax credit, which could save you 30%. ENERGY STAR-rated solar tubes may also be eligible for the Qualified Energy Efficiency Improvements tax credit. This provides 10% off the price (but not installation) of qualifying products.

Pros and cons of solar tubes

Solar tubes are an energy-efficient way to light your home, but they do have some drawbacks to consider.

Pros

  • Energy-efficient natural lighting
  • Keeps out excess heat
  • Provides health and mood benefits
  • Low maintenance
  • Potential tax credits

Cons

  • Only provides light during the day
  • Needs professional installation
  • Opaque (not see-through)
  • High upfront costs

What are the advantages of solar tubes?

Natural sunlight, even when diffused through solar tubes, has health benefits. Bringing natural light into your living space can improve productivity, sleep quality and your mood. The main advantage of solar tubes, though, is that they’re the most energy-efficient way to get natural light into your home.

Solar tubes also aren’t very labor intensive once they’ve been installed. But, unlike with skylights, you can’t see outside with a solar tube, which is a big con for many. If you want to see outside while bringing in natural light, consider a skylight or maybe a solar window.

What are the disadvantages of solar tubes?

The biggest drawback to solar tubes is the upfront cost, which is typical for natural light installations (skylights cost more to install). Unlike skylights or windows, however, solar tubes are translucent but not transparent, meaning you can’t use them to see outside. And unless your solar tube has an alternate-powered light source, they only work during the daytime.

Despite these cons, growing frustrations with rising energy costs can motivate buyers — like Michael, a ConsumerAffairs reviewer from Virginia — to buy energy-efficient products like solar tubes. Michael shared with us, “In the last two years, our electric bill has taken a 100% hike. This is insane.” And he’s probably not alone.

Frustration with energy costs might also explain why the adoption of solar energy systems in the U.S. continues to escalate despite the upfront costs and a potential 10- to 13-year return on investment.

Solar tubes vs. skylights

The differences between solar tubes and skylights mean the right choice for you largely depends on your preferences: Solar tubes are more energy-efficient and less expensive, but many people prefer the views skylights offer.

“The skylight will generally cost more,” said Jeff Brooks, the owner of Houseworks Daylighting Solutions, a company that installs skylights and solar tubes. “[Solar tubes] cost less, are easier to install and provide light to smaller or confined spaces (like hallways, closets and bathrooms) but are not easily darkened, as they have no shade option.”

Solar tubes are also a better choice for energy efficiency: The small opening that lets sunlight in doesn’t radiate summer heat or winter cold like the large surface areas of skylights and windows.

“Skylights can be a design feature and add light and ventilation to larger areas of a home or office,” Brooks said. Skylights also give you an opportunity to bring elements of the outdoors inside, which solar tubes can’t do.

If your goal is making your home more beautiful or letting fresh air in, a skylight is probably a better choice.

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FAQ

How much maintenance is required for a solar tube?

Solar tubes, if installed properly, should require very little maintenance.

“On occasion, bugs may find their way into the [solar tube] and end up dead on the diffuser,” Brooks said. “They are easily removed by detaching the lens and wiping it off.”

Can a solar tube be installed on any type of roof?

Most solar tubes are created for pitched roofs, but there are solar tubes designed for flat roofs. Brooks said his business carries products that can be installed on any roof, adding that solar tubes are “compatible with asphalt shingles, cedar shakes, tile, ceramic and metal roofs, as well as a curb-mounted models for flat roof applications.”

Some roofs may require an additional flashing kit, he added.

Can a solar tube provide light after sunset?

Some solar tubes do not create light. However, many solar tubes have small solar-powered LED lights installed that will gather power during the day that can provide light at night.

How does the performance of a solar tube change with different weather conditions?

Solar tubes diffuse natural light evenly throughout the space. This means you probably won’t notice a difference between sunny and cloudy days.

What is the life span of a solar tube?

Solar tubes should last a fairly long time if installed properly, with most estimates at about 20 years. Some installers, like Brooks, are confident they might last even longer — maybe 30 or 40 years.


Article sources
ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. Specific sources for this article include:
  1. Building America Solution Center, “ Air Sealing Light Tubes .” Accessed June 22, 2023.
  2. Higher Institute of Engineering- Elshorouk City, “ Analytical study of the size of solar tubes for interior spaces for Cairo, Egypt .” Accessed June 23, 2023.
  3. International Journal of Analytical, Experimental and Finite Element Analysis, “ Daylight Harvesting System: A Review on Light Harvesting Technologies in Commercial Buildings .” Accessed June 24, 2023.
  4. NC State University, “ Shining Light on What Natural Light Does For Your Body .” June 23, 2023.
  5. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, “ Skylights - Energy Saver .” Accessed June 23, 2023.
  6. Pew Research Center, “ Home solar panel adoption continues to rise in the U.S. ” Accessed June 24, 2023.
  7. Solatube, “ Solatube Home Pricing .” Accessed June 23, 2023.
  8. VELUX, “ Skylight Pricing .” Accessed June 23, 2023.
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