Whether you're planning to build your own greenhouse or purchase a premanufactured greenhouse kit, you will still need to decide what transparent material will be best suited for the walls and roof of your greenhouse. Depending on your application, you may need to consider various types of glass, polycarbonate, greenhouse plastic, or other materials. Every material will have its own set of prices, strengths, durability, maintenance, and aesthetic considerations. Not all materials are practical in all climates or for all styles of greenhouse construction. The materials guide below will introduce you to the most common materials used for the light-transmitting roof and walls of greenhouses and explain which materials are best suited for which types of greenhouse.
Overview of Materials
Glass: Best for Long-Term Use
- Glass is the highest-quality, highest-price option for greenhouses.
Polycarbonate Panels: Best Overall
- Polycarbonate is a less expensive option than glass and has a number of features that may make it the best option for some greenhouse installations.
- Polycarbonate is lightweight and easy to work with, which do-it-yourselfers may find helpful, and when properly treated with UV stabilizers, you may get anywhere from 10 to 20 years of useful life out of the panels.
- Polycarbonate panels are also available in a wide range of twin-wall and triple-wall panels, so you can use polycarbonate in many applications where insulation is important.
- On the downside, like any plastic, polycarbonate will eventually degrade from UV exposure; however, this would mostly be aesthetic. Polycarbonate can take decades if not a century to degrade fully.
Poly Film: Best Short-Term, Low-Cost Option
- The lowest-price option, poly film can be a good option for greenhouses where budgets are small and long-term use is not as important.
- Poly films are easy to work with, but they are the least permanent option for greenhouses.
Greenhouse Glass Panels
Glass is the most expensive, but generally the most durable, option for greenhouse construction. If your budget and application make glass an appropriate material choice, make sure you ask the following questions as you evaluate different glass panels:
1. What Are the Safety Features of This Glass?
Annealed glass can be dangerous for greenhouse applications. When it breaks, annealed glass shatters into long, sharp shards which may cause injury.
Tempered glass is four to six times more shatter-resistant than annealed glass, and when it breaks it breaks into small square pieces, making it unlikely to cause injury. Tempered glass is a better choice than annealed glass for greenhouses. There are different varieties of tempered glass (single tempered, double tempered, and more) with various tensile strengths.
2. Do I Need Single-Pane or Double-Pane Glass?
You will need to consider your overall project budget, including your long-term heating and cooling costs for the greenhouse, to decide whether single- or double-pain glass is more appropriate. Single-pane tempered glass is a fine choice for low-budget greenhouse projects where heating and cooling costs are not major concerns. For projects where greenhouse heating and cooling costs are a concern, you'll be better off with double-pane tempered glass (or possibly triple-pane glass if you live in a particularly cold climate).
To maximize the heat-reflecting properties of glass in hot climates, you may also consider low-e tempered glass panels, which will block heat more effectively than regular glass.
3. How Difficult Will It Be to Maintain These Glass Panels?
If you're choosing double or triple-paned glass, make sure that the panels are sealed properly to prevent condensation inside the panel.
You should also be aware that a variety of glass coatings can be used to make your glass panels easier to maintain over time. For example, self-cleaning glass (SunClean brand) is coated with a material that uses sunlight to break down dirt accumulation on the panels and causes water to sheet off the panels, rather than bead up on them. Though these coatings increase the price of the glass, they may spare you a lot of glass washing over the years.
Greenhouse Polycarbonate Panels
Polycarbonate panels are made from clear, rigid plastic that transmits light almost as well as glass. Panels are typically available as flat twin-wall panels, which contain two flat polycarbonate panes separated by an air space. The air space between panes improves the insulation properties of the panels.
These panels are more expensive than poly films but less expensive than glass for greenhouse applications. The benefit of polycarbonate is that it approaches the durability of glass though it is about one-twelfth the weight, which makes it much easier to handle and install than heavy glass panels. On the downside, polycarbonate panels will begin to yellow over time, which may be an aesthetic concern for home greenhouse applications.
Twinwall polycarbonate panels include a rating, in mm, that indicates the size of the separation between the polycarbonate panels (e.g., 4 mm twin-wall panels have a 4 mm air space between the panels). The larger the gap between panels, the better heat insulation the panels will provide.
The panels are rigid and relatively low cost, so I've excluded questions from this description. Polycarbonate panels are the best overall option.
Greenhouse Poly Film Panels
Also referred to as greenhouse plastic or agricultural plastic, greenhouse poly film is a strong, flexible, translucent sheet of polyethylene. Poly film is available in different thicknesses, often ranging from 2 to 11 millimeters for greenhouse applications, with thicker (high mil) film typically lasting longer than thinner film. Poly film transmits visible light while blocking ultraviolet (UV) light, and the translucency of the film causes good light diffusion, which aids plant growth. Poly films are appropriate for use in a wide range of climates, from freezing temperatures to very hot temperatures.
The benefits of poly film are that it is the least expensive material option for greenhouses, easy to work with for a do-it-yourself project, and available in a wide range of opacities and thicknesses. However, poly film has a shorter useful life than glass or polycarbonate panels, so the ease of initial installation should be weighed against the projected ongoing cost of replacing poly film over time. If you decide poly film is the right choice for your greenhouse, here's a list of questions to make sure you answer before you buy:
1. What's the Useful Life of the Film?
Poly films are often rated in terms of the number of useful growing seasons (e.g. 1-year useful life, 4-year useful life). Consider whether it makes sense to replace your film every year or every four years, or if it would be more economical to spring for a more durable material, like polycarbonate panels or glass, up front. The useful life of a poly film is determined by a number of factors, including the climate where the film will be used, film thickness, whether the film has been treated with a UV stabilizer, and how well the films were installed.
If a UV stabilizer has been applied to the film, check whether the stabilizer was applied to both sides of the film or just one side. If the film was treated on just one side, you'll want to make sure you face the treated side toward the sun when installing it.
When you install poly film, try to minimize the chance of flapping, vibration, or tearing by placing greenhouse rafters close together, sanding rafters smooth where they will touch the film. Remember that poly film will expand when it's warm, so installing it on a warm day will help to ensure the film remains tight in both cold and warm weather.
2. Do I Need Woven Poly Film?
Woven poly film has a higher tensile strength than non-woven poly film of the same thickness, and woven films resist sagging, tearing, shredding, and punctures better than non-woven poly film. Woven films may be appropriate if you live in an area where hail, snow, or wind are a concern, or if you live with cats who may like to claw the poly film.
3. What Film Opacity Do I Need?
Your climate and the plants you're planning to grow will determine the amount of light you need to be transmitted into your greenhouse. Check the opacity rating of the film you're considering. Films are available in a range of opacities, often from 30% to 70% opaque.
4. Do I Need Black or White Silage Film?
Black and white silage films help create the right conditions for flowering for certain types of orchids and tropical plants.
5. Do I Need Condensation Control?
Some poly films are treated to minimize condensation which can form on the underside of the film in humid greenhouses. If you need to minimize the chance of dripping onto plant leaves, or if you want to maintain even light diffusion through the film, you may need condensation control film.
Greenhouse Building Materials: Conclusion
Every material has its own set of qualities and aesthetic considerations. Not all materials are practical in all climates or for all styles of greenhouse construction, and each is worth diving into more deeply if extreme environmental factors (high heat, extremely low temperatures, high winds, large hail, etc.) are an issue.
Have questions about materials? Leave them in the comments below!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Mahendra on May 23, 2018:
We construct new green house but the plant inside the greenhouse start burning the leaf so what can I do for that? My green house is made of plastic
Student on February 15, 2018:
Can you put glass on just the roof of your greenhouse?
behzad assani on December 09, 2016:
is black temperd glass good for green house
sanjay on January 21, 2014:
i m greenhouse manufacturer in india i need glass greenhouse( A type )
extruided roof profiles with butterfly top vent system good quality with good price.
joanne on December 11, 2012:
i have a question... is 4 mil tempered glass ok to use to put on a greenhouse
SRIDHAR on May 10, 2012:
It would be more visulalized with photos showing different films over glass materials - my suggestion over this pl.
Leslie on September 22, 2011:
How dose Polycarbonate Panels handle in winter and could i still grow stuff from late fall to very early spring,
and how thick would it have to be?
Duke on July 25, 2010:
Poly is about half as dense as glass (1.2 gms/cc versus 2.5 gms/cc).
anna on April 08, 2010:
I bought Sunsky polycarbonate to build a greenhouse. I noticed the polycarb..says it blocks out 99.9 % of harmful UV rays....is this a problem when growing plants??? please help...
SA Sanders on March 21, 2010:
Just wondering about your opinion re: ideal temperatures to install poly-film. I've found in the past that if you install it when it's very hot - the film can contract again when it's cold. Once or twice this has given me problems. What has been your experience?