Posts Tagged Electrical

Tiny House Electrical Guide – Wiring & Powering Your Tiny Home

Tiny House Electrical Guide – Wiring & Powering Your Tiny Home

tiny house electrical guide
When building, tiny house electrical questions are bound to come up. I know I had a million of them:

  • How does a tiny house get power?
  • How do I wire a tiny house?
  • What kind of wire, outlets, and breakers do I need?
  • How much will it cost to wire my tiny house?

I want to dig into a lot of these bigger questions, then point you to a great resource that goes into a ton of detail on wiring your tiny home.

How Does A Tiny House Get Power?

How Does A Tiny House Get Power

For the most part a tiny house is set up just like a regular home, but some people who are more mobile opt to have a temporary connection as opposed to a permanent one. Whatever your approach, there are some technical details you need to follow.

Temporary Power Connections – 50 Amp Plug

50-amp plugThis is my preferred method and how I power my tiny house. I use a 50-amp plug from an RV supply store for about $30, plus an extension cord that I assembled myself by purchasing the ends and wire. The wire for a 50-amp drop cord is pretty pricey — $3 a foot if pre-made or $1.50 per foot if you do it yourself.

Essentially, this is just a giant outlet that pumps a lot of power through it. I’ve found with my local code enforcement that if I use this approach, it being “temporary” is a critical factor in being legal.

If my tiny house was hard wired, that would open up a huge can of worms legally speaking. Being that it is “temporary” by nature of the plug, building inspectors instantly lost interest, which is exactly what I wanted.
The other benefit of this approach is that you can roll into almost any RV park and plug in, which makes this a win-win in my book.

Tiny House Power Extension Cords

Tiny House Power Extension Cords

If you’re using a temporary power connection to your tiny house you’ll need a way to connect the house to your power source. The simplest way to do this is to buy an RV power cord. Keep in mind this needs to be sized properly to be safe.

Permanent Power Connection

Permanent Power Connection

The only real difference here is wiring the power line directly to the panel, without a plug. First you need to have your power box and power access installed and inspected. Then it comes time to actually connect the power to your house.

This is usually done by the power company who brings the line to your house and connects it to your power box. The key thing to remember is that each municipality will do this a little differently, and it will need to be inspected.

The National Electrical Code – NEC

The National Electrical Code

The National Electrical Code is the main code reference for you to refer to when it comes to all things wiring. This book is pretty dense, but for most things, you’ll be able to figure out the different key sections you need to know as you start to wire your tiny house.

Hiring an electrician is, of course, advisable to help you get the details right, and an inspection is always required. Electricity in a tiny house is a big deal, as doing anything wrong can create a dangerous situation that could lead to a fire or even death. Proceed at your own risk, as I’m not liable here.

guide to building codes and zoning for tiny houses
simple electrical for tiny houses

Calculating Your Tiny House Electrical Needs

Calculating Your Tiny House Electrical Needs

It’s a good idea to figure out how much power your tiny house will need and use for a couple of reasons. First, you want to size your power source coming into your house correctly. If you’re living off the grid, you need to make sure your solar panels for your tiny house are sized properly. You also need to make sure your circuits, wires, breakers, etc. are sized properly to make sure they are safe and up to code.

The good news is that calculating this in a tiny house is really simple. Since we’re so intentional about what comes into our house and we are often designing and building the house ourselves, we know exactly what is going to go in it. When I was wiring my tiny house and figuring out my solar panels, I literally had a list of everything that needed power in my tiny home.

The Basics: Amps, Volts, & Watts

The Basics of Amps Volts and Watts

I’m not going to get into a comprehensive guide to electrical theory, but there is one thing to understand that will make this all a whole lot easier:

watts equal amps times volts

That seems simple enough, but let’s take it one step further. If you remember back to your algebra days, sometimes your teacher would give you an equation where you had to solve for one variable, but it required you to move it around. If you were solving for X, you had to manipulate the formula so X was on one side of the equal sign and the rest of the variables were on the other side.

You moved things around by dividing, multiplying, and so on to shift things around where you needed them. That’s what we need to do here in a lot of cases because we may know two parts of the equation, but not the third.
For example, if we knew the watts and the volts, but didn’t know the amps, we could do this:

watts divided by volts equals amps

Another example is if we know the watts and the amps, but needed to know the volts:

watts electrical equation

So the one thing that makes this so much easier is realizing that watts, amps and volts are related. The interplay between them is proportional to the others.

A practical example is if a toaster says it’s 1200 watts and you need to know what the amps are for some reason, we can do the math quickly. Houses are most often 120-volt circuits (more on that below). That means we know two variables:

  • 1200 watts
  • 120 volts
  • We need to solve for Amps

solve for amps

How Much Electricity Do Items Use

How Much Electricity Do Items Use

Here is a chart of common things you’ll find in your tiny house and how much power they use.

common household items electric usage

120 Volt Vs. 240 Volt

120 Volt Vs 240 Volt

Much of your house in the USA is running on 120-volt circuits, but that will vary in other countries. Also in US houses, you will commonly find circuits that are 240-volt used for larger appliances, HVAC and other large power draws.

One thing that confused me at first is that sometimes people say 220 volt, 230 volt or 240 volt when talking about these types of circuits. There are technical differences, but largely they are referring to the same thing.

I say 240 volt, but what it really means is that instead of a single 120-volt wire going to that outlet/appliance, there are actually two 120-volt hot leads going to it. A 120-volt lead plus another 120-volt lead adds up to 240 volts.

In 240-volt wires, you’ll typically find a red wire and a black wire, which are the “hot” leads. You’ll also find a single white wire that is neutral and a bare copper or green wire that is ground.

Doing The Math

Doing The Math

I’d start by first making a full list of all the electrical items in your house (plug in and hard wired) and list them in a column on a spreadsheet. Then next to that column, have another column for watts, amps and volts. If you’re wanting to implement solar power, you can add an extra column for hours you’ll use each item in a day.
Then start filling in everything you know about each item. To find that information you can do the following:

  • Check the label, which usually lists some of the electrical numbers.
  • Go to the manufacturer’s website and find a spec sheet or manual for the item.
  • Use a Kill-a-watt plug in meter or clamp meter to measure it directly.

Tiny House Wiring Diagram

Tiny House Wiring Diagram

Let’s start out with an overview of how a tiny house is wired for electrical. Wiring your tiny house is dependent on your design and use, but in general, people wire their tiny house like this:

  • Left side of the main floor
  • Right side of the main floor
  • Loft
  • HVAC
  • Kitchen
  • Appliances
  • Other large draws

Each circuit should be designed for its expected load + 25% (as stipulated by code). That usually means a 20-amp circuit breaker on each circuit of your house except for appliances and HVAC, as they often are large draws.

I did mine a little differently. Here is a functional diagram of how my tiny house is wired:

power distribution from main breaker box

Here is a layout diagram of how I placed my electrical connections when I built my tiny house. You can see how this diagram differs from the functional diagram by showing the locations of the outlets, lights, fans and other connections. The functional diagram just shows how they’re all connected.

tiny house wiring diagram

how to build a tiny house

Electrical Drawing Symbols

Electrical Drawing Symbols

When reading a diagram or making your tiny house plans, electrical symbols are shorthand to know what goes where. They can quickly tell you what is going on within a house.

standard electrical symbols

Tiny House Electrical Materials List

Tiny House Electrical Materials List

There are a lot of elements that go into wiring a tiny house. Choosing the right components and connecting them correctly is key to a safe install. The NEC dictates many if not all of these considerations, so make sure you follow those guidelines.

Here are some of the key elements and my recommendations for them:

Tiny House Electrical Panel / Breaker Box

Tiny House Electrical Panel

breaker boxThe breaker box is the central hub of power for your entire tiny house. The power comes from a power source (the grid, solar panels, etc.) and then is broken down into smaller runs called circuits. My suggestion is to have at least 10 spaces in your box for an approximately 100-amp box.

In many cases, your power company will default to a 200-amp service, but you may be able to request a smaller one. Although it isn’t a bad idea to have a larger service and slightly larger box than what you think you need in case a need pops up in the future. Often the cost difference isn’t a ton.

Wire For A Tiny house

Wire For A Tiny house

The wiring for your tiny house will typically be done with Romex (a brand name used broadly to describe this type of wire), also known as non-metallic sheathed wire that is typically used in residential wiring.

One quick point I want to make about terminology. You have wires and cables. Wire is a single solid copper conductor, while cable is several strands of smaller copper conductors combined into a bundle. For the layman, we use the word “wire” casually, but for clarity, realize that what people often call a wire is often actually a cable.

wire types for tiny house


Wire Sizing

Wire Sizing

This wire/cable comes in a variety of sizes measured in wire gauge. The thing to remember about wire gauge is the bigger the number, the smaller the wire. Typical wire sizes for residential are 14 gauge, 12 gauge, and 10 gauge.

WIRE GAUGE RATED AMPERAGE COMMON USES
14-2 Romex 15 A Lighting Circuits
12-2 Romex 20 A Lighting & Outlets, Refrigerator
10-2 Romex 30 A Electric Water Heater, Baseboard Heaters
10-3 Romex 30 A Electric Clothes Dryer

Understanding Romex Labels

Understanding Romex Labels

Romex also come with different numbers of conductor strands that are bundled up to make the wire. Typically, you’ll have Romex with 2 conductors (plus a ground conductor) or 3 conductors (plus a ground conductor).

The wire labels on Romex packaging are a combination of the wire gauge, followed by the number of conductors that make up the cable. For example, a cable that is made of 2 conductors (plus a ground) that are 14 gauge in size, will be labeled 14-2.

12-3 romex label

Conductor Wire Color Coding

Conductor Wire Color Coding

In most cases, wire colors are used in a standard way, but you should never assume this. Usually the conductors in the wire are exactly the same, just with different color coatings for ease of keeping track of which one is which.
The most common convention for wire color coding is the following:

  • Black for your hot lead
  • White for your neutral lead
  • Red for your second hot lead in 240 volt
  • Bare copper or green for your ground
two wire cable color coding
three wire cable color coding

Color Coding Exceptions

Color Coding Exceptions

Wire colors often aren’t substantially different. When you encounter a wire, they are probably done correctly, but then again, if you didn’t wire it, you don’t actually know for sure. So be smart.

There are other cases where the colors will be different. The main one that comes to mind is in a three-way switch, it isn’t uncommon to find that the white wire is used as a “traveler” in the three-way circuit and could in fact be hot. To signal this, standard practice is to wrap tape around the white wire at all the boxes to signal this, but that doesn’t always happen.

If you know of other exceptions or tips, drop them in the comments!

how to build a tiny house

Circuit Breakers

Circuit Breakers

Breakers are safety devices that stop the flow of power when there is an overload or a short in the circuit. That means that they need to be sized properly for the application that they’re being used for. Below is a chart to give you an idea of common pairings.

In my tiny house, I had a 30-amp double pole circuit breaker for my minisplit and the rest were 20-amp single pole breakers.

wire gauge and circuit breakers

GFCI – Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters

Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters

You’re probably familiar with these because you see them in bathrooms. These are special breakers designed to stop the flow of electricity if it detects a “ground fault” in as little as 1/40th of a second. The idea here is that in wet environments, more risk exists. Code prescribes where these are used, so make sure to follow it.

AFCI – Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters

Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters

This is one you might not be as familiar with, but similar to GFCI, it stops the flow of electricity when it senses an arc. Arcs can happen from improper wiring, a nail being driven through wires, insulation being compromised, or some other issue. These are now generally required in all bedrooms and have been shown to reduce the risk of house fires pretty significantly. Refer to your local codes for guidance.

Grounding A Tiny House

Grounding A Tiny House

Grounding is a backup pathway for electricity to flow from the source to the ground so it can dissipate. You can ground your tiny home by connecting the breaker box ground bar to the trailer and to a grounding rod.

A grounding rod is a 10-foot copper rod driven into the earth with a copper conductor tied to it. You want to make sure there is a direct flow from the ground connection at outlets to the ground bar in the breaker box, and from there to the ground rod.

As a safety measure, we also ground the house to the trailer as well, so that if you’re driving down the road, current can flow down into the trailer and either dissipate through the foot of the hitch or arc a smaller distance from the trailer to the ground.

12-Volt Wiring For A Tiny House

12-Volt Wiring For A Tiny House

Many people have asked me about 12-volt wiring for a tiny house — mainly those who want to be off the grid. A lot of this comes from things you read on the internet saying that 12-volt DC wiring is more efficient than AC power, mainly because of the need to convert power from DC to AC.

This is generally a bad idea. Most of the advice to do this comes from a time when inverters were not as efficient as they are today. Solar energy has come a long way very quickly, so often articles and forum posts you’ve read are out of date. Even something as new as 6 months ago is considered out of date because of the pace at which solar is improving.

batteries for a tiny houseThe other argument for DC wiring on a 12-volt setup is that DC is more efficient in general. This is true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Consider that if you wire for 12 volt, all your appliances need to be 12 volt. That means the appliances you need to buy are around 3 to 5 times the price, and your options are very limited.

Any inefficiencies from the DC to AC conversion process can be overcome with the addition of an extra panel or two to your solar array. Switching to AC lets you have a huge range of options for a fraction of the cost of DC appliances. The costs savings alone, even after factoring in the price of an extra solar panel or two, will bust any myths about using DC.

So for this reason, I do not recommend anyone wiring their house for 12-volt DC power.

How Much Does It Cost To Wire A Tiny House?

How Much Does It Cost To Wire A Tiny House

The cost of wiring your tiny house will generally be around $500 in materials and around $1,000-$3,000 in labor if you hire an electrician. This does not include lighting fixtures and appliances, as they have a wide range of price points.

ITEM QUANTITY COST EACH
Romex-250 feet 1 $42.65
Outlets/Switches 15 $14.49
Outlet/Switch Covers 15 $0.49
Electrical Boxes 15 $0.68
Wire Staples – 225 pack 1 $4.83
Breaker Box 1 $43.67
Breakers 10 $4.18
GFCI  Breakers 2 $46.15
AFCI Breakers 1 $52.31
Led Puck Lights 3 $29.43
Bath Fan 1 $24.56
Total $625.31

Your Turn!

  • What’s your plan for wiring your tiny house?
  • Are you going to be on the grid or off the grid?

How To Build A Tiny House With Slide Outs

How To Build A Tiny House With Slide Outs

How To Build A Tiny House With Slide OutsMany people have asked me about tiny houses with slide outs as a way to extend the living space in a tiny house. So today I wanted to break down how to actually build a tiny home with slide outs, the costs, and the pros and cons of using them.

What Is A Tiny House Slide Out?

What Is A Tiny House Slide Out

A slide out in a tiny home is essentially a box with expanding walls for additional living space that collapses inside the tiny house for transport. This is common in RV’s for couches, beds and additional living space.

Pros Of Tiny House Slide Outs

Pros Of Tiny House Slide Outs

The biggest benefit of having a slide out, also known as a bump out, in your tiny home is, of course, the additional square footage. Here are a few things to think about when it comes to the benefits of slide outs.

Maximize Your Space

Tiny House with Slide Outs

In some cases, people want to have as much space as they can for their living space. The biggest tiny house you can have is about 400 square feet, but some may need or want more space. If you’re pushing the envelope that much, you might want to consider a tiny house built on a foundation.

Smaller Trailer

Others hope to build their tiny house on a smaller trailer for easier towing, but still have the benefits of a larger tiny home. If you need a certain square footage, one option is to use a smaller trailer with built in bump outs or pop outs to still achieve that targeted square footage for your needs. Having a smaller trailer makes towing your tiny house easier to turn and generally safer to drive.

Greater Interior Width

Beyond the additional square footage, I think one of the most compelling reasons to consider this is that you can create a much roomier feel inside your tiny house. One challenge with tiny houses is how narrow they can be, limited to only 8.5 feet wide in most cases. Just having the ability to open up the inside area to have ample space for furniture and a clear walking path is huge!

tiny house building checklist

Cons Of Tiny House Slide Outs

Cons Of Tiny House Slide Outs

There are a lot of downsides to having a slide out or bump out in your tiny home, too. Here are a few that come to mind:

Leaks

It can be very difficult for a slide to be installed in such a way that it stays completely sealed in both the open and closed positions, so most slides will develop leaks over time. Water damage is a huge issue with tiny house slide outs.

Moving Parts

If I’ve learned anything about construction it is that every moving part is just another point of failure. Everything that has to move will be a potential place for your tiny house to break and will be difficult to fix. The slide out mechanism for your tiny house will require regular maintenance and repairs.

how to build a tiny houseDrafts And Pests

Sliders are very difficult to make completely weatherproof, even professional installers have a difficult time with this. Air sealing is a major concern when building an efficient tiny house, so introducing potential weak points is a bad idea. It also means pests will have a much easier time entering your tiny house on wheels.

Extra Weight

Slide outs add a lot of weight to your tiny house. You should plan on a single slide adding as much as 1,500 lbs. to the total weight of your tiny house. This means less carrying capacity and can easily make an otherwise easily tow-able tiny house on wheels difficult to haul.

Uneven Weight Distribution

Perhaps the most dangerous issue a slide out can present is uneven weight distribution. A pop out will make a tiny home heavier on one side than the other, which can be very dangerous.

Tiny House With Slide Outs Floor Plans

Tiny House With Slide Outs Floor Plans

Slide out tiny house designs are kind of hard to come by these days, so I wanted to suggest a few possible floorplans that you could use when designing your own tiny house on wheels with pop outs.

Tiny House With Slide Out Floor Plan

 


Floor Plan for Tiny House With Slide Out


Tiny House floorplan


Tiny House Slide Out Floorplan


tiny house plans

How To Build A Tiny House With Slide Outs

How To Build A Tiny House With Slide Outs

The first thing you need to understand is that weight balance in a tiny house is critical to get right. In general, I don’t recommend a DIYer attempting to build slide outs on their own, but we’ll go over the general process for reference. The below instructions are loosely based off the Norco Accu-Slide Slide-Out System.

Build Your Tiny House Trailer Frame

If you’re going to have a tiny house with bump outs, you’re going to need to build a custom tiny house trailer frame. This will need to have the ability to extend footings to stabilize the trailer before the bump outs are extended, plus support the extended room’s weight.

You’ll want to have a solid metal frame made out of 2 to 3-inch square tubing that will serve as the opening for your slide out. Keep in mind that in some systems, you need to actually embed seals, rollers and bezels into the frame, so account for those if your system requires it.

Build Your Tiny House Trailer Frame

Attach Your Slide Out Rollers

The key to this system is a set of rollers that are mounted on the metal frame at the bottom of the opening, which the room is set into and rolls on. These rollers are typically located on the bottom part of the slide out, while the top part is generally pretty loose, but has rubber stripping to try to seal any gaps.

Attach Your Slide Out Rollers

Attach Slide Out Cable System To Your Frame

Attached to the rough frame of your tiny house where the slide out will sit is your cable system frame. This holds the motor and routes the cables to be tensioned properly for the slide out mechanism. Set this portion of the system according to the manufacturing guidelines.

Attach Slide Out Cable System To Your Frame

Drop In Your Steel Framed Slide Out

Your pop out should be framed with a 2 to 3-inch square tubing welded together. This is important because you need this box to be very strong and rigid. The frame should be totally square and plumb, but some systems allow for a slight outward taper to let water run off.

Drop In Your Steel Framed Slide Out

Attach Your Cables To The Slide Out

The cables here don’t actually support the slide out too much, but more balance it. When fully extended, the cables will prevent the top from tipping out, but the bulk of the weight should be on the trailer frame and the top lip of the framed wall (metal tubing).

Attach Your Cables To The Slide Out

Attach Bezels, Stripping, And Seals

Each system will have a unique approach to sealing up your slide out, so follow the manufacturer directions carefully. Keep in mind that some of these need to be inset or other considerations made so that the entire thing will sit flush when closed and seal up tightly when extended.

Attach Bezels to tiny house slide out

Have Support Legs For Long Term Use

While it may not be required, I suggest figuring out some method to independently support the slide out if you’re going to be using it for extended periods of time. Anything longer than a few weeks a year will really need proper support.

Have Support Legs on slide out For Long Term Use

Add A Topper Awning

A topper awning is a rolled-up awning that extends from the inside of the wall cavity out just beyond the outside edge of the bump out. This adds extra protection from the rain and gives a steeper angle to drain water away. Remember that leaks in slide outs are very common, so make sure you do this detail correctly.

Add A Topper Awning to tiny house slide out

Tiny House With Slide Outs Diagram

Diagram of Tiny House With Slide Out


Tiny House With Slide Out Price

Tiny House With Slide Out Price

A tiny house typically costs anywhere from $35,000 to $95,000 when built by a professional builder. Adding slide outs to a tiny house will cost about $4,000 in materials and about $5,000 for labor per slide out.

Many builders no longer accept jobs where a design includes slide outs because even when built properly, they often end up leaking after a few years, leading to call backs. Simply put, for many builders, slide outs are more trouble than they are worth.

Tiny Houses With Slide Out Photos

Tiny Houses With Slide Out Photos

Here is a sampling of tiny houses with slide outs that can be used to inspire your design should you want pop outs in your tiny home.

Tiny House Slide Out Interior Photos

Tiny House Slide Out Interior Photos

Interior of Tiny House Slide Out
Tiny House Slide out interior
tiny house slide out living room
Slide out in tiny house
kitchen slide out in tiny house
tiny house slide out living space
tiny house slide out interior
slide out inside tiny house
tiny house kitchen slide out
side out bedroom in tiny house

 

Tiny House With Slide Outs Exterior Photos

Tiny House With Slide Outs Exterior Photos

tiny house slide out exterior
tiny house slide out design
contemporary tiny house slide out
simple tiny house slide out
tiny house slide out modern design
tiny house with slide out
multiple slide outs on tiny house
tiny house slide out
minimallist tiny house slide out
modern tiny house slide out
slide out designs for tiny house
tiny house bump outs
single bump out on tiny house
tiny house slide out extra space

Gooseneck Tiny House With Slide Outs Photos

Gooseneck Tiny House With Slide Outs Photos

Gooseneck Tiny House
Gooseneck Tiny House With Slide Out
Tiny House Slide Out on Gooseneck Trailer
Slide Out on Gooseneck Tiny House

Your Turn!

  • What do you think about tiny houses with slide outs?

Which Tiny House Water Heater Should I Buy? Advice From A Full Time Tiny Houser

Which Tiny House Water Heater Should I Buy? Advice From A Full Time Tiny Houser

tiny house hot water heatersIf there is one thing I love about my tiny house, it’s the tiny house hot water heater I currently have. After living in my tiny house for over 7 years, I’ve actually gone through a few tiny house water heaters, but there has been one that stood out from the rest. I’ll get to that soon.

My Top 5 Tiny House Hot Water Heaters:

Rinnai
V53DeP
Precision Temp RV-550 Eco Temp
L5
Eco Temp
L10
Rheem
RTEX-11
Rinnai V53DeP Precision Temp RV-550 Eco Temp L5 Eco Temp L10 Rheem RTEX-11
My Ranking
Flow Rate 5.3 GPM 1.5 GPM 1.5 GPM 2.9 GPM 2.68 GPM
Energy Type Propane/Natural Gas Propane Propane Propane Propane
Why Consider Best performance and build quality Good option for 12-volt systems Great for outdoor showers Budget friendly with good functionality Super compact
Who Is It Best For General and off-grid water heating RVs Weekend cabins and seasonal outdoor showers Budget-minded tiny house folks Those on the grid
Price $550 $1,195 $129 $349 $275
BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW

tiny house hot water heater comparison

how to build a tiny house

Rinnai V53DeP

Rinnai V53DeP hot water heater

Rinnai V53DeP
Rinnai V53DeP
My Ranking
Flow Rate 5.3 GPM
Energy Type Propane or Natural Gas
Why Consider Best power and build quality
Who Is It Best For General and off-grid water heating
Price $550
BUY NOW

I mentioned that of all the tiny house hot water heaters I’ve had over the years, there was one that stood out, and this was it. Rinnai has been in the tankless hot water scene for a very long time. Way before most of us even heard of this company, they were building hot water heaters.

I think it’s very telling that every time a plumber has come to my house (not to fix the water heater), they always say something to the effect of “that’s a great choice” or “Rinnai is the best for tankless”. After using my V53 for close to 5 years, I have to emphatically agree.

You can order these units in a propane version (denoted by the P at the end of the model number) or in a natural gas version (N model). This is a direct vent style that is made to mount outside your tiny house, which is very important. Venting is a huge pain in a tiny house because you need to use such large ducting. It’s much easier to just mount it on the outside.

These units have freeze protection and you can buy an optional dump valve if the power goes out. This is the best option for an off-the-grid hot water heater that I’ve found. Running on propane is easy. I just have normal 20 lb. propane tanks hooked up to it and can heat my water and cook on my stove (also propane) for about 2-3 months per tank.

At 5.3 gallons per minute (GPM) this will give you endless hot water even if you have a shower going and two sinks. These units come in at around $550 and it’s money well spent. These units are built to a very high standard, in my experience.

Precision Temp RV-550

Precision Temp RV-550 hot water heater

Precision Temp RV-550
Precision Temp RV-550
My Ranking
Flow Rate 1.5 GPM
Energy Type Propane
Why Consider Good option for 12 volt systems
Who Is It Best For RVs
Price $1,195
BUY NOW

I put this one next because I know it’s a very popular water heat for tiny houses. However, I’ve had three of these now and each one of them was plagued with issues. At a price of $1,195, there is no excuse for it to not work well when it’s already twice the price of the next most expensive competitor.

I’ve detailed why I don’t recommend this company for tiny house hot water heaters in this post. The biggest issue I had was when I received my first unit, I noticed an odd rattle inside it. I decided to open it up, only to find the internal vent loose, so all the carbon monoxide created by the unit would have blown right into my house instead of venting outside. That could have killed me.

Now there are some reasons that people like these units. First off, it’s designed for RVs and campers, so it can handle lower flow rates than some of the competitors. At 1.5 GPM this will be able to run a low flow shower head or a sink, but not really both at once.

Another thing to know is that this unit doesn’t have the same BTUs as the other units. My Rinnai has a max BTU output of 120,000 BTUs, while the RV-550 only has 55,000 BTUs. What that means in practical terms is that in my mild winters in North Carolina, the best the RV-550 could do was make my water warm, but not hot.

To be fair, Precision Temp is very transparent about this, but I didn’t understand what 55k BTUs really meant practically even after reviewing their site and literature.

So to sum up, it’s twice the price, half the BTUs and, in my experience, workmanship on these units is not acceptable.

Eco Temp L5

Eco Temp L5 hot water heater

Eco Temp L5
Eco Temp L5
My Ranking
Flow Rate 1.5 GPM
Energy Type Propane
Why Consider Great for outdoor showers
Who Is It Best For Weekend cabins and seasonal outdoor showers
Price $129
BUY NOW

This is another very popular tankless hot water heater that many people consider when thinking about building a tiny house. I actually recommend this to a lot of people… In very specific circumstances. I think if you use this hot water heater in the right case, you’ll love it. But if you try to do something it’s not really meant for, you’ll be disappointed.

This hot water heater is designed for those who need hot water in more remote or austere conditions: your weekend rustic cabin, going camping, setting up a temporary shower or if you need hot water in some remote part of your property.

This unit is designed to be used seasonally with less-than-permeant usage.

What that means is if you have this as your main tiny house hot water heater, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s an attractive option at $129, but for everyday use, you’ll want something more robust.

What I use this for is my outdoor shower. I’ve used the L5 for years now as an outdoor shower and it’s amazing for that. I have a simple platform I stand on and I mount this unit on a single screw on a vertical post. I connect my garden hose and a 20 lb. propane tank and in literally 2 minutes I am taking a nice, hot shower.

For the price, this unit is a great buy. One downside I’ve found is that if there is any real wind, the unit’s flame will go out. You can do some shielding around it, but because this unit is a direct vent unit, you need to keep it outside — never bring it inside!

Eco Temp L10

Eco Temp L10 hot water heater

Eco Temp L10
Eco Temp L10
My Ranking
Flow Rate 2.9 GPM
Energy Type Propane
Why Consider Budget friendly with good features
Who Is It Best For Budget minded tiny house folks
Price $349
BUY NOW

If you’ve considered the other Eco Temp model but want something that’s going to be more reliable for your house in everyday use, this is a great option. The L10 is designed to be used on a house for everyday use at 2.9 GPM, where the L5 is more for camping applications.
At $349, this strikes a very good balance of cost vs. value. I’ll be upfront and say that this company is a lower-tier manufacturer from China relative to Rinnai, but I’ve found they do a good job for the price. While you can see the products are no frills, they do a decent job with the important things.

The biggest difference between this one and the Rinnai is that the heat exchanger on this unit is made of less copper. You can see that this heat exchanger is silver in color from the different (cheaper) alloys used to make up the most important part of the unit. The Rinnai uses high-quality copper in it, which makes for a better product, but copper is much more expensive.

This one is also an outdoor mounted version, so venting is a breeze and it also runs on propane, which I find to be the easiest fuel source.

Rheem RTEX-11

Rheem RTEX-11 hot water heater

Rheem RTEX-11
Rheem RTEX-11
My Ranking
Flow Rate 2.68 GPM
Energy Type Propane
Why Consider Super compact
Who Is It Best For For those living on the grid
Price $275
BUY NOW

The last option here is the Rheem RTEX-11, and this is one that I looked at seriously for my tiny house. The biggest benefit of this unit is that it’s so compact — only 8 inches wide x 13 inches tall x 4 inches thick. That’s about a tenth the size of all the others on this list.

The reason for that isthat Rheem units use electric to heat your water. This unit comes in 8, 11, and 13 kilowatt versions. The 8 KW version might be a little too small for your needs, while the 11 KW version would be perfect for tiny houses at a flow rate of 2.68 GPM. One benefit to electric models is that you don’t have to vent, so this unit can be tucked under your counters, back in a corner of your cabinets.

If I was able to be on the grid, this would be the unit I’d have gone with. A lot of the plumbers I talked with said Rinnai was their personal favorite, but Rheem was a close second. Being that I live off the grid, I have to heat my water with propane.

It is also hard to beat the price at $275. With this high quality of a unit in such a small housing, this is a great hot water heater option for your tiny house.

tiny house plumbing

Tiny House Water Heater Buying Guide

Tiny House Water Heater Buying Guide

Choosing a hot water heater for your tiny house is an important decision because it will impact your designs, utility connections and if you can go on or off grid. Hot water is also one of those hallmarks of civilization if you ask me, nothing is better than taking a long hot shower.

Here are some things to think about when choosing a tiny house water heater:

Tankless Vs. Traditional

Tankless Vs. Traditional hot water heaters

Let me make this simple: you want tankless. Traditional hot water heaters have large tanks that hold water and heat it constantly. Not only is this pretty inefficient because you’re heating water when you aren’t using it (which is most of the time), but these are also very heavy.
Water is about 8.2 lbs. per gallon and in a tiny house, every ounce matters. Having a traditional water heater means you need a much bigger trailer, and that adds up fast. Along with weight, traditional water heaters are also much larger, which isn’t ideal in such a small space. Tankless hot water heaters typically take up a lot less space, making it easy to mount in a corner under a cabinet or on the outside of your house entirely.

Tankless hot water hearts are also a huge step up over tanked hot water heaters because you can never run out of hot water. The price of traditional models isn’t that much cheaper either, so the cost versus benefit of tankless is a clear winner.

If you want to be off the grid, tankless running off of propane or natural gas is really the only practical method unless you use a wood stove, which is a real pain.

Indoor Vs. Outdoor Installations

hot water heater Indoor Vs. Outdoor Installations

This is another simple decision: outdoor installation is ideal. Indoor mounted hot water heaters require you to vent them with vent tubes. These tubes are pretty hefty and mean you have to cut a large hole in your wall to vent properly.

Compared this to an outdoor installation that you can vent right outside with no extra work involved. Mine mounted in about 5 minutes and the vent was already built into my unit, so I couldn’t screw it up if I tried.

Indoor units can be tricky to vent, requiring certain offsets and maximum vent lengths that are shorted by each elbow you put in the vent tube. The only time I’d opt for an indoor mounted unit is if I lived in a place that was prone to super cold temperatures.

Between the ease of installation and the fact that you aren’t taking up any indoor space, I’d suggest an outdoor mounted tankless hot water heater.

Energy Source: Propane Vs. Natural Gas Vs. Electric

Propane Vs. Natural Gas Vs. Electric

This really comes down to if you want to be off the grid or not. If you’re going to be off the grid or might be some day, propane or natural gas is the way to go.

If you’re going to be in one spot and have a gas delivery truck fill up a larger tank, natural gas is most likely the way to go. If you’re on the go or just getting your own gas, I’d suggest propane because it’s more readily available.

If you’re on the grid, the electric models from Rheem are really nice and super compact, plus there are no gas lines to mess with — a bonus in my book since running gas lines can be dangerous and always makes me nervous.

Off-Grid Hot Water Heating

Off-Grid Hot Water Heating

Much to my point above, if you’re going to be off the grid, a gas option is really your best bet. I crunched the numbers on what it would cost to add additional solar panels to my system to offset the need for propane and it was going to cost me an additional $15,000 just to have an electric hot water heater.

I like to keep in mind that my house is totally off the grid, running on solar power, so I’m already treading very lightly on the earth. If I use 80lbs of propane per year, I’m still much better than most out there.

Many people ask about heating their tiny house and their water with a wood stove, but my advice is to avoid this unless you already live with a wood stove that is your primary source of heat. Wood stoves are often romanticized by people when designing their tiny house. The reality is that you’ll be waking up to a pretty cold house each morning, hot water won’t be ready for at least an hour, and it doesn’t heat much water to begin with.

Go with a gas option for heating water off the grid — you’ll thank me later.

solar power for tiny houses

Hot Water Heater Venting

Hot Water Heater Venting

If you have a hot water heater that is installed inside your tiny house, you’ll need to vent it if it uses any form of combustion. Venting isn’t something to take lightly because there are so many ways to do it wrong and mistakes can lead to deadly results.

Vents are usually metal ducting that captures fumes and exhaust from your hot water heater and directs them outside. They may also have an air inlet to bring in fresh air for combustion.

Venting usually has a lot of technical parameters from the manufacturer around how far the vent tube can stretch, the type of ducting you use, offsets or clearances from combustibles materials, and other technical bits to make sure you do it right.

I prefer to have outdoor mounted hot water heaters because it avoids all the headaches and potential dangers. If you do decide to use a unit that requires venting, follow the manufacturers directions carefully.

Preventing Freezing

Preventing a hot water heater from freezing

Another area that you can go wrong with hot water heaters in a tiny house is having pipes freeze. Most units today have some sort of frost prevention mechanisms, usually a heating coil for outdoor mounted units. Indoor mounted units don’t really have to worry about this.

If you live in a very cold climate, indoor mounted options might make a lot of sense, even if it’s an indoor mount in an unheated enclosure that’s been insulated well. The best advice I’d say is to follow local wisdom on how to prevent freezing.

You want to try to minimize the PEX lines outside your heated space and, where possible, insulate and apply heating strip tape to them for frost prevention.

Your Turn!

  • What are your plans for your tiny house hot water heater?

Solar Panels For Tiny Houses: How I Went Off Grid With My Tiny House With Solar Power

Solar Panels For Tiny Houses: How I Went Off Grid With My Tiny House With Solar Power

solar power for tiny houses

It’s hard to imagine that I’ve been powering my tiny house off solar panels for my tiny house for over 7 years now! Not having a power bill for almost a decade has been incredible. With that in mind, I wanted to get some real-world experience with my system to give you all the full picture of what it’s really like to power your tiny house with solar: how many panels, how much does it cost, and more.

 

Solar Panels For A Tiny House

choosing solar panels for a tiny house

Many people have asked me about putting solar panels on a tiny house because I’m one of the few out there that is totally off the grid in my tiny house. I’ve had to figure things out like how to run my air conditioning off solar, how to cook with solar in a solar oven, and how I use solar generators as backup power in a pinch.

Tiny houses are a great candidate for solar power because the smaller space makes for low power needs. While the traditional home in America uses around 30 KWs per day, my tiny house uses around 3 KWs per day.

Every decision I made during my tiny house build, from choosing LEDs lights, to a super-efficient minisplit system, and an on demand hot water heater all were chosen to reduce my power consumption. Since I built my own house, these decisions were pretty simple and, in the end, didn’t cost me much more. Any additional costs for things like a high SEER rating HVAC system quickly paid for themselves by letting me have a smaller solar panel array and batteries.

How Much Power Does A Tiny House Use?

A tiny house will use around 4 KWs per day. Typically, around 80% of that power will be used for heating and cooling, assuming you cook and heat water with propane or natural gas.

Here is an example of my power usage breakdown:

  • Minisplit (heating/cooling): 3,000 watts per day
  • Fridge: 780 watts per day
  • Lights: 100 watts per day
  • Cell Phone: 30 watts per day
  • Laptop: 240 watts per day

Total: 4,150 watts per day

How Many Panels Do You Need To Power A Tiny House?

how many solar panels for a tiny house

15 solar panels will power a typical tiny house. This assumes an average sized solar panel of around 300 watts, which would generate around 4,500 watts of power from the sun. This would cover all your power needs including some heating and cooling, but require you to have a gas cook range and a propane heated hot water heater. If you live in a particularly cold climate, you’ll most likely need to supplement your heating with a propane heater too.

How many solar panels can you fit on a tiny house roof?

how many solar panels can you fit on a tiny house

Generally speaking, you can only fit around 2 solar panels on a tiny house roof. This presents a real challenge because today you can really only expect to make around 20 watts per square foot of solar panel in ideal circumstances. That means you’re only going to be able to fit around 600 watts of solar production on a tiny house roof, which isn’t a whole lot.

Mounting Solar Panels On A Tiny House Roof

mounting solar panels on a tiny house

Many people want solar panels on the roof of their tiny house, but I opted for a ground mounted solar array, which I highly recommend. Tiny house roofs only have around 200 square feet of space and since most roofs are pitched, you can really only mount panels on one side. This means you only have around 100 square feet of space for panels.

What I did was mount my solar panels on stands on the ground. After considering all the options: roof mounted, pole mounted, solar trackers, and fixed ground mount, I’m really happy with my decision.

solar panels for homestead

The benefits of a ground mounted array are huge: being able to easily clean my panels, clear off snow that covers my panels after a snow fall, keeping the panels cooler (increases their efficiency) and being able to shade my house while placing the panels in an open field.

The biggest benefit of ground mounting my panels is that I could have a way bigger solar panel array. This meant instead of 600 watts on the roof of my tiny house, I could put 4,000 watts on the ground in the field right next to my tiny house.

My Tiny House Solar Panel System:

My tiny house solar panels system

To get your tiny house setup on solar you’ll need the following parts: your panels, batteries, a charge controller and an inverter. Simply put, your solar panels take the energy from the sun an converts it to DC power, that then flows to the charge controller which regulates the flow of power to the batteries or the inverter, the batteries stores power for later and the inverter converts the DC power to AC power, which your house uses.

solar panel system parts list

Here’s the key details of my solar power system:

  • 3,975 (3.9 KW) of panels Schneider SW 4024 – fifteen, 265 watt panels
  • 1,110 amp/hr battery storage
  • 24 volt system

My Tiny House Solar Setup:

  • (15) Canadian Solar CS-6p 265 Watt Poly Black Frame
  • Schneider SW 4024 Inverter
  • Schneider MPPT 60 Charge Controller
  • (12) Trojan L-16 6v 370 AH Flooded Lead Acid Batteries
  • Schneider System Control Panel
  • Schneider Interconnect Panel
  • Midnight Solar MNPV 80AMP Dinrail Breaker
  • Midnight Solar Surge Protection Device AC/DC
  • 50 Amp RV power Inlet

 

How To Build A Solar Power System For Your Tiny House

how to build a tiny house solar panel system

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 tool for calculating solar gain

 

Calculating Power Production

calculating your power needs

Once you upload the image into the software and then trace the tree line 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. Then it spits out all the calculations:

solar pathfinder reading from photo

solar power production chart

 

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 300 lbs each so I don’t have to worry about the 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. If I remember correctly it was about $500 in materials to build this part.

solar panel supports for panels

Many people have asked why I didn’t mount these on my tiny house roof. 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 are 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

solar panels outside my tiny house

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 an icy roof… No Thanks.

Choosing To Wire For AC Or DC From Solar

wire your home for AC or DC on solar

Many people have read around the internet that DC (direct current) is a more efficient power way to power things. Generally speaking, everything in a traditional house is wired for AC (alternating current), but if you’re putting solar in a tiny house and building your own house, the question becomes relevant when you’re starting from scratch. Solar panels produce DC power, so you have to decide how you’re going to handle it.

tiny house kitchen powered by solar

Most of the advice to wire a house for DC power comes from older sources who haven’t updated; these could be old articles written on the topic (consider anything more than a year out of date with how fast solar is improving) or from someone who hasn’t caught up with the latest equipment.

Back in the days, the drive to wire a house in DC power comes from two main things: there was power loss through inefficient inverters (converts from DC to AC) and from the fact that on paper DC is, in fact, more efficient.

Where this falls down in modern times is that inverters have come a long way and while there is some loss in power through the converting of AC to DC, it’s quite minimal. The other factor here is that any inefficiencies (of both the conversion to AC and the less efficient nature of AC) can be easily offset by the addition of 1-2 panels to your array.

This begins to make even more practical sense today because if you wire for DC, you’ll be limited to DC powered appliances, which typically cost two to three times the cost of their AC equivalents. That all means that you can actually have more power with AC, even after the losses through inefficiency, for less money. This is because the savings from going to AC appliances over DC will leave you with more cash, even after you buy 1-2 more panels.

To put it simply, convert to AC, add a few more panels to your array and stop worrying about AC vs DC.

Installing Solar Panels For My Tiny House

Installing Solar panels for my tiny house

After calculating the ideal location and building my stands, I installed the solar 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.

Building My Battery And Inverter Cabinet

building a cabinet for my batteries and inverter

Next, I built a cabinet to house all the gear. I wanted a stand alone space because the batteries are so heavy. At 118 pounds 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 for a very important reason.

solar power cabinet

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, possibly leading to an explosion. To take care of this I installed two vents like this which provide adequate venting.

battery vent

 

Choosing Batteries For A Tiny House Solar Panel System

choosing batteries

I choose lead acid 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, around $10,000 for the equivalent capacity. I choose these 6 volt batteries because it was more economical over other options and trojan is a pretty reputable name in the industry.

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 $5,000 of the lead acid variety.

solar batteries for a tiny house

 

Wiring My Batteries For 24 Volts

wiring batteries for 24 volt

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 volts over a 48 volt (which is more efficient) was that the equipment was a little cheaper and it allowed me to future proof my setup.

Future Proofing My Solar Panel System

future proofing my solar setup

Going with a 24 volt system also 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. A big draw for me to the system I choose was that 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.

Wiring A Tiny House For Solar

wire for a tiny house for solar

In this photo going left to right: Din Breaker Panel, Charge Controller, Interconnect w/ control panel, inverter.

solar power connection panels

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 the type of power you need

 

How To Connect Solar To A Tiny House

how to connect a tiny house to a solar array

Once the power goes through the system it outputs from the inverter as AC power. This AC Power flows out through a huge cable that you can see sticking out of the bottom of the inverter then goes right. From there it runs to this:

This is a 50 amp RV style plug. The reason I did this was twofold. 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 into a power source, you have exposed conductors that are live; accidentally touch them, you complete the circuit and zap!

how to connect solar panels to a tiny house

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 guides you 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.

Grounding Your Solar Array

grounding solar panels

Here is my grounding wire for my system. This is actually one of two, another is located at the panels themselves. 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, it’s very important.

ground solar panels

Using A Backup Generator

using a backup generator

The other component of this system is the generator which I used for the first two years and then opted to upgrade my system because they were such a pain to use. In the winter months, I sometimes needed to top off my batteries every now and then, basically when it’s been really cold and very cloudy for a week or more.

I had a Honda EB2000i already which I really like. It’s very quiet 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. To charge my batteries, I had to have 240 Volts, which lead me to get another generator, a 5500 watt 240 volt Generac for $650. This generator proved to be a major headache and lead me to upgrade my system just to not have to use it anymore.

Here is a video that compares the two generators in terms of size, noise, output, and price.

Tiny House Solar Panel System Costs

how much does solar for a tiny house cost

The big question when it comes to doing solar or not is of course cost. Everyone would like to have solar, but costs are a real barrier. My decision was made pretty easily when the power company informed me that I would have to pay $15,000 just to run their power line to my house, only to have a power bill each month.

My initial version of my solar panel array and batteries cost me around $14,000 with the added benefit of no power bills ever again and a $7,500 tax credit back, the decisions was a simple one. I later upgraded to a larger system for another $5,000, of which I got another $2,500 tax credit.

So, for me, I was able to actually save money from day one. That said, I had to bank roll that huge cash payment which most people cannot do.

Here is a rough break down of costs for my upgraded solar panel system:

  • Inverter: $4,500
  • Charge Controllers: $1,200
  • Control Panel: $300
  • Batteries: $4,000
  • Solar Panels: $4,000
  • Breakers + Boxes: $800
  • Battery Cabling: $300
  • PV Wire + House Tether + Romex: $500
  • Electrician (labor): $2,000

Is Solar Practical For Tiny Houses?

can you run a tiny house on solar

In general, I think for tiny houses in one spot, solar is very realistic. Even if you don’t start out on solar, the cost savings of living in a tiny house can let you save up for the install pretty quickly. When I rented an apartment, I was paying $1500 a month, compared to my tiny house that costs me about $15 a month (not a typo). Living in a tiny house allowed me to save a ton of money while having a comfortable home.

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.

Your Turn!

  • Do you want to do solar for your tiny house?

 

Shedding Light on Solar Generators: Are Portable Solar Generators Worth the Investment?

Shedding Light on Solar Generators: Are Portable Solar Generators Worth the Investment?

Shedding Light On Solar Generators

I get asked a lot about solar generators when people find out I’ve been off the grid full time since 2013. People want to know if a portable solar generator will work for their needs, how to find the best solar powered generator, and how to determine the wattage and size needed. There is a lot of confusing information out there and the fast pace of solar innovation makes it hard to keep up with.

Jakery solar generatorUsually, the people drawn to portable solar generators are beginners in the solar world. It’s often the guy who lives in a typical house, but who would like to start dabbling in solar power. He might have a goal to live in a tiny house someday, or even to purchase a full solar panel system to power his regular-sized home.

It’s important to note the term “solar generator” is a bit of a misnomer. Usually, what people are referring to is a power pack with solar panels. It’s either a setup you can piece together yourself or purchase off the shelf. These are low-power units. They can also get expensive since they’re a turnkey solution, but they’re an excellent way to dip a toe in the world of solar.

solar panel arraySwitching to solar panels completely, without experience, is quite a daunting task (especially if you’re trying to power a typical-sized home). It’s also a significant investment, which I’m all too aware of after writing a $19,000 check for my solar panel system for my tiny house. But after getting over the initial pain of paying so much money for my system, it’s definitely worth it. In fact, it’s hard to describe how awesome it is–I literally haven’t paid a power bill for years! Not to mention that 55% of my system was eligible for a tax credit.

That’s why solar powered generators are a nice way to explore the world of solar without a huge commitment or undertaking. Most of the people asking about solar generators possess a DIY outlook. They’re often wondering if solar is something they can set up on their own. If they purchase a Harbor Freight kit, can they build a small solar power system themselves?

So, are solar generators really worth the investment? Here’s what you need to know before you spend the money on a portable solar generator.

Managing Expectations About Solar Generators

managing expectations on solar generators

My biggest piece of advice to anyone exploring solar generators or solar power, in general, is to keep your expectations realistic. Now, I’ve been on solar power for years, and I really like my system. That said, it was a lot of work and a big investment to set up. There are also limitations.

With a solar panel system, there will be adjustments to your lifestyle that is required when you go off the grid:

  • Bad Weather – if it’s cloudy for a week straight, you might be reaching for a blanket as your battery wanes.
  • Snow – Are you ready to get out and clean snow off your panels in a blizzard?
  • Something breaks – there is no power company to call, if your power goes out, it’s up to you.
  • Maintenance – Batteries to fill, terminals to clean, fuses to change, and panels to clean.

Before you go fully solar, a portable solar generator is an excellent gateway option. It allows you to explore the fundamentals of solar power generation and to understand how the larger systems work. It also lets you get an idea of the capacity (on a small scale) so you can scale up later. This is really useful because you begin to really grasp what you need to do different things.

How to run a tiny house on solar

Now, I’ll be honest, the smallest solar powered generators aren’t super useful. The smallest ones can’t charge more than a cell phone or a small laptop. Don’t expect that a small investment or even a small DIY solar generator kit is going to get you enough power to live off the grid or run your household appliances.

Most small solar generators are under 500 Watts (typically around 2-300 Watts). You’ll invest $500+ or so for the battery and power pack, and you’ll need one or two panels at $3-400 each. These solar generators won’t work for running your stove or your air conditioner (for those larger items, you’ll need a full solar panel system).

Figure where a traditional larger scale system with lead acid batteries you can get it for $1 per watt, in a solar generator you should expect to spent $2-$3 per watt because it’s turn key and often uses lithium ion batteries which are higher performing.

What Are Portable Solar Generators Good For?

What are solar generators good for?

Where portable solar generators really perform is when you’re camping, or if there’s an emergency. If you’re stuck in a hurricane or there’s a big power outage in your city, then a small solar powered generator is great to own. People often purchase them for emergency preparedness kits and shelters. You may not power your whole house on it, but at least you’ll get light and the ability to power your small electronics, which is lifesaving in certain scenarios.

These little solar generators are also handy for tailgating and camping. If you own an RV or a teardrop-trailer, you can use the portable solar generator to power your needs for a weekend trip. They’re excellent for keeping your phone charged or running a small amount of power to an item (like a light). If you tailgate often, a solar generator will easily keep your radio going without draining your car battery during the game.

What can you power with a solar generator?

Possible

  • Small Fans
  • LED Lights
  • Laptop charger

Maybe Possible

  • Television
  • Mini Fridge
  • Microwave

Not Possible

  • Refrigerator
  • AC Unit
  • Furnace

Solar generators work great for small fans, LED lights, charging your small portable electronics, and other small, low-power tasks. Some high-efficiency televisions work well with solar powered generators. You can charge a laptop or tablet with a solar generator, too.

I’ve also known many construction workers and builders who love these portable solar generators for keeping their tools charged on the job. It’s great to use a solar generator at a building site as a continuous source of power for battery driven drills, saws, power tools, and small pieces of equipment. Solar powered generators are perfect if your build-site is away from a power source and you’re working for a few days. If you’re building a cabin or a tiny house in a rural spot, then a solar generator will help keep your tools going.

There are also many jobs where a solar generator won’t cut it. These items require too much power to run efficiently (or even at all) on a portable solar generator.

Things that won’t run well on a portable solar generator include:

  • Anything with a heating element: Coffee pots, hairdryers/straighteners, hot plates, toaster ovens.
  • Small appliances: Microwaves, slow cookers, blenders.
  • Large electronics: Desktop computers, game consoles, and some projectors.
  • Heating and air conditioning: Any size AC unit (window or otherwise), heaters of any size.
  • Refrigeration: A small modern fridge will only run a few hours on a large solar generator.

Like most jobs, it’s all about having the right tool. This is advice I preach in any scenario: if you want to do a good job, you need to invest in the right tools. If you pick the wrong tool for the job, it won’t perform up to your expectations.

How a Solar Generator Works

How do solar generators work?

solar generator parts list

The battery is a power bank. Depending on the voltage of your battery, it holds power until you’re ready to plug-in and run your device. These batteries are also used to charge phone, computer, and power tool battery packs as well. Solar batteries are often finicky and delicate. While many of these solar generators use higher quality lithium ion batteries, it’s still best to use caution so you don’t damage them.

When people think of solar, they forget about the battery component, but it’s essential. If your power source is the sun, then what do you do on a cloudy day? What happens at night? Solar isn’t consistent. The battery stores the power, so it’s available whenever you need it. If the sun is making enough power, then it’s shunting the energy into the item you’re powering. If you overuse your solar source, then your generator goes into the battery.

The other component of a solar generator is the inverter. The inverter converts DC (direct current) power into AC power, which is used by most tools and appliances. AC typically runs at 110-240 volts in the USA, so the inverter ramps up the voltage from the battery to 100-240 volts.

running air conditioning with solar panels

Some people prefer the DIY approach to solar generators. They buy the base pieces of a DIY system and put it together themselves. This is certainly possible, but it’s often a challenging project for a beginner. What I’ve seen happen time and time again is people start down the DIY path but get frustrated and go out and buy an off-the-shelf solar generator instead.

How to Decide Which Solar Generator You Want and Need

what is the best solar generator to get?

If you’ve weighed out the pros and cons of solar generators and feel like you have a realistic idea of what you need (and what the solar generator can do), it’s time to decide which solar powered generator is best for you.

My biggest recommendation for anyone looking to switch to solar power is to figure out precisely what you want to charge first. Determine your power requirements (what’s sometimes called your power profile). What is the breakdown of exactly what you need to charge and plan to use when you use your solar generator?

To figure this out, I’ve created a workbook to help you determine your exact power consumption. Exploring your needs first is such a critical step, even if you’re starting with a portable solar generator because these are big purchases. Even a small solar generator with panels and a power bank will cost you a significant amount. You’ll want to get exactly what you need upfront before you invest a few thousand dollars on something that can’t do more than recharge your phone or run an LED light.

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Once you’ve decided what you want to charge and exactly what size solar generator you need, it’s time to determine your approach Are you more of a DIY type? Do you feel comfortable buying the pieces and building a solar generator yourself, or would you feel more comfortable with an off-the-shelf generator system?

If you buy off the shelf, it’s important to ask the following questions:

  • Can you plug it into the wall with a power manager for back up?
  • Does it do what you need it to do?
  • Is it compatible with other connectors and components or does it only use proprietary components?
  • Is it portable enough for your needs?
  • Can it be charged by a wall socket, car outlets, and solar panels?
  • Does it come with a wide range of power hookups?
  • Can you daisy-chain panels to get more power?

Buying off-the-shelf is a great option, but it’s important to note that different brands use different proprietary connectors (so you must buy their brand’s solar panels and components). Always check before you start investing in a product that won’t work with components you already own.

Solar Generators To Compare

Comparing solar generators

When it comes to solar generators, there are three leading brands out there: Jackery, Goal Zero, and Inergy. Here’s what I’ve learned about each brand to help you compare.

Jackery Explorer

Jackery has three sizes of portable power stations (100 Watt, 240 Watt, and 500 Watt). I had the opportunity to check out the Jackery Explorer 500 Watt Portable Power Station as well as the Jackery Solarsaga 100 Watt Solar Panel. The Power Station looks a bit like a fancy lunchbox with a battery and a bunch of power hookups. This worked well.

The one feature that made this solar generator my preferred choice was that all the connectors were standardized. Other companies used proprietary connectors which was an instant deal breaker for me, making Jackery an easy choice.

Jackery Solar generator
Some aspects I really liked about the Jackery Solar Generator:

  • Doesn’t use proprietary connectors.
  • Well-built, with a robust solar panel (this one impressed me with it’s sturdiness).
  • Compact and easy to use.
  • Lightweight (the Power Station is 13.32 pounds).
  • LCD screen with charge/discharge data and battery life status.
  • Quiet operation.
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Goal Zero Yeti

Goal Zero offers an array of Yeti power stations. These power stations mainly feature lithium batteries and are available in a range of prices and capacity. They’re built to pair with the Goal Zero solar panels, but with some configuring, they can also pair with other panels.

Goal Zero solar generator kits
Some pros and cons of the Goal Zero Yeti systems:

  • Portable and most include Wi-Fi capabilities, as well.
  • Overall positive reviews on the Goal Zero products.
  • Not recommended for radio communications.
  • Concerns about the AC inverter not holding up and shorter battery life.
  • Configuration is necessary to pair with other brand solar panels.
  • Widely available on Amazon, REI, and other retailers.
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Inergy Apex

The Inergy Apex Portable Power Station (previously Kodiak) also has positive reviews. The Apex offers a peak 1,500 Watt pure sine wave inverter and 1,100 Watt-hours of peak battery capacity. It’s also lightweight and compact.

Inergy solar generators
Some pros and cons of the Inergy APEX Portable Power Station:

  • Portable and lightweight.
  • Optional battery expansion option, which is helpful for upgrades and kits.
  • Doesn’t support the Neutrik adapter for third party panels.
  • 500 Watt max output.
  • Reliable and durable according to reviews.
  • The LCD screen is easy to read.
  • Quiet operation.
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When it comes to solar generators, my biggest word of advice is to manage your expectations. You aren’t going to be able to run your refrigerator, blender, microwave, and television on a solar generator. It’s not going to happen. You can, however, use a solar generator to learn how solar works. It can help you get used to the quirks of relying on solar power before you scale up to a full system.

Solar generators are great for camping, charging tools, and for hobbyists. If solar energy is something that interests you and you don’t know where to start, solar powered generators are a cool option to explore.

Your Turn!

  • Have you ever used a portable solar generator?
  • What would you like to power with a solar generator?