Natural light can make a huge difference in how inviting and open a room feels. Apart from the obvious illumination bonuses, getting more natural light is directly linked to health benefits. People who get more light in their space have more energy, struggle less with low mood and depression, not to mention are more effective in their work. There is every reason to go with any home improvement options that bring more light into your home.

If you are a fan of letting extra light in your home without investing in major renovations, adding a skylight or sun tunnel (also known as a light tunnel) is a great way to do it. Before you decide which of these options to go with, you have to evaluate the pros and cons of each. They are similar in that they both bring natural light inside your home, but there are also key differences.

The difference between skylights and sun tunnels

Skylights provide more natural light and fresh air into your home, as well as improve energy savings. Solar tubes, also known as sun tunnels, have a much smaller footprint. Their job is to bring light where skylights cannot do so. In the following guide, we will go into greater detail in the comparison of sun tunnel vs skylight as two ways to add natural light to the room and aid you in choosing the right option for you.

Check out our other post explaining what is a skylight and what are the differences between skylights, roof windows and rooflights.

Skylights - features, benefits and things to consider

If an area of your home needs ventilation and extra light, skylights come to the rescue. They can be installed directly on the roof and provide more light. The best thing about skylights is that they can improve heating and cooling costs, as well as reduce the need for artificial light. They act like a window that lets more light into the room. Some skylights can be opened to allow for ventilation and humidity control.

Modern skylights come in two main types - pitched roof skylights and flat roof skylights or windows, but within those types, there is a lot of variety in designs and features compared to the traditional skylight of years past. Now you can pair them with solar blinds and tubular features to make them a reliable roof window with manual or electric operation. You can also get your skylights with diffusers and light-blocking properties that suit your needs and let in as little or as much light as you want.

The cost you will pay to install a skylight will depend on the size and type of glass. To insert skylights, there's some need to alter the drywall, painting and framing. And while it may sound like a lot of work, a skylight is more than worth it with its ability to add more natural light to your home.

Read our full in-depth guide on the benefits of skylights for more information.

Sun tunnels - features, benefits and things to consider

The sun tunnel is a more recent invention, also known as tubular skylights. The main goal of a sun tunnel is to provide natural light. Unlike a skylight, it doesn't open. It is an easy-to-install feature, quite often used in green building projects. Most sun tunnels consist of a sheet metal highly reflective tube. The light bounces off that mirrored surface without losing its intensity. This is a fine way to bring natural light into your home via a flexible sun tunnel.

The usual structure of a sun tunnel features a cap made out of a plastic globe or acrylic dome on the roof that is weather-proof. On the other end, in the ceiling of the room the tube leads to there is a light diffuser, which resembles a porthole. Some models replace the globe with flat glass.

The way it all works is very simple - the globe transfers daylight and brings it all the way from the roof of your home to a room that doesn't have access to skylights. A sun pipe can bring light to a bathroom, a pantry, a dark hallway or a laundry room. Because sun tunnels take up an insignificant amount of space on the roof, they contribute to less heat lost in the winter and less heat gain in the summer.

There are 2 types of sun tunnels:

  • Flexible tube - ideal for a short distance, particularly well-suited for a flat roof. It is mostly used in instances where no more than a meter of a light tube is needed.
  • Rigid sun tunnel - more expensive, but also better at supplying a room with natural light. If the distance from the glazing to the room is greater than 2 meters, a rigid tube system offers better light transmittance. It is not a good option when there are a lot of bends and twists to go around.

Installing a sun tunnel is like introducing a light fixture into a room. It typically costs way less than skylights. Solar tube installation may be cheaper, but you have to consider the fact that the construction extends from the roof through several levels. The more levels the tube goes through, the more installation costs rise. Still, the extra amount of light and improved energy efficiency are worth the investment.

Comparing the cost of skylights and solar tubes

When comparing the cost of solar tubes and skylights, you have to keep two major factors into consideration:

  • Cost of labour - without a doubt, a skylight requires more labour to install than a sun tunnel. Customers usually have to pay hundreds of £s more for a retro-fitted skylight on labour alone. This makes the installation process of skylights more expensive than it is to install a solar tube.
  • Cost of materials - sun tunnels and skylights don't differ much in terms of the cost of materials.

Which is easier to install - a skylight or a sun tunnel?

Skylights require more labour to install and a team of installers. Installing sun tunnels is a task for 2 people at maximum. They make a hole that leads from the roof to the ceiling. They then fit the tube down that hole, install a roof dome and a diffuser at both ends and that is pretty much it. Skylights need more construction and labour. 

The process usually features cutting drywall, making frames on the roof space and getting a painter to do the finishing touches. Pretty much any size sun tunnel can be installed within a few hours, while a skylight may take a few days to complete.

Which one lets in more light - a skylight or a sun tunnel?

Skylights are mounted on the roof or on a curb. Whether they are made of plastic (polycarbonate or acrylic), they have more surface area than a sun tube that utilises a dome. A skylight is a window, whereas a sun tube is a smaller opening for sunlight. Skylights let in more light compared to sun tubes. However, this doesn't mean that solar tubes don't work well. They are great for single rooms in the middle of the house, where natural light doesn't reach.

Are you ready to choose between a skylight or a sun tunnel?

As you know by now, there are several important factors to consider when you choose between the two options:

  • The cost and complexity of installation
  • Energy efficiency
  • The benefits of natural light
  • Options for a tax credit
  • Control over ventilation, amount of light produced and heat
  • Potential for passive solar heating

Regardless of your choice, it is always best to get a professional's recommendation and then work with them on the installation. There are many considerations that should be made if you want to take full advantage of a skylight or sun tunnel. Both options provide warm light to a room and both can be an impressive quality-of-life improvement to your home.


Which is better: skylights and sun tunnels?

With skylights, you get more light in due to the fact they act as windows. Of course, when comparing both you also need to think about factors like cost, installation time and feasibility. Skylights generally cost more (read our post on how much does it cost to install skylights n the UK), because the installation process is more complicated and longer compared to getting a solar tube. They only work when the room has access to natural light. Sun tunnels can be less expensive and still provide the benefits of sunlight to areas of the house like a laundry room, inside hallways, bathrooms and pantries.

What is the difference between a sun tunnel and a skylight?

Skylights are mounted on a curb or directly on the roof decking. As such, they serve as a direct window to the outdoors and let in more light. A solar tube uses an acrylic dome to capture light and send it down from the tube into a diffuser in the room. In that sense, it doesn't work like a window, but more like a recessed light. Solar tubes bring light in rooms that skylights cannot - bathrooms, pantries, indoor hallways, laundry rooms, closets, etc.

What are the drawbacks to sun tunnels?

The major drawbacks of solar tubes are:

  • May not be feasible for every home due to installation limitations. Roof slope matters a lot.
  • Don't work in bad weather. Solar tube light depends entirely on sunlight, so it doesn't work on cloudy days.
  • The design style is limited. There aren't many design options and styles to choose from.
  • Lack of lighting control. You cannot control how much light comes in through the tunnel or at what time.
  • Condensation issues. Often times solar tubes are made of aluminium, which is a heat conductor. As such, there is always the chance for condensation.

Are sun tunnels worth it?

Solar tubes cannot replace electric lighting. They are reliant on the weather and do not provide light on a cloudy day. Instead, think of them as an alternative to a skylight. You may not be able to get a view like the one from a skylight, but you will still get some sunlight in the room they are in.

The thing about sun tunnels is that they are a lower-cost investment, compared to their counterpart. They also work in instances where a skylight cannot be installed. They are worth considering in all cases.

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