Don’t call it a skylight

Solar tubes bring benefits of light inside

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Print this page by Nicole Anderson Ellis

The roof of Alex White’s dental practice is covered in bumps.  Each of the nearly four-dozen faceted domes bends sunlight into the building’s interior.  But don’t call them skylights. 

In 1992, when the first Solatube hit the U.S. market, the Australian invention was pitched as a “tubular skylight.”  No longer. Today Solatube International Inc. manufactures Tubular Daylighting Devices (TDDs) that “harvest” sunlight.  Business directories often categorize Solatube as a “manufacturer of lighting equipment.”

The benefits of natural light are well documented.  Humans thrive in sun.  We even work better.  A 2003 study by the California Energy Commission links daylight exposure to better concentration and short-term memory. We also take fewer sick days, according to a Department of Energy report, “The Business Case for Sustainable Design.”

Studies also show we learn better with natural light.  We heal better.  And TDDs bring these benefits to areas previously out of reach. 

Beneath Solatube’s acrylic domes, a uniquely reflective aluminum tube bounces light for as much as 50 feet, bending around 90-degree corners, to shine nearly undiminished on windowless work spaces.  “These tubes are so reflective,” says Wayne Urick, “You actually get moonlight out of these.  Like a night light.”  Urick owns Manassas-based Brighter Innovations.  Over the past decade he’s installed close to 4,000 tubes, mostly in homes. 

As with many sustainable technologies, the residential market opened first.  Fueling this trend is a federal tax credit of up to $1,500 for energy-efficient home-improvement purchases made by Dec. 31, 2010 (Solatube is the only qualifying TDD brand). 
Now the commercial sector is following suit.  Domes are sprouting across the commonwealth, from furniture manufacturers to Food Lion. Urick has put TDDs on banks and restaurants and recently installed 133 in a warehouse-turned-office retrofit.  “Virginia is one of our busiest markets,” says Michael Slather, a commercial spec sales representative for Solatube. 

The financial benefits range from the subtle — documented increased spending on retail products displayed in natural light — to the obvious.  Using daylight cuts lighting costs.  Nearly 40 percent of electricity used in commercial buildings in the U.S. goes for lighting, according to the federal Department of Energy.  Commercial buildings that are not part of shopping centers spent more than $194 billion on lighting in 2003, the most recent data available.  Upfront costs of “daylighting” can be significant, ranging from an installed commercial Solartube for roughly $650, to a do-it-yourself kit by Velux for $150.  But once installed, the light is free.

“We’ve seen paybacks as short as two years,” says Slather, who handles Virginia’s commercial market from the company’s headquarters in Vista, Calif. The key appeal of TDDs, adds Slather, is “the human payback.” 

Schools represent nearly one-fifth of Solatube’s commercial clients in Virginia. Another big client is health-care facilities, including White’s dental office, near Richmond.  In January, the dental practice celebrated one year in its new green building, complete with 47 Solatubes.  White says he’s glad for lower bills, higher staff morale and faster patient healing.  But he says, “That’s not why I did it.”  A self-proclaimed outdoors person, he decided light without pollution just makes sense.  “It’s not that hard,” says White, “to do the right thing.”

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