Let the sun shine in: See our new solar tunnel | KEYE Austin - Green Right Now
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Jan 062010

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

I’ll save the puns and bragging about what a bright idea it was to illuminate a dark interior room with a solar tube. I’ll just cut right to the details of how the process worked, for those who want to know.

Home office before solar tunnel

Home office before solar tunnel; a dark spot

First, a couple guys, or one guy, (or it could be a woman, but the two companies we got bids from sent guys) poke around in the attic above the approximate place where the solar tube will have to travel to carry outside light through the attic and into your dim and dreary space below.

In our case, the installer we chose, a fellow named Juan who has been putting in solar tubes for more than a decade, immediately went to work advising us on the positioning of the tube and assuring us that the light would be sufficiently diffused. He saw that we would be limited by the placement of the furnace in the attic above.  But he found a way to angle the tube past a beam and some duct work, so that we could have the light installed where we needed it.

While in the attic, Juan found that he could access the Eastern slope of the roof instead of going to the Northern slope, which was a little closer but wouldn’t provide the best light. (Our advice, remember to consider where you’ll be collecting light from, not just where it will be delivered to inside the house/office.)

We appreciated that Juan was able to finesse the tube placement in the attic; maybe competitors would have done the same, but you know what they say, nothing substitutes for experience.

The bubble on the roof was raised later to capture more light as the sun moved over the house.

The bubble on the roof was raised later to capture more light as the sun moved over the house.

We were picky customers. We also wanted to capture a smidgen of light from the Southwest, to carry the daylighting a little longer into the afternoon. Juan had a solution: A “chimney” or extender for the outside that raised the dome just enough to gather some illumination from the other side of the roof. (As you can see in the picture, the sun tunnel cap is near the ridge of the roof — raising it may have extended its capacity to provide bright light for a couple hours.)

Now if all that makes sense, stick with me for the next step, when the guys cut the holes in the ceiling, attic subfloor and roof. This is really the only nail biter part of the process, because you want the solar light well positioned and as Eminem would say, you’ve got one opportunity; though technically, if you got it wrong you could patch the ceiling and start over.

Juan advised that we place the light a little to the side of where we originally wanted it, not because of the furnace above, but because it would illuminate two of our dark corners in this room of dark corners. This turned out to be excellent advice and further confirmation that one should choose an experienced installer.

Back to the hole-cutting….I was curious about the order of things and when I peeked in the attic a moment after we finalized the interior positioning, I got my answer. Juan was already on the roof, looking through the hole he’d cut. This was a top-down operation.

Solar tube position: locked in

Solar tube position: locked in

We chose a brand of solar tunnel called Sun Tunnel, made by Velux Skylights. It came with the widest skirting around the outside dome top (compared with competitor Solatube). This made me feel a little better about potential leakage around the opening, but in reality, leakage is not a big problem with professionally installed solar tubes and both brands have a reputation for quality. The less expensive DIY solar tubes sold on the consumer market have been cited for inferior performance, because their bendable, ridged tunnels are not as reflective as the shiny rigid interiors most often used in contracted installations.

Solatube (left) and Sun Tunnel (right)

Solatube (left) and Sun Tunnel (right)

What did our little home improvement project cost? If you must know, it was $804. That might seem steep for an energy upgrade that effectively replaces just two table lamps and one overhead light, and only during the day. But we’ll make some of this up with a 30 percent tax credit, available in 2009 and continuing through 2010. (Is it possible that prices for solar tubes stiffened up as soon as those credits were announced? Undoubtedly. They’re more costly than two years ago when we surveyed them, finding prices to be in the $550 to $650 range.)

And yet, we are happy with our new light. And adding natural illumination to this room was about more than just saving energy dollars and carbon emissions. We wanted daylight streaming in on a sunny day. It brightens the room and our mood.

Is the natural light too bright? Juan and others tell us some people are shocked at how much light they get from their solar tube(s). We get a lot of light, too, and in Facebook parlance, we like it. It took a little getting used to. It’s a bluer light, even compared with our soft CFLs. But in a good way. We’ve seen several solar tubes before, so we were prepared. A bonus, the light hitting the desk top does not add glare to the computer screen, in the same way diffuse overhead office lights minimize glare.

The bottomline: We’re glad we punched a hole in the ceiling. My husband no longer complains that his work space is an upstairs dungeon and I don’t have to feel guilty about my ensconcement elsewhere, near a nice big window.


Voila! A much brighter spot.

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