Going Green: Skylights

by Matthew J. Goering

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While skylights are often seen as a luxury addition to the home, they can actually be a green home improvement. After all, a skylight is really just a window at heart, so all the advantages of installing energy-efficient windows apply. That includes improving your home's looks, lighting, energy efficiency, and overall comfort. Here's what you need to know from a green perspective if there's a new skylight in your future.

David Johnston on Skylights
HomeAdvisor understands that it can be tough for homeowners to wade through all the "green" remodeling information out there, which is why we've teamed up with green remodeling expert David Johnston to provide you with the best, most accurate, green remodeling advice in the business. David Johnston is the founder of the green consulting firm What's Working, Inc., the author of multiple books on green remodeling, (including the Nautilus Award winner Green Remodeling: Changing the World One Room at a Time), and he knows plenty about what skylights have to offer homeowners when it comes to going green. Here's a green guide to installing skylights, and what they have to offer, drawn from the experience and wisdom of the man himself.

Energy Efficiency and Skylights
There are two reasons that skylights are so popular in green remodeling circles. The first is that, like any window, the right skylight has the potential to help increase energy efficiency in your home (and reduce energy costs), especially when it comes eliminating heat transfer and making the most of passive solar heating. The other reason skylights are so heralded in green remodeling circles is that they maximize natural lighting, as well. Though they are not automatically an energy improvement; they must be placed strategically and be shaded in the summer to maximize energy savings. Here are some of Johnston's thoughts on what you can do to make sure your new skylight is as green as they come from an energy-efficiency standpoint.

  • Orientation—One of your greenest decisions is orientation when installing a new skylight. A skylight with a southern exposure, for example, will provide your home with valuable passive solar heating in the winter months, reducing home heating costs. A skylight on west-facing roofs will add to your cooling costs all summer long.
  • Multiple Panes—Upgrading from a single pane to a double pane skylight can reduce heat loss at that skylight by as much as 15 percent. That alone can add up to savings of as much as $2,000 in energy savings over the life of the skylight.
  • Use only skylights with low e coatings—Low e coatings reduce heat loss in winter and reduce heat from entering your home during the summer. The right low e coating (it will differ from climate to climate) can make a huge difference when it comes to improving overall energy efficiency, and will generally pay for itself in a few short years.
  • Low Conductivity Frames—Aluminum and steel frames contribute to poor energy efficiency. Purchase wood, vinyl, or fiberglass window frames instead, and opt for insulated frames if they're available.
  • Reduce the Need for Artificial Lighting—The more natural light you can let in by installing skylights in all their forms, the less you'll have to rely on expensive artificial lighting to light your home. In fact, skylights can be especially effective at increasing natural lighting in hard-to-light interior areas of your home.

Skylights: Quality, Comfort, and Health
The benefits of green remodeling go beyond energy efficiency and energy savings. As Johnston puts it, he's not in the building business, he's in the comfort business, and that means creating homes that are more comfortable, of a higher quality, and healthier than traditional alternatives. Here's how skylights can help.

  • Install Light Pipes and Solar Tubes—These non-traditional skylights are basically tubes that run from the ceiling of your home, through the attic, and up to the roof. The sole purpose of a solar tube is to funnel sunlight down into your home, especially to interior areas and rooms that get little or no natural sunlight, and spaces like bathrooms where privacy considerations are an issue. They provide natural day light without the heat loss and heat gain from most skylights.
  • Enjoy the Quiet—Skylights with higher levels of insulation (i.e.: multiple panes and gas fills) also insulate better against noise pollution.
  • Natural Lighting—Natural lighting is the single biggest attraction of installing skylights, with benefits that far exceed lower utility bills. Well-lit homes provide homeowners with healthier, more enjoyable, and more attractive living spaces.
  • Ventilation & Health—If you can, install operable skylights with screens. Poor indoor air quality is a major contributor to a wide array of health issues. One of the best ways to combat it is to provide as much natural ventilation in your home as possible.

The True Value of Going Green with Skylights
Going green with skylights will probably cost you a little more upfront than going with a traditional alternative, though the energy saving benefits alone means that most skylights pay for themselves in the long run. Nevertheless, Johnston is quick to warn homeowners against getting caught up in "the payback trap," or investing in green solely to reduce energy costs. Green homes are also healthier, require less maintenance, and place a premium and comfort and quality. Add to that the environmental benefits, and the value of knowing that you're investing in a better world for your kids and grandkids, and it's easy to see what Johnston means when he says that going green is far more valuable than any bottom line can reflect.

If you think green is the right color for your upcoming skylight installation, be sure to talk to your contractor about adopting a green building philosophy, find a contractor who specializes in green building and remodeling, or seek out the services of a green consulting firm that can provide the advice you need to help make your home as green as possible.