Having been involved with tiny houses for over 6 years now, having built my own tiny house, and now living in it, I’ve realized something: I got a few things really wrong. Some were assumptions I made about living in them, some of them were about the lifestyle, and some of them were about building them. So here are 5 things I got totally wrong.
1. I thought it was about the house, it’s not
When I first started with tiny houses, I was in love with the house, the design, the materials, and all the appointments. Now that I’m living in my house I realize that was so wrong; it has absolutely nothing to do with the house. It has everything to do with the lifestyle. The truth is, a tiny house is just another thing you buy, under the guise of breaking away from consumerism. But the break is not from the diminutive dwelling, it is in the mental separation from conspicuous consumption.
2. I thought I couldn’t buy things
Long before I found myself in the tiny house realm I was a big consumer. I loved gadgets and tech. Once I started going down the path of tiny houses I thought that portion of my life – and somewhat, my identity as a nerd – needed to come to a close, but I was all right with that because the benefits outweighed the “costs”. But then I realized it wasn’t that I couldn’t have the things I wanted, I just needed to be more intentional about them; in reality, I’m able have the things I want more readily because I have the cash to buy them.
3. I thought money worries would be a thing of the past
I crunched the numbers, made spreadsheets, and had a budget, all things pointed to me not really having to worry about money. The truth is that my tolerance for how close I was running to zero just changed. Before a tiny house if I had less than $2,000 in the bank I’d be nervous. Now that I live in a tiny house that anxiety hasn’t gone away, it’s just at a different level.
These days I freak out when my bank account drops below $20,000. I know what some of you are thinking, “$20,000! that’s a ton of money, you have nothing to worry about!” and 3 years ago I’d be in the same place, but it somehow is still just as real, just as scary; I can’t quite explain why, but the truth is that angst will never go away.
4. I thought my tiny house would be perpetually neat and tidy, just like all the tiny house photos
AHAHAHAHHAA! Boy was I wrong! There are many times my house is very tidy, but there are times it gets way out of control. I always keep a clean house, it just isn’t always neat. The truth is your tiny house will go from tidy to way out of control in about 5 seconds flat because it’s so small. It’s not that you’re a messy or dirty person, but if you put a single thing down, it starts to add up quickly due to the small space you’re living in. The other day I walked into my house, dropped my work bag, my gym bag and took of my shoes… it looked like a bomb had gone off and I had to move stuff out of the way just to open my closet to drop my keys and wallet.
5. I thought I’d be done building
When you build a tiny house, you’ll never be done. There will always be a few things that you want to improve, to try, to fix, etc. That is not to say that your house won’t be livable, you’ll most likely move in and keep doing things. There will always be a board to fix, some more trim to add, or a new shelf to build into a nook. Another part of this is you’ve suddenly acquired a new skill set – woodworking – and even though most of us are still newbies to it, you don’t go out and build a whole house if you aren’t one who likes building things. I’m really excited about the prospect of starting some smaller woodworking projects that I get to flex my fine woodworking skills with.
One very common question I get about my tiny house is about internet. For the most part its exactly the same as getting internet in any home, a tiny house is a house after all, it just happens to be small.
My original plan was to have normal cable internet brought to the tiny house. This took me longer than I would have liked because it was dependent on power. You obviously need to power the modem and to do that I needed to get my solar power squared away.
With solar all setup, I called Time Warner which is the only internet provider that was available to me. I checked all the big companies, local shops and even satellite, but they have things so monopolized you literally don’t have any other choice. I loathe Time Warner, but I need internet, so I scheduled them to come out.
They came out and did a survey, they then let me know the cost to just install it: $2,500! Mainly because my tiny house sits so far back from the road. It should also be noted that the same day I got that estimate, Google announced they were coming to Charlotte to bring Google Fiber, which is fiber optic gigabit internet.
So what I decided to do is wait for Google Fiber, because I expect the install cost will be very similar and I’d give almost anything to never deal with Time Warner again. The other factor that weighed in on my decision was that come September, I will be opening a coworking space, where I will have an office and internet.
While I decided to wait, I still needed internet. So I opted for a mobile hotspot which functions off cell phone signals to get 4G internet. I considered two options:
Verizon Jetpack 6620L
These two options were pretty appealing to me for two very different reasons. The Verizon Jetpack would work well, Verizon has very good 4G coverage, so I knew I could connect almost anywhere. The Karma Go is a prepay setup with no fees, but it uses Sprint’s which has drastically less coverage, even in a city like mine. The other thing is Karma Go is a startup and they haven’t actually released their newest version of hardware and have been pushing their delivery date back for months at this point.
In the end I bought both.
I already have a contract with Verizon, so it was easy to add on. I bought the unit out right for $200 so I could stop and start service as I saw fit. When I have service it costs me $20 + data. As on this posting I get 15 gigs a month for $100. My total internet bill right now is $120. If you’re considering this, make sure you get the Jetpack 6620L, because the cheaper versions only do 4G, but not 3G, which you really need both. The 6220L does both, plus international GSM, so you can hop on a plane, buy a sim card where ever you are and just drop it in.
For the Karma Go, it cost me $100 + data with no contracts. I should note that I pre-ordered it in December and still haven’t received it (delays in their manufacturing). The Karma Go will let me load data credits on it and there aren’t fees, so I can drop a few gigs in it and just keep it in my bag just in case. I can get 10 gigs for $100, no other fees.
So far I’ve only had a chance to put the Verizon Jetpack through its paces, but it has held up to it all. I’ve had a few hiccups with it having ip address conflicts, but they are rare and easily fixed with a restart of my hotspot.
To give you an idea of data usage:
Sending an email (w/out attachment): 100,000 emails per gig
Surfing the web varies so widely I can’t put a number on it
Streaming music: 10 hours per gig
Youtube depends on the quality
240p: 6 hours per gig
360p: 4 hours per gig
480p: 2 hours per gig
720p: 1 hour per gig
1080p: 30 minutes per gig
low quality: 3 hours per gig
medium quality: 2 hours per gig
high quality: 30-45 minutes per gig
I’ve learned some tricks to save on data. Your biggest user of data is videos. If you can control that, you can cut your bill down pretty significantly. First thing I did was turn off autoplaying videos on Facebook. You need to do this in two places.
The next thing I did was set youtube to a lower quality. This is somewhat of a pain because when on normal wifi I want full blown HD, but on mobile wifi I want low (240 or 360). To do this you go into your youtube settings and select that you have a low connect:
Those are you big wins with data usage. If you stream tv shows or movies, I’d suggest actually download them in bulk when you are on normal wifi. There are a variety of legal and illegal ways to do that, but I’m not going to go into that here.
I know many of you have been wanting this post for a while, but it’s finally here: my solar panel system for my tiny house. I wanted to get the feel for what it is like to live off the grid so I could share more details with you all about what it’s really like.
So first, the high level details of my system:
2.25 Kw panels – Nine, 250 watt panels
Batteries 740 amp/hr total – Eight, 370 amp/hr 6 volt Trojan L16 flooded lead acid
Cost for parts about $10,000 (excluding tax and shipping)
Off grid, battery bank, plus 5,550 watt backup generator
24 volt system
(9) Canadian Solar CS-6p 250 Watt Poly Black Frame (Spec Sheet)
Before anything I needed to determine the best placement for the solar panels to make sure it had good solar exposure and didn’t fall into shadows too much. To do this I used a tool called a “solar path finder” which is a semi reflective dome that you position at the location, then snap a photo. The photo is then loaded into a program and spits out a whole bunch of calculations.
Solar Path Finder
So once you upload the image into the software and then trace the treeline outline, you enter in your location, date and time. It then can calculate how much power you’ll produce based on 30 years of weather patterns for your exact location and tree coverage.
My reading with the pathfinder
Then it spit out all the calculations:
With that in mind I knew what I could expect out of the system I had designed. It also was a way to verify my assumptions.
Once I verified that the system was going to be well suited to my needs I had to build my panel support racking. I did this out of pressure treated 4×4’s that were each 10′ long. These things about about 300 lbs each so I don’t have to worry about wind picking up the panels. I opted to build them because it was cheaper than some of the turn-key option out there and most of the for purchase ones required me to cement in the ground; I rent my land, so I wanted a mobile solution. The racking is technically mobile, but not easily so. If I remember correctly it was about $500 in materials to build this part.
Next we installed the panels. This part was pretty quick and the stands worked out perfectly. The panels are 250 watt Canadian solar panels. They are wired in groups of three, then paralleled into the system. To give you a sense of scale, these panels are 3.3 wide and about 4 feet tall.
Now I know many people want to know why I didn’t mount these on my roof or could they mount them. You technically can mount on your roof, but honestly the number of panels that you need to practically power your house is too many for the roof.
There is some other major bonuses of being on the ground:
Much cooler, roofs are very hot places in the summer and solar panels drop in efficiency when hot
I can put my house under deciduous trees, this means in summer I’m in the shade, in winter I get the solar gain
Way easier to clean and monitor
Cleaning your panels is pretty important because you loose efficiency as residue (bird poop) builds up. Also as I learned just a few days ago, when it snows, you need to clear your panels. Cleaning becomes super simple and a lot safer when you don’t have to climb onto a roof via a ladder.
Just this week we got a decent snow, 3 inches, which is quite a lot for Charlotte. The first thing I had to do when I woke up was clear off the panels because with the snow, they made no power. This was compounded because since it was cold, I needed more heat. I can’t imagine having to drag the ladder out and try climbing on a icy roof… No Thanks.
Next I built a cabinet to house all the gear. I wanted a stand alone space because the batteries are so heavy. At 118 pound each, plus cabling and other equipment the whole unit is over 1,100 lbs. The top and bottom sections are divided so that the gasses from the batteries don’t go up into the electrical section and explode. More on that later.
The batteries are wired in series parallel. The batteries are 6 volt each, in series of 4 the create a 24 volt unit, then I have two of these 24 volt units in parallel. The reason I choose to go 24 volt over a 48 volt (which is more efficient) was because the equipment was a little cheaper, but also it allowed me to select components that I could add more panels and batteries very easily without doing equipment upgrades (just a factor of the abilities of the units I choose). This way I can add up to 15 panels and a lot more batteries without upgrading the electronics; I can also stack these inverters so if I ever go to a normal sized house, I just add another unit and it just plugs into my current one.
In this photo going left to right: Din Breaker Panel, Charge Controller, Interconnect w/ control panel, inverter. In general the power flows in the same manner (but not exactly).
Breaker Panel: manages power from solar panels
Charge Controller: manages power to batteries etc.
Interconnect: a main junction box and breaker, holds control panel interface
Inverter: takes power in many forms then outputs to they type of power you need
Once the power goes through the system it outputs to a huge cable that you can see sticking out of the bottom of inverter then goes right. From there it runs to this:
This is a 50 amp RV style plug. The reason I did this was two fold. City inspectors are less picky when it comes to non-hard wired things. This setup also lets me roll into any RV campground and hook up seamlessly.
The plug goes into a 50 amp RV female receptacle. This is important that you don’t have two male ends to your cord. This is dubbed by electricians as a “suicide cord” because if you plug in to a power source, you have exposed conductors that are live; accidentally touch them, you complete the circuit and zap!
You want a female end to your cord so that you reduce the chance of being shocked. I also turn off my main breaker at the power source when I make this connection, then turn it back on.
If all these mentions of watts, volts, amps, amp hours etc are making your head spin a little, you may need to go back to the basics. I have an ebook called Shockingly Simple Electrical For Tiny Houses which guide your through all the basics. As of now, it doesn’t go too deep into the solar aspects, but the basics of electrical, wiring, power systems and determining your power needs are covered in depth and designed for those who are totally new to the topic.
So once the power passes through the power inlet it goes to the panel. Near the bottom you can see the backside of the power inlet, it has a large black cord coming out of it, into the box and ties to the lugs. From there it goes out to the house.
Back outside now, looking at the cabinet, on the sides of it, you can see the vents. When you use lead acid (LA) batteries you have some off gassing as the batteries discharge and recharge. These gasses are volatile and can ignite, possible leading to an explosion. So to take care of this I installed two vents like this which provide adequate venting. As mentioned before my battery section is isolated from the electronics section where a spark could occur.
This off gassing is a concern with Lead Acid Batteries, but other battery technologies don’t have this issue. I choose LA batteries over AGM (absorbent glass mat) because LA’s have more cycles and cost a bit less. Lithium Ion at this point is cost prohibitive. My batteries should get about 4000-5000 cycles (11-14 years) before I need to replace them. I figure in about 5 years battery technology will have progressed so much I’ll change early. New batteries will cost me about $4,000 of the LA variety.
Here is my grounding wire for my system. This is actually one of two, another is located at the panels them selves. My house is also grounded to this through the cable hook up and to the trailer itself. A really important note: ground depends on a lot of things, one of which is if you house electrical panels is bonded or not, if you don’t know what that means, read up on it, its very important.
The other component of this system is the generators. In the winter months I may need to top off my batteries every now and then, basically when its been really cold and very cloudy for a week or more. I had a Honda EB2000i already which I really like. It’s very quite and small. The one downside to the Honda is that it only does 1600 watts and only 120V and I needed more power and 240V. So I picked up another generator, a 5500 watt 240 volt Generac for $650.
Here is a video that compares the two generators in terms of size, noise, output and price.
So that’s the surface level details of the system, I’m going to be doing something in the future which will be a how to size, choose parts, hook up and all the other details of doing solar for your tiny house, but that is a longer term project, most likely will take about 6 months to pull together in the way I’d like to do it.
I thought today I’d do a post to introduce myself to all the new readers we have received. It’s been a while since I’ve done this, several years in fact, so I thought I’d say hello! In this post I’ll share a little bit about me, about my tiny house and how it’s all setup, what this website is all about and other things people have asked about. I have a FAQ at the bottom of this page too.
First off, my name is Ryan Mitchell, I run The Tiny Life. I’m a 30 year old guy from Charlotte, NC, but originally from New Hampshire. I never expected to be writing about tiny houses, but back in 2009 I started this website just to have a place to keep all my design ideas and musings. Over five years now, it has grown beyond my wildest dreams.
My journey started like this:
It started one Friday afternoon, my coworkers and I stood on the sidewalk outside our old office with the contents of our desks now residing in a cardboard box; the whole company had just been laid off and a million things were swirling around in our heads. How will I pay my bills? Rent is due next week! How am I going to find a job in a down economy?
I knew I needed a change, a drastic change, one where I could take control of my life and its destiny. I soon found tiny houses and realized the potential.
It took me 4 years of working, planning and saving to make my dream a reality. Those years were tough, with the recession in full swing and me trying to find my way into adulthood, I had a lot of ups and downs. I started with pretty much nothing, no savings, a bunch of debt, and a very low paying job. Over those 4 years I worked my way up, tackled my debt, sacrificed for my dream and in late 2012 I started building my tiny house.
This is my tiny house that I built with my own two hands, this is a photo of me the day I moved my house from where I built it to where I’d be living in it.
Once I built my tiny house I started to live the tiny life. It has been amazing! When I started this website I wanted to talk about more than just tiny houses. The truth is tiny houses are just a part of it, I may even go as far as saying a small part of it. What I’ve found is that changes in my life were the real impact. While the tiny house helped me with this, I see it as a beautiful place to live and as a tool that made the rest possible. So when I talk about the tiny life, I generally mean these topics:
Since moving into a tiny house I decided to leave my old job and start out on my own, I’ve been self employed for 1.5 years right now. This was a huge shift because not only did I have more control over my future, but I also designed my business to be location independent. That means I can work from anywhere. At the time of this post, I’m actually living in Croatia for 3 months because one of the things on my bucket list was to live in a foreign country.
Life in a tiny house has been great and really opened up a lot of possibilities for me like it has so many others. My financial situation has changed drastically, because my cost of living dropped so significantly. I then took that money and started paying off the rest of my debt. I’m almost there and hope to be debt free in a year.
Time wise I have a lot more of it and even better, I have more control over it. I now can spend more time with my friends and family. Right now I’m single, but I can’t help but think that having time to spend focusing on a relationship with a girlfriend would be rewarding. I think what I like most about my time is I can take long walks most days, take more vacations, and have lunches and dinners with family more often.
Peace of mind and lower stress has been another outcome of this journey. With less debt (and soon no debt), money for a rainy day fund, a house paid for powered by solar panels, and time to think, I feel that I can weather the ups and downs of life better. I can sleep better knowing I will always have a roof over my head.
The land that my tiny house is parked on is a 32 acre parcel only a few minutes from down town. I give some details about how I found it below. In order for me to setup my land I had to run a water line, fix up the road and have a gravel pad installed. In addition to my tiny house, I also have an enclosed trailer which I use for my camping gear, tools and some equipment for my job. I also keep some bulk items like toilet paper and the like in there. You can read more about how I setup my land and those details by clicking here.
Beyond my tiny working on The Tiny Life I also have a few other projects that you might have heard of. The Tiny House Conference is my favorite tiny house event of the year, I am the organizer of it and I love getting to spend time meeting and talking with other tiny house folks. I also wrote a book called Tiny House Living, which is a great book for those wanting to know more about and get started; it focuses more on the lifestyle and less on how to build. Writing a traditionally published book was on my bucket list and I’m so excited that achieving that dream can also help others live the tiny life. Finally I do a podcast with Macy Miller of Mini Motives, this is a great way to learn more and you can get the episodes for free over at www.TinyHouseChat.com
People always have lots of questions about my house, so I figured I’d share some answers here:
Q: How big is your tiny house?
A: 150 square feet, plus a sleeping loft. The house is built on an 18 foot trailer, but the house is 8.5 wide, 20 feet long and 13′ 4″ tall. Inside the house is 11.5 feet tall in the main room, in the kitchen which is under the loft, its about 6’4″. The loft is about 4.5 feet tall. My trailer from ground to top of deck is about 17 inches.
Q: Who made your trailer and was it new or used?
A: I purchased a brand new 18′ utility style trailer from Kaufman trailers, I strongly encourage folks to go the new trailer route. Read more here
Q: Did you build it all yourself or did you know how to build before?
A: I had never really built anything before my tiny house, I also didn’t have anyone I knew that had these skills either. That said, I did build this house by myself with my own two hands. The exceptions would be I hired an electrician to wire it, I paid someone to do the roofing because I didn’t have the equipment to bend the metal for the roof, and I hired someone to help me hang my front door. Other than those three things, I did it all. You can see my build videos here
Q: What would you change if you had to do it all over again?
A: I think I’d opt for all casement windows, most of my windows are awning style. I’d also purchase a door instead of building on. The main reason I had to get some help hanging my door was because since I built the door from scratch, I also had to build a custom door jam and that was tricky to get the door just right. I think I’d also go from a 18 foot trailer to a 20 or 22 foot trailer. I think that two extra feet would be ideal for me.
Q: What appliances do you have? Heater? Water heater? Etc?
A: I have a gas stove top made by Suburban specifically a RV Camper Cooktop LP Propane Stove 2 Burner 2937A, it cost me $90 new. My water heater is an RV500 by PrecisionTemp it is a tankless model because I really love my showers, it cost me about $1,200. I choose it because it was tankless and also very very small (1 foot cubed) and the venting was simple.
My fridge is a basic bar fridge: specifically the Danby 4.4 cu. ft. Energy Star Compact Refrigerator because it was about the biggest fridge that came without a freezer section. My heating and cooling is handled by a mini split: the Fujitsu 9rls2 which is 9,000 btu’s max wattage of 800 watts on high heat that can handle a few hundred square feet. This was the most efficient mini split when I bought it with a seer rating of 27, it cost me $1,400 for the unit and another $400 for the install. I also use a standard toaster oven. I don’t have a microwave or standard oven, I just don’t have much use for them personally. I wish I had a washer and dryer, but don’t; right now I just use a laundry service.
Q: Where do you get your power, water, sewage, internet.
A: Initially I was going to be grid tied, but the city wouldn’t allow it. So I had to at first rely on my generator which is a Honda EB2000i which is an amazing generator, if you need one, I can’t recommend it enough. At $1,000 it’s very pricy but it’s super small and on eco-mode it can be running and I can’t hear it in my house at all.
Come January 2015 I will be installing a solar panel array. The array is 1.65 KWs, 9 solar panels and 8 batteries. The batteries are AGM, 740 watt/hours 6 volt. The system cost me $14,500 for parts and labor. The reason it is so high because I want to heat and cool with this. If I where to cut out heating and cooling with my mini split, I could drop down to a system that was about $6500.
My internet is standard cable internet. I have no cable TV. My cell phone is my only phone. My water is city tied. For sewage I have a composting toilet (following the humanure composting handbook). I also have a grey water system to hand water from my sink and shower.
Q: How did you deal with building codes?
A: For me, after several lengthy talks with the building code enforcement folks and going around and around with permits and inspects. The main code enforcement officer told me to “don’t ask, don’t tell”. That combined with me trying to be a good neighbor and having my tiny house nestled out of sight in the woods allows me to live in my tiny house. It is technically illegal. It built to code, but not inspected.
Q: How did you find the land that you are parked on and do you lease or own?
A: I currently lease land from a friend. The property is in the city, but on a very large parcel of land, 32 acres to be exact. I found the because I was looking for a place to park and I had a friend who I thought might know of a place I could rent. Turns out he had an empty parcel that he wanted someone to keep an eye on it. I pay $1 a month plus help him do some website work every now and then. I did a video about it here.
Q: How long did it take you to build your tiny house?
A: I typically say a year of nights and weekends. Technically on a calendar it was about a 1.75 years, but I took a 3 month break at a point and once I was held up for 4 months waiting on a window. In general a professional could build a house in 2-3 months, an amateur 1-2 years of nights and weekends.
One thing I talk about a lot is taking care to design your storage in your tiny house very carefully. Making your storage work for you is very important because in such a small space, to not have an ideal setup for you can make things tough.
My initial drawing of my closet plan.
When I first approached designing my main closet, I knew that I’d be storing mainly clothing, a few containers of office items and toiletry items. So with this in mind I knew that the bulk of the space should be dedicated to clothes. Not only should it be dedicated to clothes, but designed to suit the way I store my clothes.
I have written about my dislike for clothes in general, obviously I need something to wear, but trends, fashions and shopping is something I could do without. For me I don’t like anything that needs to be hung. I basically have one jacket, one suit, and one button down dress shirt. I measured how much this takes up and it only needed 4 inches of hanging rod, I added 2 inches for good measure and that’s all I dedicated to hanging items. I much prefer to have things stacked or piled if it won’t wrinkle too bad. So for that me that meant drawers.
I needed one drawer for socks and underwear, one drawer for shirts, one drawer for pants and shorts and another for other miscellaneous items. I then needed a single drawer that was over sized for my dirty laundry until laundry day. This totaled 5 drawers in total, with one being much larger than the others.
So here is a video which in the beginning shows of my closet space in its raw form.
From there I built the outside walls and the main interior wall out of 3/4″ birch ply. Right now its in a raw form, I will later face it out with 1×2 trim parts. After that I decided to take a crack at building the drawers. This was also the most technical part of the closet because I wanted to make the drawers from scratch and to do that I wanted to use a technique called dove tail joints. The exterior of the drawer unit was made of more birch ply, but the drawers themselves were made of poplar. I should note, I am brand new at this stuff, I’ve never done it before, so its certainly not perfect; I just call the mistakes “charm”.
Here you can see the outside of the main drawer bank. I used dados that would later become the drawer slides. I opted for a wooden style drawer slide because I really liked the look compared to what it would look like with the metal slides. Also quality drawer slides are very expensive, so all around I’m happy with my choice.
One thing to note is you’ll see on the top I used pocket screws made with a kreg jig (these are amazing, get them here), I opted to put these on the top side because I’m going to put a top piece of wood that will cover the holes completely.
You can see the dado cuts on the inside for the drawer slides
Better view of dados
Top pocket screw holes will later be hidden by another piece of wood.
Next I tried my hand at making dove tails. Technically I used “half blind” dovetails. The jig I used was a dove tail jig from porter cable, which you can find by clicking here. This jig made it pretty easy and was great for this project.
Routing the dovetails in my jig
The finished joint, I love the contrast.
Next up I cut the drawer bottoms, which I was going to seat in a internal dado of the drawer box, but then I decided to do the drawer slides like this. So I made the drawer bottoms 1/4″ too big on each slide and they nested in the 3/8″ dados really well. After tacking it all together, I dropped it in the dresser and then mounted the drawer pulls. Here is the final drawers. The gaps are not perfect, but I’m pretty happy with them none the less.