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New Technology: Pipe in natural sunlight to reduce electrical needs

PD Editor Karen Lee Published on 16 September 2010


Orion Energy Systems in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, has been selling the Apollo Solar Light Pipe commercially for more than four years to be used in warehouses, factories, supermarkets, etc. This summer it introduced this technology to agriculture with its first installation on a dairy.



The concept started in agriculture when as a small child Orion’s CEO Neal Verfuerth saw how much light could enter through a knothole in vertical barn board. He used this idea to develop an award-winning technology.

“Light pipes harvest natural daylight and focus it to the zonal cavity below,” says Tom Teteak, director of the Apollo Light Pipe with Orion Energy.

The structure of the dome allows it to capture light from the sun when high in the sky and even at low angles, maximizing the light throughput.

As the sun rises, sunlight enters the light pipe through an acrylic diffuser. Inside, the light bounces off reflectors and is focused to the center, working similarly to the pupil and lens of your eye, Teteak explains.

The diffuser is smooth and non-porous to help maintain the light pipe’s lifespan. It is fully clamped to the aluminum flashing of the pipe’s casing, much like the ring on the edge of a barrel. The seal around the 22.25”-diameter pipe is also insulated.


This technology is meant for cross-ventilated freestall barns, milking parlors or other enclosed areas. It provides the advantage of natural light in those areas without the disadvantage of bringing the heat in with it. It also helps decrease the energy load during daytime hours, which, depending on electrical pricing, can be a more expensive time to use electricity.

“We’re always looking for ways to keep it simple,” says Mike Ontrop, national sales manager, agricultural division, Orion Energy

Although the pipe itself is fairly simple, in order to reap maximum benefits it must be installed as part of an integrated control system. This can be done with new lighting or integrated into some existing systems.

The integrated controls have a photocell sensor set to detect the amount of light in the given area. It measures the amount of light received from the light pipes and, when levels are high enough, automatically turns off the surrounding ambient lighting. This component is needed to reap the maximum economic savings of the light pipes.

Once power companies know and understand these systems, they are very well received, Ontrop says. Many times there are tax credits or incentives available to cover purchase and installation costs, too.

While building a new cross-ventilated freestall barn to house 1,500 of its 2,900 cows, the Larson family turned to Orion Energy for its lighting needs and were introduced to the light pipe system at that time.


The idea of the pipes appealed to Mike Larson because of the anticipation of future energy savings and to allow natural light into his new enclosed cross-ventilated freestall barn, he says. He also liked the concept because Orion Energy and Focus on Energy, a statewide program in Wisconsin, agreed to use his facility as a test site. This involved adding monitoring equipment to measure payback on the reduced energy load of this system.

Larson Acres installed 30 light pipes in the southeast corner of its new barn near Evansville, Wisconsin, in May of this year.

“I’m pretty intrigued with the amount of sunlight and time the lights are off,” Larson says. “I think this will be a popular option for cross-ventilated barns where one of the negatives is less natural light.”

Although the monitoring equipment has not been installed long enough to report its results, Mike is pleased with the pipes thus far.

“I like the fact that when I walk by those lights are turned off,” he says, estimating that on a nice, sunny summer day the lights are off for nearly 12 hours. On an overcast day it’s less than that, but on any given day at least some of the ambient lighting in that area of the barn is turned off.

Mike also likes the natural sunlight that is let into the barn and hopes it will cure the wintertime blues that occur due to lack of exposure to the sun. Although he can’t put a dollar amount on the effect of natural lighting, he estimates it will boost his bottom line rather than take away from it.

Orion worked with Larson’s contractor to install the pipes and the automated system. “Everybody seems to be satisfied,” Mike says, including the cows that didn’t feel any leaks during heavy rainfalls this summer.

Once the trial data is in and the payback can be determined, Mike says the farm will consider installing pipes through the rest of the barn.

Since the payback will vary from farm to farm depending on lighting needs and available incentives, Orion Energy will work with producers and local power companies and programs to establish what cost and savings is for each situation.

“We deal with the power company and find ways to make your meter spin backwards,” Ontrop says. The light pipe is one such option to reduce a farm’s electrical load. PD

Would you benefit from the addition of light pipes? The following checklist can be used to determine if this new technology might be a fit for your operation.
1. Do you have a cross-ventilated barn?
2. Do you have an area that could benefit from additional lighting?
3. Would you like to reduce your electrical use during the daytime?
4. Are you considering building a new barn?
5. Would you like natural light without the heat?
6. Are energy-saving incentives available in your area?
7. Do you struggle with lights being on or off when they shouldn't be?

If you answered yes to five or more of these questions, this technology may be one for you to consider.

Karen Lee
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