Tom Shafer

Skylights: a slice of the heavens

March 01, 2012

Natural light -- with the exception of vampires, most people crave it. Just ask anyone who works in an office building; the prime real estate is any location by a window, even if it just provides a sliver of outdoor light.

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If you've got areas of your home that yearn to see the light of day, you could always punch more holes in the wall to accommodate additional windows. With skylights, however, you can bring natural light and ventilation in -- but you don't have to worry about extra windows destroying the architectural lines of your home. Skylights are generally easy to retrofit to an existing roof.

Popular skylight styles

Skylights can be fixed (non-opening) or venting (opening). A shaft, also known as a light tunnel, connects the skylight from the roof to the room below. The shaft is dry-walled and usually painted white like the room's ceiling to reflect the light and brighten the room.

Skylights come in a variety of materials and styles. Most skylights have a metal frame, either steel or, in most cases, aluminum. Welded corners make them weather-tight.

The two most popular skylight installation techniques are curb-mounted and curbed.

Diagram of curb-mounted skylight

  • Curb-mounted: A curb is made around the opening in the roof, and then step flashing (metal bent to 90º and nailed in steps up the curb) is used to flash the opening. Shingles are nailed over the flashing to make it watertight. The skylight frame is installed over the curb and fastened with screws.
  • Curbed: A curbed skylight has a wooden frame similar to a window. The frame slides into the opening in the roof, and then the skylight is flashed.

Sun tunnels are another popular type of skylight. A small round dome on the roof is connected to a polished metal tube that serves as the light shaft.

What does a sun tunnel look like?

What you see in the room is a round piece of opaque glass similar to a light fixture in the ceiling. Unlike an electric light fixture, however, the light is natural…and free.

Skylight glass options

Most of the glass used in skylights is laminated and tempered, but there are other options besides glass. Polycarbonate material -- a very-hard, very-clear plastic -- is resistant to weather damage. It's not degraded by ultraviolet light, so it retains its clarity. Acrylic skylights are a budget-conscious option; however, they tend to crack and turn yellow with time.

Popular manufacturers of residential skylights include Velux, SunTek, Bristolite and Sun Tunnel. Available accessories for skylights include screens and remote controls (for opening and closing venting skylights), as well as blinds (for when you have a vampire stop by or if you worry about things like nocturnal visitors spying on you from the roof).

Even if you're not particularly sentimental or spiritually reverent about the joys of light from up above, installing a skylight will definitely change the look and feel of your rooms. In fact, you might even find yourself describing your new skylight as a little slice of Heaven.


About the Author

Tom Shafer has decades of experience in window sales, marketing and product development. He's worked closely with window design engineers in testing, design, and building code interpretation. Past employers include United Windows and Doors and Norandex, MI Windows. He currently works at a home improvement retailer.

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