Channeling Sunshine

Solatube International

Solatube International, Inc. has built a thriving business around the principle that access to natural light is a human right. While indoor artificial light might sometimes be necessary, company officials say natural daylight offers unmatched physical, mental and environmental benefits and can reduce energy costs.
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“We really, really believe in what we do and in natural light. We believe it’s a human right. Builders of buildings that we live and work in should really go to the same lengths [to provide natural light] that they do to provide water, air and sanitation. The technology is here and it’s inhumane to have people working without access to [natural light],” states Solatube President Robert Westfall from company headquarters in Vista, California.

Solatube sells residential and commercial daylighting systems which channel natural sunlight into buildings. The firm also offers residential ventilation units. The company’s products are proprietary and the firm remains the market leader in its category.

Here’s how Solatube’s residential daylighting systems work: a small rounded dome fitted with a reflector is fixed to the roof of a home. The dome is connected to a tube which is placed inside the residence. The inside of the tube is lined with highly reflective material, which takes sunlight captured by the reflector and channels it downwards. At the end of the tube, a diffuser lens disperses the light through a ceiling portal into an interior room.

“We basically pipe sunlight into buildings,” states Westfall.

Residential systems come in two main varieties: the Solatube 160 DS features a 10-inch diameter tube that can reach 20 feet in length and has a light coverage area of up to 200 square feet. The Solatube 290 DS, meanwhile, features a 14-inch diameter tube that tops out at 30 feet in length and offers a light coverage area of up to 300 square feet. An optional model in either size comes with a Solar Electric NightLight for evening use.

For residential clients, Solatube also markets a Solar Star Ventilation Fan, designed for attics, and a Whole House Fan. The Whole House Fan offers “an alternate way to bring fresh cool air into the house on warm days or just to refresh the air in the house so it doesn’t get stale,” states Westfall, who adds that ventilation represents a small share of the company’s business.

Daylighting systems for commercial customers use similar technology as their residential counterparts but are generally larger in size. The Sky Vault Series has a 29-inch diameter tube while the SolaMaster Series has a 21-inch diameter tube. Solatube 160 and 290 DS models are also available for commercial clients.

Solatube’s daylighting systems can be installed in brand new structures or retrofitted into existing buildings. While the company manufactures all its own products, it relies on a global network of independent dealers to install the systems. Once in place, Solatube’s daylighting systems offer multiple advantages, says Westfall. “Our products dramatically improve the quality of life… Natural light has many benefits that artificial light doesn’t have,” he states.

A Solatube International fact sheet lists some of these benefits (and cites research studies to back its conclusions). Sun exposure helps reduce stress and anxiety, ease depression, enhance kidney function and strengthen bones (sunshine offers Vitamin D which is good for kidneys, bones and other body parts and functions). Patients in hospitals require less pain medication when they have access to sunlight, and employees are more productive at work, states the fact sheet.

“Mental stimulation is perhaps the biggest benefit of natural light. Daylight reinforces natural circadian rhythms and the production of neural transmitters such as serotonin. Higher illumination levels have been associated with greater mental acuity and the simple variability of daylight may be key to mental stimulation,” reads Solatube information.

Daylighting systems also provide environmental and economic benefits. According to Solatube, daylighting can reduce building energy costs by up to one-third or higher.

Certainly, plenty of people seem to agree with such pro-sun sentiments, as numerous companies and government agencies have introduced more sunlight into their operations with positive results. PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Macy’s have all added daylighting systems into some of their facilities, with good results. Daylighting systems have also been successfully used to illuminate underground parking garages and provide natural light for indoor fish tanks in zoos.

Westfall explains that Solatube products provide better outcomes than traditional methods of enhancing natural light inside buildings. “Typically, when somebody wants to have a lot of natural light, you add windows. When you add windows, you add air conditioning because windows are not energy efficient. Even triple-pane windows do not have the same energy efficiency that a wall does. Using a lot of glass in a building is not energy efficient,” he states.

Something else: lots of windows can mean massive glare, both inside and outside. “I’m sure you’ve been in a building with a lot of windows; the sun is shining through and you’re just frying your eyeballs or getting really hot. With our technology we’re able to propagate the visible light but we filter out ultra-violet light and infrared wave lengths. There’s no other technology on the market that can give you as much natural light without the heat and without the UV as Solatube,” says Westfall.

Solatube’s daylighting system even works in areas that don’t get a lot of sunshine. “People are always surprised at how well our product can propagate light [on cloudy days]. If you go outside on a cloudy day, there’s still plenty of light to read a book or do anything,” explains Westfall.

Unsurprisingly, the roots of the company can be traced to sun-drenched Australia. In the 1980s, an Australian inventor developed something called a tubular daylighting device (TDD) to channel sunlight into interior residential spaces that normally didn’t get much natural light. The TDD design was patented. After further tinkering, an initial group of company founders launched the product for sale in Australia in 1991. One year later, the fledgling firm opened an office in California and Solatube International was on its way.

In the mid-1990s, Solatube expanded its reach to include Latin America and Europe. In 2000, a division targeting commercial offices and businesses was opened (previously all TDDs sold by Solatube were built for residences). More new products were introduced and in 2005, the firm opened a branch in China.

“We have a sales office in China. We manufacture product here and sell it into China. We have very closely allied distribution partners all over the world. We have a presence everywhere,” states Westfall.

The company is structured so that different divisions have different responsibilities. Solatube International Inc. is the patent holder, the proprietary technology holder and the manufacturer for the product and handles North American sales and marketing. Solatube Worldwide Sales is in charge of Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and parts of Africa and Asia. Solatube Australia handles Australia, New Zealand and other markets while Solatube CECEP looks after the Chinese market.

Then, as now, Solatube has tried to make a distinction between itself and companies that make products to generate solar energy. “Solar [energy] typically involves a solar panel that’s taking sunlight and converting it to electricity. We’re more akin to a window or a skylight. We provide a way for sun to get in without turning it into electricity first and then back into light,” explains Westfall.

Solatube’s biggest current challenge is coping with the economic fallout of recent political decisions. In January of this year, the White House announced a 30 percent tariff on imported solar panels and has expressed reservations about pro-environmental policies. While Solatube is not in the solar energy business, Westfall worries about the impact of such developments.

“The Trump administration is really shaking things up throughout the world. These new duties and insecurity about what’s going to happen in the future in certain parts of the world and changing policies on the environment, all those things have created uncertainty. This affects our market and planning,” he says.

If political trends are causing turmoil for Solatube, the growing trend toward “green” construction methods might prove to be a boon. “A very important part of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is the use of natural light. We give people the ability to have natural light in more parts of a building. We give them the ability of having that natural light without having to manage it with air conditioning systems. [Our products] help reduce energy use in buildings, through less [artificial] lighting and less air conditioning. That fits really well into LEED,” states Westfall.

Given this, Westfall envisions a sunny future. “We are still a growth company. So I would say we would definitely be larger [in five years’ time] – at least 50 to 100 percent larger than we are now. We will continue to have new products that we bring to the market and we’ll continue to delight people with some new innovation and new interesting things. That’s what we live for as a company,” he states.

Tales from the Underground

Toronto, Chicago, and New York City are three of the largest cities in North America. All are famous for their bustle, energy, work opportunities, and tourist attractions. What is less well-known is that all three of these urban centres feature vast areas beneath the street surface where pedestrians can shop, dine, catch a subway, do their banking, or simply avoid inclement weather.

May 23, 2019, 8:22 PM EDT