I’ve been living in my tiny house now for a good while and the big challenge of composting toilet has been going well. Initially I had wanted to have a flush toilet and my house is setup so I could drop a toilet let in quickly, but the quotes for a sewer line alone started at $50,000 so I begrudgingly went with the composting toilet.
I haven’t really read too much online about people’s experiences with composting toilets, the few I’ve read were just over the moon, glowing reviews. So I thought I’d share my experience so far. It has mostly been positive and easier than I thought, but with this recent incident it goes to show it isn’t all great.
The other thing I don’t think people talk about in their composting toilet posts is diet. I have learned that a good diet beyond good health, impacts how easy it is to use a composting toilet. Good healthy foods, meals with salads, and less processed foods makes composting toilets easier to manage.
With a good diet your body functions better, it can extract more moisture and nutrients out of the what you eat and keeps things with composting toilets easier. I also know the better one eats, the more regular one is; for my body, I usually need to visit the restroom at 10:30 am almost without fail, which 9 times out of 10 means I’m out and about, where there are toilets for me to use. So diet is worth noting and was something I felt was missing from the discussion.
Currently it is illegal in my city have a composting toilet, as it is in most municipalities; plus I’m renting my land, so I wouldn’t want to be composting on land I don’t own. What seems like the happy medium and it is what I do, is bagging the waste every week into a biodegradable “plastic” bag and then sending it along with the city trash; at that point its essentially like a diaper, but the plastic will breakdown in a landfill quickly. There are other options out there for this too and I considered them, but for me this works.
I am currently using pine bedding (from the pets section) which has a nice scent, but I don’t think it absorbs as well as other options. I’m thinking I’m going to switch to a mix of half pine bedding and half mix of peat moss which is very absorbent. Peat moss is a pretty good option, but it isn’t a sustainable material, it’s harvesting is actually quite destructive to wet lands. I know for gardening that coconut coir (husks) is the sustainable version of peat, but I don’t know how it performs in composting toilets. I’ve ordered an 11 lb block of coconut coir for $16 to try out, which I’ll report back on later.
It has been pretty straight forward, but I still opt to keep my bucket setup outdoors. I do keep my liquids and solids separate, which at this point means I go peep in the woods and then use the bucket. Later on I hope add a urine diverter later on, but it isn’t a must at this time. I have a mini deck space that I keep it on. The smell isn’t anything to be concerned over, but I’m not sure having it inside with no moving air would be a good idea at this point.
My bucket has a pretty tight seal on the lid, so it is pretty hard for things to crawl in, but it is possible. The other day I went to use my setup and when I opened the lid, I was greeted by a swarm of fly larva. A hundred wriggling maggots. It was gross! What was interesting was they were on the seat between the seat and the lid. What I don’t know is if that was because the flies couldn’t get into the toilet or if they just preferred that narrow space.
Luckily it was very simple to take care of. I easily popped off the lid, then hosed it off in a very sunny spot. I figured the intense sun would kill the larvae so I didn’t have a ton of flies. I double bag the bucket so I closed the first bag, then tied up the second bag that was still clean. Job done, took all of two minutes, but I realized something is flawed in my system.
I did some googling to discover that this is a semi-common issue when the heat of summer comes on. You’ll be going along in the winter, it gets warmer and then all a sudden the flies come out. I learned about a product called Mosquito Dunk, which you crumble into a spray bottle, mix up with water and then when you use the toilet, you give it a few mists on the surface.
Mosquito Dunk as described by the maker is a “larvaecide that kills mosquito larvae only. It is deemed organic by the USEPA. Dunks are harmless to beneficial insects, pets, birds, fish or wildlife. Kills within hours and lasts for up to 30 days.”
So I’m going to give this option a try and see how things pan out. I will report back in a few months as I learn more,
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 found this video recently that I really liked. It struck a cord on many levels for me; as a tiny house person, as an entrepreneur, as a location independent / digital nomad. The video introduces the concept of “learned helplessness” which standing on this side of tiny house (living The Tiny Life) is all too clear to me now. I now wonder if there are other areas of my life that I just am assuming are the way they are, things that I’m blind to?
I’m writing from Portland today, still here after an amazing time at the Tiny House Conference that happened about a week ago. On Saturday I went to brunch with Laura LaVoie and Matt, where we were chatting about the amazing opportunities we experienced because of our choice to live tiny.
It struck me how lucky we were, to be sitting around a table on an extended vacation sharing a meal with friends. I all a sudden said “what a gift” and began to share this gratitude with Matt and Laura, we all took a beat to reflect on this gift we have been afforded.
So today I wanted to share what I know about you and what I hope for you.
The Tiny Life is a life that anyone can achieve with enough perseverance.
I know YOU can persevere through the doubt, the fear, the questions, and the hard days.
I know the life you can achieve will inspire you, drive you, and open doors.
I know you will value relationships over money, but you’ll have both in abundance.
I know you’ll be empowered when you realize (or realized) the truth: this is MY life.
I hope all you reading this have that moment when you say “I’m going for it”.
I hope that you appreciate what you have right now and fight hard for what you want in the future.
I hope you build a life that inspires you and others; One that others only dream of.
I hope you get to sit around a table with friends and say “what a gift”.
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.