Let the sun shine in

As the temperatures fall and evening darkness comes ever-earlier, homeowners may already dread the long dark winter.

Skylights offer a way to bring light in all year round, whatever the angle of the sun. Even on cloudy days, they lend a surprisingly bright jolt of natural light to interiors.

Homeowners are also finding "light tubes" can funnel welcome natural light to many dark spots such as the bathrooms and hallways relegated to the light-starved interior of a house.

No more leaks?
"The glazing on skylights is very similar to the glazing on today's windows, and the energy efficiency is very comparable," says Don Hruby of Rossbach Construction in North St. Paul. "Skylights have an interior wood frame and exterior cladding. The Velux brand we use has three layers of protection: between the frame and skylight and the plywood on the roof, then ice and water shielding around the perimeter, and then Type 1 flashing."

Skylights are also bigger than original models from decades ago. The most common size Hruby's clients want: 2 feet by 4 feet.

Nor do modern remodelers limit themselves to one skylight per house. A popular addition to many of the "vaulted-ceiling" family rooms which are too vast to be lit by just windows is to install a row of skylights in the ceiling above the windows, extending the view and bringing light into forgotten corners.

Light where there's no roof overhead
The bathroom scenario is where Hruby advises using a light tube instead. His company's chosen manufacturer calls its tubes "sun tunnels," which creatively describes the system.

From a 12- to 16-inch round skylight on the roof, a stainless-steel tube can snake down through unused attic space to an interior bathroom, hall, or even walk-in closet.

The highly-reflective interior of the tube bounces light down to a diffusing lens in a room's ceiling. Hruby says the installation looks like a recessed lighting lens, except that what's coming through is continual natural light.

Light you can't get from windows
At Morr Construction in Shoreview, project developer Steve Swanson doesn't plan a solar tube or skylight for every project, "but I sometimes wish we did." Letting light in makes such a dramatic difference to an interior, it quickly becomes a homeowner's favorite renovation. "They love them," Swanson says. "You can see right out -- sun, clouds, sometimes tree branches -- and it just brings a completely new aspect to the home."

Energy savings
Swanson -- and satisfied customers -- add that they're saving energy from not having to use electric lighting. As he puts it, "Sunlight is free."

And it makes a big difference over even bright interior light. "I just put in a larger light tube -- 14 inches diameter -- in a stairwell going up to a second floor," Swanson says. "It was completely an interior space and so dark they had to have the lights on every time someone used it. The light tube basically flooded the whole thing with light. ... I think you could probably see moonlight."

A similar installation was in the dark entryway of a split-level home, Swanson adds. That one is a dual-light system, in which the Morr team used an existing light opening and wiring to add a bulb behind the light-tube lens. "You get natural light all day, but can switch the light on when you need to at night."

New technology
If clients fear a western-exposed skylight could be too bright at some times of day, or don't appreciate being awakened by the June sun under the eastern eaves, they can select from multiple colors of blinds and shades, Hruby adds.

These, like so many other conveniences, can be equipped with small motors and a remote, to make controlling the sun as easy as pushing a button.

Similarly, light tubes can have electronically controlled baffles in them, Swanson says.

Couldn't read at high noon
Two of Rossbach's satisfied customers are Bill and Judy Nalmo of North Oaks. The Nalmos, unlike some customers who simply add a skylight to other remodeling or addition projects, came to Rossbach specifically for some sunshine.

"We had them put in three skylights and two solar tubes," Bill Nalmo explains.

The Nalmo house is nestled under a healthy canopy of their city's namesake oaks. "The only place there aren't trees is where the house is," Nalmo notes. Although the 1960s construction has floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room, the tree cover and deep roof overhangs leave the interior cave-like.

"It would be a bright, sunny day outside, and we couldn't read the newspaper," Nalmo says.

Now, skylights in the living room and dining room and solar tubes in the kitchen stream natural light into task and living spaces.

"They just brighten up the area," Nalmo says. "And it saves electricity -- you don't have to turn on the lights all the time."

Holly Wenzel can be reached at review@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7811.