Solatube

Starting out in Australia, Solatube are the originators of the modern day sun pipe

Solatube polycarbonate yellow domes
The polycarbonate domes go yellow and lose around 10% of their light in only four years – source BRE

Solatube are now based in San Diego California with most of the manufacturing now done in China. The Solatube is a well-made system and one of only two manufactures to use the super-reflective 3M virtual mirror 99.7% reflective tubing. They will tell you that it’s called Spectralight Infinity and is exclusive to them. Which is true, but Solarspot also supply the same 99.7% reflective tube it’s just called Vegalux.

Solatube systems were the first units Norflo ever installed and at the time, it was probably the best system in the UK. It is available with a plethora of diffuser choices and accessories and looks very nice installed but its claim to be brighter is no longer valid. In fact, size for size, the Solarspot system will outperform it by around 70%.

Those of you with an enquiring mind will be asking ‘how can this be’ when they both use 99.7% reflective tube. Well the tubing does make a small amount of difference, basically because the Solatube pipe diameters are slightly narrow than they’re made out to be. The 250mm diameter system is mostly only 237mm and the 350mm diameter system only 335mm, this reduces their performance by around 20%.

Solatube dome problem
This screen grab from Solatube’s US website confirms how the dome blocks out ‘overpowering’ midday sunlight, when it actually reduces all light that hits the dome from above.

The big difference is in the dome. Despite what Solatube say in their literature, the dome is actually designed to refract away around 50% of the light that hits from above. The American website describes this as ‘Rejecting over-powering mid-day sun’. In reality, it rejects any light from above, reducing the potential light entering the tube by around 50%. The other problem with the dome is the metal plate that fits in the back of the dome that, whilst it may reflect some light on sunny day, actually blocks even more light on overcast days.

Solarspot dome vs solatube dome
Whereas the Solarspot dome (left) allows the light to pass through freely, whilst still capturing low-level light, the Solatube dome (right) is actually deisgned to restrict light from above. Not a problem in southern California, not great in the UK where over-powering sun is rarely a problem…
Solarspot vs solatube domes lo res
Solarspot vs solatube domes

Not a problem in sun-rich California, not so good in the UK. I’ve also noticed that in recent years they are having major problems with their domes going yellow and cloudy within a few years of installation. I’ve personally changed several domes for customers who spotted this and made a complaint.

One last point, Solatube offer what they call their ‘Highest Performance Guarantee’. Personally speaking, I’ve read the small print and I can’t see how it would be possible to claim against it without spending thousands of pounds just to gain the evidence. One stipulation is that you need to have an independent approved testing authority take light readings in your home every hour, on the hour on four specific days of the year. Can you imagine, for the June date you’d need a guy sat in your bathroom taking light readings from dawn ‘til dusk – That’s 4:30 in the morning until 9:30 at night… Come on Solatube that’s not realistic.

Solatube Pros

  • Well made with high quality injection moulded components
  • Comprehensive range of ceiling diffusers
  • Available with an integrated extraction system – albeit expensive for what it is.
  • Light kits and dimmers available
  • Straight forward to install

Solatube Cons

  • Not as bright as they want you to believe
  • Domes go yellow quickly
  • Basic flashing for profiled tiles is not easy to fit

Certifications

BBA – Certificate of conformity

What does it mean? – well if you are a house builder, the unit will be compliant with your NSBC spec but it is no guide to how good it is. Ironically the only other sun pipe to ever hold a BBA certificate was the SolaSkylights flexible unit – The worst system for daylight delivery ever tested at the BRE. It basically means that if you buy a unit today and another in a year then the components and build quality will be the same. A BBA certificate is no indication of the amount of daylight that will be delivered when compared to other systems on the market. To our knowledge, SolaSklights are no longer trading.

Energy Star

This certification is from the US and is given to any product that can be proven to reduce energy usage. The Energy Star badge is held by a number of systems in the US of varying quality.

Highest performance guarantee

This has no been withdrawn following action from UK trading standards.