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If I Had $1M To Further The Movement

what if questionI was sitting on the porch of my tiny house the other night thinking about tiny houses and the movement when the question floated into my mind: “If I somehow became the steward of $1,000,000 to further the tiny house movement, what would I do?”  It’s an interesting question and I really like thought experiments like this.  So, here is what I’d do:

I think an important first step would be to establish a tiny house proof of concept with a city and create a model that other cities could follow.  I would most likely start in my hometown of Charlotte, mainly because I know the codes better and have some good connections with folks that I’d need to leverage in order to make my plan successful.

I’ve had some preliminary conversations with some community development leaders, developers, lawyers and a few political figures at the point, but have yet to take it much further because the later phases of execution would require funds that I simply don’t have.  So I’d start a dialogue with some key people and then also contract the services of a few people, primarily lawyers that have experience doing community development.  I don’t think things would need to get pushed into the court room, but a few of the lawyers I have in mind know the landscape better than I do, they have the personal connections, they know what meetings you need to show up for, they know who other follow on votes and they know the process.  These things are valuable to the execution of the plan.  I figure it will take about $50,000 in contractor fees, mainly because most of the people would be lawyers ($200-$300 an hr).

Running Total: $50,000

From there I’d work with these people to start conversations with the city about getting a program started where we would essential do a trial run on a particular piece of land for a tiny house community.  I figure about $5,000 in fees, filings, paperwork, etc.

Running Total: $55,000

land_for_sale_29cConcurrently I would be shopping for land, somewhere in the 10-20 acre range of which I have about 5 locations that would be ideally suited for this project.  The key here would be land that could be rezone for a cluster housing setup and located within a 30 minute drive of downtown Charlotte.  The location would be key.  Most people today want the amenities of a city and Charlotte is a decent sized city to meet that need, plus land is relatively cheap and still available.  For the land I’d be looking to spend up to $250,000 which would be the home of the community and a common house that would also later be used to run training events, meetings, etc.

Running Total: $305,000

Next once we had the land and the city’s support, I would work the land (grading, access, roads, parking), install infrastructure (water, sewer, solar, internet, gas), then begin construction.  For this I’m assuming $75,000 to meet city requirements.  I’m also assuming they’ll require us to install storm drains, side walks, and a retention pond because of the number of people, it would be similar to an apartment complex in their eyes.

Running Total: $380,000

How-To-Build-a-Great-Team

Once I had the land secured, I’d put out a call for residents.  There would be an application, interview, and selection process.  The goal would be selecting people who would be good stewards of the first location, would have the ability to interface with the public and the media very well, and people who could help us put a good foot forward in the community.  The group would also have to function well as a team, because I would want a community, not disparate individuals that just want a place to put a tiny house or live cheap.  I envision the people selected would go through a lengthy interview process, jump through a lot of hoops and prove that they are the right people for the mission.

With that group I’d want to do some team building, some communications training and community building.  There will also be some media interface training, so that they can keep calm when a reporter tries to pull a “gotcha”, when a detractor speaks out, or when something goes wrong and they need to operate under pressure.  For that I’d budget about $5,000 for various activities and facilitators.

Running Total: $385,000

 From that point I’d design the houses with each of the people using some tiny house designers I know.  The plans would be used to build the house and then either given away or sold as a revenue generator for the non-profit mission of this incubator.

Established Revenue: $1,000 / month

Each house would be designed, built and paid for by this project, but each person would enter into a 2 or 3 year lease on that house.  I’d guess between $200-$400 for rent and utilities a month.

It might be possible that some of the paid work needed to be done by this project could be paid to these members if they had the required skill sets for the job.  This could also aid in keeping the project accessible for low income individuals.

I would want 10 houses to on the property, half to be people bringing their own house, half built onsite built with about half the labor done by the people themselves.  I figure total cost per built house would be $40,000 for the five built on site for a total of $200,000.

I would also have a common house built (about 2,500 square feet).  I figure about $200,000 for that building.  That building would have a large room, community kitchen, a guest bedroom, laundry and toilets.

In this space I’d tried to save a lot of costs here by doing workshops where people come for the week and get hands on with building a tiny house.  Tickets would be pricey because of the time, meals, organizing etc.  I figure $1500 a person.  This would help offset the costs of the houses.  For the common house I’d try to do that with straw bale or ob and again, make that an event that we would sell tickets to.

Worst Case Running Total: $785,000
Target Running Total: $600,000
Established Revenue: $3,500-$5,000 / month

 This would close the initial phase of the first location.  From here the idea would be to document the entire process and produce some high quality materials, media, and website.  These could be used by tiny house people and by municipalities.  I figure there will be some coding, design and material fees with this $5,000.

Running Total: $605,000
Established Revenue: $3,500-$5,000 / month

The next phase would be taking the revenue generated and building that revenue to become a self sustaining non profit.  The hope here is that with the initial $1M we could build an engine that could pump out tiny house havens and develop training for DIYers, Builders and cities to elevate the community.

The remaining funds to kick off the next location and essentially do lobbying on behalf of tiny houses.  I would also look into tiny house financing, developer partnerships and tiny house insurance.  We would develop tiny house codes that municipalities could plug and play for cities and we would help them in that process.

I’m also playing it safe with the budget because things will inevitably be more expensive, unexpected costs will come up and there will be some staffing costs.

Final Total: $850,000
Revenue: $13,500-$15,000 / month

So that is how I’d move the movement forward with an infusion of $1M.

Your Turn!

  • How would you use the $1M differently for the movement?

Tiny House Solar

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.

Tiny House solar panels

So first, the high level details of my system:

  • 2.25 Kw panels – Nine, 250 watt panels
  • Batteries 2,960 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

Specific Parts:

  • (9) Canadian Solar CS-6p 250 Watt Poly Black Frame  (Spec Sheet)
  • (1) Schneider SW 4024 (Spec Sheet)
  • (1) Schneider MPPT 60 Charge Controller (Spec Sheet)
  • (8) Trojan L-16 6v 370 AH Flooded Lead Acid Batteries (Spec Sheet)
  • (1) Schneider System Control Panel (Spec Sheet)
  • (1) Schneider Interconnect Panel (no spec sheet)
  • (1) Midnight Solar MNPV 80AMP Dinrail Breaker (Spec Sheet)
  • (2) Midnight Solar Surge Protection Device AC/DC (no spec sheet)
  • 50 Amp RV power Inlet (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

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

My reading with the pathfinder

Then it spit out all the calculations:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

IMG_3112

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.

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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:

IMG_3127

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.

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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!

suicide-cable

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.

SimpleElectricCover

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.

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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.

IMG_3122

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.  IMG_3123

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.

generac

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.

Sketchup Coming The 2015 Tiny House Conference

I am really excited to share some big news, the makers of Sketchup are going to be sending a team of folks to the Tiny House Conference to help run training sessions at the conference!  The 2015 Conference will be in Portland, OR April 18-19th 2015 (details here). For those of you who don’t know, Sketchup is a free 3D design program that is perfect for designing your tiny house.  Many people already know about it, but for those of you who don’t, it’s a tool you need to learn.  It will be your go to tool in designing your tiny house.

sketup logo

So at the conference we are having two sessions on Sketchup.  The first will be run in conjunction with one of our speakers, James, he is a master with Sketchup having helped draw up Macy Miller’s very popular tiny house and plans.

The next session is going to be a bonus session that I haven’t had a chance to announce, it just got put on the calendar.  This will be with the experts from Sketchup, showing you how to do things, answering questions and getting hands on with the software to design a tiny house.

For those who are new, check out Michael’s video from Tiny House Design

 

Come Join Us in Portland, OR April 18-19th 2015

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Being Sick In A Tiny House

Being SickSo I’ve been living in my tiny house full time now for a little while and I still have a lot to get done before its totally finished, but recently I experienced one of thing that I had some concerns over when it comes to tiny houses: Getting sick.  Obviously being sick is never fun, but I had a few extra concerns when it came to my tiny house.

The biggest one was getting up and down from the loft when I was sick.  When I’m sick, I try to drink a lot of fluids and having to climb up and down to pee several times didn’t thrill me.  I’m not a person that gets sick often, but this time whatever I caught, really threw me for a loop.  To complicate going up and down my ladder, I had a pretty high fever, was very achy, and at times my coordination was kinda thrown off because of those things.  There was one time I almost toppled off the ladder because I got pretty dizzy mid way down.  But I’ve survived!

Warning: composting toilet talk up next

The next thing I’ve been worried about was using a composting toilet during my sickness.  I’ve learned that if you eat pretty healthy and make sure you have some good fiber in the mix, it makes the composting toilet much easier.  When you’re sick, you often don’t eat as well and/or your body isn’t working like it normally does.  All in all, it was fine, I worked it up to be much worse in my mind.  I did realize during this time that while I didn’t have a stomach bug this time, in the future, I’m going to want to have an additional bucket in case “all systems are a go”.

And Now...I'll Do What's Best For Me(1)

The final thing of note that I’d like to make on this topic is how the tiny house was a benefit in being sick.  Being that I now live in a tiny house and the tiny house enabled me to go out on my own to be self employed, I was able to take the time to just be sick.  Usually I’m a pretty busy guy, but I can schedule everything to my liking and that includes when I need time off.  So when I get sick, I don’t have to ask a boss for time off, I can just shoot off a few quick emails if need be saying I’m sick, then crawl into bed and sleep.  When I get sick, I just let my body do its thing and follow my body’s lead. Which means drinking a lot of fluid and sleeping a lot to give my body the energy it needs to fight the infection.

I brought a few bottles of water up with me to the loft and my laptop with a bunch of movies on it.  Most of the time I just was asleep, but when I was awake, I’d just open my laptop to watch a movie or listen to a “book on tape” on my phone.  In my old life, this would have been hard to do; I didn’t get any sick days, just my normal vacation.  Now I can disconnect and just heal.  It’s a great thing.

 

 

2015 Tiny House Survey

Every few years many of us in the tiny house movement rally to take the pulse of our community.  Who are tiny house folks, what kind of houses do they live in, and how many tiny houses are out there.  This survey is for people live in tiny houses now and those who hope to live in one some day.  The survey asks a bunch of questions on demographics, about your house, your life and what you’d like to see in the movement.

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The survey is of course optional, but we really hope you make your voice heard.  All the responses are kept 100% anonymous, (in fact no identifying information is collected) they aren’t used for commercial use and participating helps us get a better picture of the movement.  The raw data is used to run statistical analysis and the results are shared back with the community.  We also provide data to academic institutions who are doing studies on tiny houses.

Here is the survey, we hope you’ll make your voice heard in this:

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