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My First Winter In A Tiny House

After getting back from Croatia I’ve been learning a good bit about living in my tiny house in the winter. This December in Charlotte has been breaking records left and right for how cold it has been. Most mornings when I wake up it’s been in the 20’s which is very cold for this time of year.

The real issue for me has been right now I’m running off a generator and propane heater for my heat. Soon my solar panels will be installed and I can shift to my mini split. The generator has been working well, but because of how energy intensive the heater is and how cold it is, a full tank will only last about 3-4 hours. The propane heater works great too, a 1 lb propane tank will last about three hours.

My strategy has been mainly to heat the house up for about an hour while I get ready for bed and then shut things off. With the propane heater, its a “catalytic” heater that while is technically a flame, it is more efficient and doesn’t use up as much oxygen as a open flame would. I don’t want to leave it running when I sleep because of it being a flame and also the danger of low oxygen. The heater has a low oxygen detector that will shut it off if it comes to that, but I don’t want to chance it regardless. Once I fall asleep, I’m fine until I wake up anyway.

One thing that I’ve learned is that the floor is always cold. Being on a trailer there is obviously an air gap below the trailer. I know a lot of people have used skirts for their house, but I’m not a fan of the look and its not windy in my location, so I’m not sure how effective it would be. It may come to be installing a skirt of a sort, but I think I’d like to start with trying an area rug. I think this might be an easy way because I noticed that when I stepped on a piece of cardboard that I happened to have on the floor, it seemed to do a pretty good job of feeling warm on my bare feet.

So far it’s been a pretty cold winter in my tiny house. That’s about to change.

Very soon a solar panel system is going in that will change my heating situation drastically. I will have a huge battery bank that will let me run my mini split and keep my space heated and on a timer, without the danger of an open flame or running the generator. The timer will be really helpful because I can drop the temperature when I’m asleep nestled under my covers, but then ramp back up right before I wake up and have to get out of bed. I’ll also be able to set it to maintain a minimum temperature, which will be nice because I can keep it a reasonable temperature, but not draw a ton of power.

The other thing I’ve noticed is since its been so cold outside, I’ve been inside my house more and wanting to go outside. Nothing really bad, but I’ve been so used to be going for long walks and just enjoying the weather since its so much warmer in Croatia, right now it’s a little too cold to just spend time outside. I have been spending some time at the gym, at cafes and I also went out and bought an outdoor fire place to have a fire pit at my tiny house. All of these have been great for handling this need to get up and do something. I think this will subside when I get power set up because I can then get Internet hooked up and set up my desk. That will help a lot.

Setting Up Your Land For A Tiny House

One thing I’ve realized through my entire journey is that not only do you have to build a house, but there is quite a bit that goes into setting up the land itself. These things include access, infrastructure, security and utilities. Each of these categories can be tricky and expensive in their own right, but very necessary for living.

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General Considerations

You’ll notice that I have a field at the edge of the property where I have two entrances/exits to my gravel pad. This allows me to bring in the house, unhitch it and then have a place to exit with the truck. It also allows me to gain access to my storage trailer if I want to move it or take it off the property. It’s important to consider before you bring your house to the property:

  • How will you enter the property?
  • How will you exit the property once the house is placed?
  • How will you exit with the house if you need to move?
  • Are the curves too tight to make with such a large trailer/house?
  • What direction do you want your front door (back of trailer) to face?

Another thing to consider is parking for your car and visitor’s cars. I also like to be able to pull right up near the door for move-in day or for bringing in groceries.

I would also suggest placing your tiny house in a place with deciduous trees so your house is shaded in the summer and open to the sun in the winter. Before moving the house to my location, I made sure to go around and inspect all the surrounding trees to see if any needed to be removed because they posed a danger because of rot. I discovered one tree that was ready to fall any day, so I cut it down before the house was ever there.

Access

The first step to getting the land to the point where you can live on it is simply being able to access it. This comes in the form of roads, driveways, turnarounds and parking pads. Before you even think about laying down the road, you must first clear the way, remove trees, level the dirt and make your path to your new home. You have a couple of options: gravel, cement, and asphalt. Gravel is the most economical. I wouldn’t suggest just dirt, because you are bringing in a very heavy house, it’s likely to get stuck, and it gets muddy in the rain.

Here is a video of the installation of my road, turnaround and parking pad. Note I had a much easier time because there used to be an old dirt road in this location, so it was simply a matter of cleaning it up and leveling it out. The whole process took about 6 hours of hard work.

Infrastructure

Laying the lines, pipes and other key connections is a pretty tricky part because it often requires either backbreaking work or heavy equipment. When you’re running pipes and lines over any distance you run into issues of drop in voltage and pressure; so you need to take care to size things appropriately and it will dictate where you can actually place your home. When I first looked at the land, I had wanted to place my house about 300 feet away from its current location. That meant I’d have to run a #3 wire to compensate for the voltage drop as I ran the line to the closest solar exposure, which would have cost an additional $700 in just wire!

For water I am connected to the city water. The meter and installation cost me $2,200 (city sets price), but that is only from the water main to the closest edge of your property. You then need to connect it from there to your house, which will cost me an additional $800: $500 for materials, $300 for ditch witch rental, me doing all the labor.

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For showers I have a 32″x32″ shower stall in my house, but also will be building a larger outdoor shower which I plan to use most of the year, except in the cold months. Both will feed into the grey water system, but I love outdoor showers and it affords a bit more room in the shower. My indoor shower is workable, but a little cramped. I have designed my plumbing system so that I have a hot water line that feeds out to my outdoor shower, but it has a ball valve on the inside of the house so I can turn it off to prevent freezing during the winter.

Another aspect of infrastructure is how you are going to handle your waste streams. For me this breaks down into five categories:

  1. Trash
  2. Recyclables
  3. Compostables
  4. Grey water
  5. Composting toilet waste

For trash and recyclables I have barrels from the city which are picked up at the end of my driveway once a week.  For compostable materials such as food scraps (no meats, fats, or citrus) I handle those with a red wriggler worm bin which I keep in an outdoor bin. I prefer vermicomposting over regular composting because it’s much more of an active process, it’s super easy and if I forget about it, it will continue on without me. It also breaks things down much faster. In the warmer months it can handle a few pounds a week, going from scraps to dirt in about 4-6 weeks without me turning.

photoFor grey water I am going to build a small reed bed that takes the already pretty clean water, removes any solids, and cleans it up, then feeds into some irrigation pipes that snake through the trees. It’s important to note that I’ve spent about 6 months finding biodegradable alternatives to all my detergents (shampoo, hand soap, dish detergent, etc.) so the water coming out of this system is pretty good to begin with.

My composting toilet waste is the most difficult to handle because my city doesn’t allow for humanure composting systems. I am also leasing land so I don’t think its right to do a humanure composting system on the land itself. If I was, I’d follow the procedure laid out in the Humanure Handbook. So what I’m doing to meet local code and respect the land owner is bagging the waste every few weeks 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 break down in a landfill quickly. There are other options out there for this too and I considered them, but for me this method works.

Security

I get this question a lot from people and it seems very odd to me, but in terms of security I have a few lines of defense. First off, you need to realize that most criminals are those of opportunity. They don’t want to work hard or spend a lot of time stealing a tiny house. The other thing is I do live in a large city, but the land I live on is tucked away deep in back roads and at the back of 26 wooded acres. The likelihood of someone finding it is pretty small unless they knew to look there. With that in mind my tiny house weighs 6,500 lbs, which means that only a limited number of trucks out there can actually tow the house; even with a good truck it isn’t easy.

jackswheelsNext I removed the wheels from the trailer because you need to get them off the ground (tire shock) and if I just jacked them up, the house would be really high off the ground. So by removing them, I could lower my house about 1.5 feet lower than with the tires. This makes it a lot easier to get in and out of my house. The tires are chained up out of sight. Next I have a agriculture style fence gate at the entrance to my driveway, which I will later put on a automatic opener arm with a lock; right now its just chain locked when I’m not there.  photo-5

There are a few other things I do to keep things safe, but at some point you have to realize that you can’t prevent everything bad that COULD happen and you need to go on with your life.

Utilities

For power I plan to use solar, which I’ll be installing a 1.67 Kw system this fall/winter. The panels and equipment will be mounted on skids on the ground because I’m only leasing the land, I can’t have anything permanent. For a system this size you can’t fit it on the roof, plus I want to be able to access the panels to easily clean them. The inverter will be a 4,000 watt unit, with a large battery bank. The system will cost about $15,000 if I install it all myself.

In my house my stove and tankless hot water heater will be powered by propane. The fridge, my 15 LED puck lights, laptop, cell phone, and large computer screen (to serve also as a TV) are all electricity powered. The air conditioner/heater will be a mini-split heat-pump unit that can handle both, will run on electricity.

For Internet I will be hooked up to standard high speed cable Internet. I will also have my cell phone which has Internet. I considered getting a wireless mobile hotspot, but they all have a data cap of about 5-10 gigs, which if you watch 2-3 movies on Netflix you’ll blow through that limit in about 4 hours and be screwed the rest of the month. It’s worth noting that the wireless cards that claim “unlimited” are not really unlimited. If you read the fine print they all have a data cap. For Verizon, “unlimited” is 10 gigs.

I will not have a traditional TV or cable. I get all my TV shows and movies from online and in general I don’t watch a lot anyway. For laundry I have a laundromat a few minutes down the road, but for me I hate doing laundry. So my splurge item is that I use a service that comes to my home and picks it up, does the laundry and brings it back.

Bulk Storage

Before I get into this section, I know some of you are thinking, “extra storage! That’s not tiny living!” That’s fine if you think that, but it isn’t practical for me and I’m designing this for me. The point of this journey isn’t to be tiny, it’s to design a life that lets you achieve your own goals. That’s what I’m doing and I think it’s a disservice to yourself if you artificially constrain yourself by any preconceived notions.

As I pared down my possessions I realized that there were some things that could fit in my tiny house, but I didn’t want to. Things like tools, camping gear, bikes, large packs of consumables (toilet paper, paper towels, etc). It quickly became clear to me that even though I could fit everything in my tiny house, I shouldn’t. This left me trying to figure out what I should do. I knew that whatever I chose had to have a one time upfront cost, because I didn’t want to do a rental storage unit or the like. I also wanted it to be relatively protected from water and bugs.

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Some people suggested storage under the tiny house or little plastic sheds/cabinets. Since I am leasing, I couldn’t build something permanent, so I needed to find a storage solution that I could move and take with me. Initially I thought about one of those sheds you see in your big box hardware store parking lots, but they were either too cheaply made or too expensive. I instead decided on an enclosed trailer which was about the same cost as one of those sheds. This give me the flexibility of being able to move it, but also being a great storage space.

Outdoor Spaces

Part of tiny house living is making the decision to not stay locked up in your little house. It instead forces you to get out more. Part of this is having great outdoor spaces. For me that means a fire pit with some comfy Adirondack chairs, places to walk around, a grill, and a garden.

Depending on your climate, outdoor living might look different, but about half the year here is very comfortable to be outside. Outdoor spaces are key to having parties, guests and just leisure time. Don’t just design the perfect indoor space, design the perfect outdoor space for you too!

Visibility

In general I think it’s important to have your tiny house placed where no one can easily see it from the road. Legal or not, it’s not prudent to attract a lot of attention. Make sure the house can’t be seen during all seasons. If you move in during the spring, then during fall you might be able to see the house from the road because the leaves are gone.

Solar Exposure

I talked about this in an earlier section, but thought it deserved its own section too. In terms of solar you want to consider how your house is positioned for solar gain during the seasons. You also want to consider how close you are to a great solar exposure opening if you want to do solar panels. Anything beyond 50 feet between your house and your solar panel placement is going to result in a big enough voltage drop that it will need to be addressed.

Proximity To Things

This section is more about how close the land is to other things. Your land needs to be in a location that is close enough for you to get on with living and all the things that come with that. This includes a reasonable distance to commute to work, to go out to dinner or lunch, to go to the gym, library, and other similar services. I would also consider where your friends and family are. How close do you want to be to them?

For me I am 30 minutes from family, 15 to friends, the city center, as well as the “hot spots” that I like to hang out and dine. I work from home or wherever I have my laptop and an Internet connection. I often plan out my week to what I’m doing and then choose coffee shops near where I’m already going. I also have access to a co-working space, which I can hold meetings at and work from if I just want to get out of the house.

 

Your Turn!

  • What other consideration should you make?
  • How do your plans differ?

Tiny House Infographic

So it has been a long haul on this project, but it all started with a simple question: “How do tiny house people compare to the average American?” It happened quite innocently over burgers and fries at a local dinner. The question sparked an idea to have a tiny house survey. 120,000 data points later we crunched the numbers, and led a campaign to raise the money to make this graphic. The graphic took several hundred hours to create and we hope you enjoy.

Click image to see it larger

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Office On The Water

While they primarily are focusing on offices, these structures have been designed to suit various applications, one of which is small floating houses.  Here is their typical office setup with a conversion couch to bed.

Typical specs include:

  • a compact design giving enough space for one or two people to work in comfort
  • a “private” working area
  • a “breakout” area
  • an external sun deck
  • a kitchenette
  • a pull-out berth (for overnight stays)
  • plenty of storage space
  • bathroom

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Tiny House: A Place Of Your Own

Many of you are familiar with the book An Omnivore’s Dilemma, written by Michael Pollan.  What you might not know is that he built a little cabin in the woods to write much of that book in.  His Tiny House is mainly for writing check it out!

Wanting to have a place of his own where he could think and write, Pollan decided to erect a small structure in the woods behind his house. Fancying himself a modern-day Thoreau, he wanted to build his “dream hut” with his own hands, even though he had no carpentry skills or experience. We learn very little about how to build a small structure; the majority of this book is devoted to Pollan’s pretentious musings about a variety of architectural theories and about his interaction with the architect and carpenter who helped him (wasn’t this supposed to be a simple structure?). Although it cost Pollan $125 per square foot and took him two and one-half years to build, ultimately it is the reader who works the hardest.

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