Posts Tagged Power

How to Run Air Conditioning On Solar Power

How to Run Air Conditioning On Solar Power

Today I wanted to share information about running air conditioning on solar power.

When I was first planning to move into my tiny house, considering the possibility of running a solar powered air conditioner and cooling system weighed heavily on my mind. After all, living in a humid state, I’ll tell you, I’m one who can’t tolerate the heat. This is especially true, coming from New Hampshire—I’m a cold weather guy and here in North Carolina, it gets hot! An AC unit is critical, even if you’re running on solar power.

How to Run Air Conditioning On Solar Power

Well, Charlotte’s heat really came full force this week.  I know for many their climate doesn’t get as humid as it does here, so there are other options besides running a house air conditioner. Unfortunately, here, it’s necessary.  Without AC I can’t really sleep, even using a fan to passively cool the house.

Right now, the humidity is still tolerable, but it’s HOT and the humidity is coming soon.  It has been in the high 80’s and low 90’s outside, which made my house in the mid 90’s inside.

So, what are the tiny house air conditioner solutions? How do you cool off your tiny house (even off the grid) and beat the heat?

Deciding to Buy a Solar Powered Air Conditioner

I thought I’d do a post today because I’ve been able to run a few real-world experiments with my tiny house and solar powered AC.  I haven’t seen any experienced reporting on the topic of running air conditioning on solar power, so I figured it would be helpful for you all to hear what I did.

When it comes to cooling a tiny house, there are three areas to look at: isolation, such as shade, seals and insulation; ventilation, such as fans and setting open windows for cross-winds; and artificial cooling. Many tiny homes, by their portable nature, don’t have basements, where you can retreat if you need to cool off. Since heat rises and your entire home is above the ground, you need alternative methods to cool down.

Desert-dwellers may be able to rely on swamp coolers and evaporation-based cooling systems Here in the humid part of the world, these setups never work because our air is already humid. It’s impossible to cool humidity with MORE humidity.

Isolation, using shade and insulation to your advantage, is important if you live in off the grid. You can keep your house fairly cool by simply, closing off your space, especially in the heat of the day. This is why I decided to park my tiny house under the trees for shade and run my solar panels in the wide-open field.  While these methods help and should be employed, of course, chances are you’ll still need to rely on a solar powered air conditioner system to get through the hottest days.

After doing my research on what unit would work best with my solar panel set up and power levels. I ordered my unit before I found an installer. I have yet to hook up my mini split air conditioning system (see the update below where I talk about life on solar with my mini split) because it has taken me a long time to find a HVAC installer who would install my mini split AC. As I discovered after buying my mini split unit, most installers insist they need to sell you the air conditioning equipment if they are going to install it. Obviously, this was an unknown factor to me when I ordered my house air conditioning unit…but these are the bumps in the road you experience when you live The Tiny Life.

Fujitsu air conditioning system.

Fujitsu Air Conditioning System

How Much Power Does an Air Conditioner Use?

For heating and cooling, I opted for the Fujitsu 9RLS2 which is a 9,000 BTU Ductless Mini Split Air Conditioner Heat Pump System with a SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) rating of 27.  To give you an idea, older, less efficient mini split air conditioning systems have a SEER rating of around 8 to 10. Modern air conditioning systems, labeled highly efficient may have a rating of 15 or so, but most today are around 12-13.

The SEER rating was very important because my tiny house solar panel system simply couldn’t handle the less efficient cooling systems.  The SEER rating is determined by BTUs (British Thermal Units) to Watts.  The higher the number, the better.

The other big reason I choose this particular mini split air conditioning unit versus a standard window air conditioner was aesthetics.  My air handler is wall mounted, out of the way and above eye level.  This has a few advantages. First, it keeps my limited square footage clear of clutter. Secondly, it keeps my windows looking nice because there’s no window unit blighting a good design. Lastly, keeping it above eye level also helps you forget about it because as humans we don’t often look up.

Tiny House Friendly Air Conditioning

While I’m working on getting an HVAC installer lined up to put in my Fujitsu Air Conditioning System, I’m using a portable air conditioner, which has worked pretty well.  The downside to using a portable AC unit is it takes up a lot of space and it’s not as efficient. The portable AC unit I’m using has a SEER rating of 12, which means my new mini split system will be 225% more efficient once it’s installed.

UPDATE:  It’s been several years now since I first wrote this post and I’ve been living full time totally off the grid and it’s wonderful.  I was able to find an installer to pull the vacuum in my system and this thing cools like a dream.

During the summer the AC pulls between 450 watts and 700 watts, on “powerful” mode it draws about 1,000 watts.  As a side note for heat, it pulls about 700 watts to 1,000 watts, 1,100 on “powerful”.

If I had to do things all over again I’d go with a Mitsubishi brand mini split over the Fujitsu, because they seem to be a bit more well-designed. The Mitsubishi has also the critical feature of auto dry, which dries the coil of moisture before shutting down.  I’ve had to clean my coils several times in the 5 years and a drying feature would almost eliminate this.

Stress Testing My Portable AC Unit and Solar Panel Power System

I decided to “stress test” my solar panel system by turning the portable AC unit on high and setting the thermostat to 60 degrees. I wanted to see how long it would take for my solar panel system batteries to bottom out (50% discharge).  The charge controller on my solar panel system automatically turns off the power to my house if the batteries power discharges down to 50%. This automatic shut off on the solar panel system prevents damage to the batteries by discharging too deep.

Solar panel batteries and a chart of number of cycles and depth of discharge to determine battery life.

As you see by the chart above, keeping battery discharge at 50% or above gives me a little shy of 2,000 cycles or 5.4 years for the life of my batteries.  I plan to add another set of four batteries to the solar panel system pretty soon, which will give me improved capacity and keep my discharge rate much higher than 50% (though I don’t often get that low).  In about 5 more years we should start seeing really interesting battery technologies hit the market. This should coincide with the life of my current batteries, so I plan to hop on these new technologies as soon as my batteries begin to fade.

UPDATE:  It’s been several years now since I posted this. Last year I bit the bullet and added 6 more solar panels and 4 more batteries.  This was mainly to avoid needing a generator in the winter months because they’re a royal pain.  Cooling my house in the summer is still pretty simple since my house is so small.  I usually turn my air conditioner on when I get home and shut it off when I leave.  This allows the batteries to fully recharge and doesn’t really impact cooling.

My solar panel battery stress test was an interesting experiment. I ran the less efficient, portable air conditioner for three days solid, starting with a very warm house.  At the end of the three days, I was very close to hitting 50% on my battery reserve, but it didn’t ever dip below that threshold.  I decided, after three days, the test had gone on long enough to get an accurate reading and I stopped the test.  I typically turn off the AC whenever I’m gone.

Following the test, the past few days were a bit trickier because since my solar panel battery system was so low, I needed it to build back up. Unfortunately, we had a series of cloudy days, making it tough to get more energy.  While I’ve had plenty of power to run the AC overnight, the battery reserve is lower than I’d like.  To give you an idea: on a normal sunny day my solar panel power system makes about 8,000 Watts, but on a cloudy day (when the clouds are very thick with no gaps) I get between 2,000 and 4,000 Watts.

The Advantage of Solar Powered Air Conditioning

When it’s hottest and the sun is shining the brightest, I can make lots of power!  This allows me to run the AC full blast to keep my house nice and cool. Even with the air conditioner on high my solar panel system still makes enough power to add 2,000 Watts into the batteries. Compare this to heating, where you often need the heat the most at night when the sun isn’t out. This results in a major drain on your batteries.  Compounding the issue of running heating off solar panel energy, heaters are more energy intensive than cooling and air conditioning units.

The other night I decided to conduct another experiment.  I got my house very cold by running the AC unit. Then, I turned off the cool air at midnight (when I usually go to bed).  Outside it was about 65 degrees and about 45% humidity–so not bad.  I left all the windows closed to see how much my body heat would warm up the house. In the summer, opening the windows doesn’t often doesn’t help anyway, even if it is cooler outside because the humidity increases the “feels like” temperature.

As it turns out in just three hours my body heat warmed up the loft of my tiny house to the point I woke up from being so uncomfortable from the heat!  Around 3:30 am I woke up and it was very hot in my loft.  I checked the time and was surprised how little time it took.  I should note when I fall asleep, I usually stay asleep all night, even if I get warm. The fact I woke up from the heat, shows how uncomfortable it was in my loft because it takes a lot!

Fortunately, I had prepared for this and all I did was crank open my skylight (the highest point in my house) and the loft end window. I switched on a fan to draw in cool air.  Within 5 minutes the whole place dropped about 5 degrees and I was back asleep.

So that has been my real-world experiences with the tiny house, AC units and solar panel power systems.  I know I had always been frustrated by not enough stories and real-life examples of AC and cooling issues, so hopefully my story will help others.

Key resources for those wanting more technical stuff:

 

 

Common Off Grid Living Misconceptions

It’s been a full year since I moved out of my apartment and into my tiny house, with that came the shift to living off grid.  Many of you have read my tiny house solar posts which talks about all the nitty gritty details of my solar panel system, if not, check it out because I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback on it.  Now that I’ve done this for a while it’s become very clear what I got wrong and what others non-off-griders (grid muggles?) about off grid living.  I can now spot a grid muggle a mile away when they start talking about living off the grid.  Here are some of the misconceptions you learn about when you go off grid.

Harbor Freight solar kits is all I need!

I hear this all the time from folks, “I’m going to get one of those Harbor Freight solar kits to power my house”.  These kits are great, if you only need 45 watts, which really is only good for changing a laptop (30 watts) and cell phone (5 watts), maybe some power drill batteries; all of these things are insanely lower power consumption.  If you need to run much more, these system will leave you very disappointed, cold, hungry, and in the dark.

Clothes washing is easy… right?

Time and time again people geek out over various contraptions for washing your clothes.  I’ve seen them all, the plunger looking things, fancy peddle powered spinning ball gyros, and  hand crank counter top tumblers.  The truth is hand washing clothes isn’t terribly difficult; sure a normal washer is easier, but barring that, I’ve found a tub or large sink really works great.  You can always spot the people who’ve never actually done it because they talk about washing clothes while true off gridders talk about drying clothes.

Drying clothes in an off grid setting in a tiny house is a royal pain.  It’s fine if the weather is nice out, but if it’s really humid, or freezing cold, or worse, raining, you can forget about having dry clothes.  What it really means is for about half the year you get dry clothes, the rest of the year you’ll have mostly dry clothes that you’ll give up and put on because everything is still damp and you need to leave the house.

Drying racks are great if you have just a few things to dry because you can rig something in your shower.  But when you’re talking about a full load, it means you have to setup your drying rack inside your tiny house, which takes up most of your living space, then you need to let it dry in a day or two.  This typically translates into perpetually having your drying rack out, which makes the tiny house much less livable.

The ideal option would be to have a small outbuilding where you could setup a clothes line and have a wood stove in the corner.  You could also do what I do, head to a laundry mat or pay a laundry service.  After doing laundry by hand for 3 months while living in Croatia, I’ve since transitioned to doing my laundry in a normal washer and dryer.  Here in Charlotte I can have my laundry washed, dried and folded for $2.50 a lb, which as someone who loathes folding clothes, is so worth it.

Roof top mounted solar panels

The weird thing about solar is mounting on the panels on the roof is one the worst places you could put them.  By their nature roofs are hot, which heat decreases the efficiency of solar panels.  They are high up, so they are hard to get to in order to maintain, brush off snow and clean grime that builds up over time. Finally, on a tiny house the space you have to deal with is very small, because tiny houses have tiny roofs.

If you’re going to be traveling a lot with your tiny house, roof top is very practical, but you’re going to be hard pressed to do any sort of heating or cooling with that few panels.  The best option is ground mount if you can swing it.  You can access it easily to clean off snow and grime, you can easily inspect it and fix things for maintenance.

Not having backups… for everything

When you are your own power source, there is no power company to call when things go wrong.  In most cases that’s a good thing because you often find yourself at their mercy and if you’re in a remote location, at the bottom of the priority list.

It also means that if something goes wrong, say the morning you have an important meeting to get to, you still need to make breakfast, take a shower, and do what you need to do.  To this end I have backups for each of my main systems:

Thinking you can live off grid with no propane

I hate the fact that I need to use propane, but its an absolute necessity.  Of course if you have $50,000 to spend on your solar system, you wouldn’t need propane, but most folks don’t.  Even my system, which is around $20,000, couldn’t come close to powering a hot water heater or stove/oven.  The one exception to this might be if you have a really good hydro power turbine, then maybe, but that’s dependent on you having flowing water and a large drop, very difficult to find when buying land.

The one thing with all of this is how appreciative and grateful I have become for fossil fuels, they are a true miracle.  They don’t come without their consequences, but the fact that I can pay $2.50 for a liquid, put it into my car and it takes me 50 miles in less than an hour… have you ever had to walk 50 miles?  I have gone on multi night backpacking trips over 50 miles, fossil fuels are a true small miracle.

You could potentially get away with no propane if you did wood heat and had a water heater exchange on it, but honestly the idea of waking up 2 hours before I need to leave every day to make a fire, heat water to shower and cook on, isn’t in the cards.  Even if I had the time to do that, I wouldn’t, I don’t want to spend me entire life chopping wood and stoking a fire, life is way too short.

A wood stove is the dream

This is something that many off gridders have in their cabins, but I personally can’t get into.  When I grew up, I had a wood stove, everyone did when I lived in NH in the 80’s.  I distinctly remember going over to my friend Jimmy’s house and his mother telling us we needed to go chop some wood so we had enough for the night.  Chopping wood, stacking wood, moving wood, building up the fire in the morning: it was just a part of life.

The part that no one talks about how much work it all is. Here’s what every day would be like:

You wake up to a pretty cold house every morning in the winter, dash out of bed to rekindle the fire and put a few logs on the fire.  About an hour later, you can finally take a shower without freezing.  But oh wait, you forgot to fully close the stove and some smoke came back into the house, your work clothes smell like a camp fire.  You head off to work and then come home to a cool home, time to add more wood, but wait you’re out of wood inside.  So you get dressed again to go into the snow, you head to your wood pile and start stacking wood into a wheel barrel.  While you’re loading up, you pull a log to find a snake making it’s move to bite your hand.  You take care of the snake and keep stacking.  Wheel the wood to the door and start carrying it in.  You finally get wood stacked and fire roaring, to turn around and see a trail of destruction where you tracked in mud and dirt from the wood.  You spend the next 15 minutes cleaning the floors.  

Compare that to me:  I walk it, press one button and in three minutes my house is super comfy.  I kick off my shoes, grab a drink and start reading a good book.

Solar tracking is really important

This is another one that I can spot a solar newbie a mile away.  They talk about a pole mounted tracking system, which allows your panels to follow the sun.  But here’s the dirty little secret:  You add one more panel to your system and you’ll make more power and save a lot of money!

Typically solar trackers improve solar gain by about 15-20%, so if your system were to generate 1 KW fixed, it now might do 1.2 KW.  But here’s where it all falls apart.  A solar tracker usually is at least $1000 extra dollars in equipment and you need to pour a large concrete footing for a couple hundred bucks.  Let’s call it $1500 for the whole thing if you do it all yourself.  But if we were to just use a fixed system and buy one or two more panels ($250 a pop) we could increase our system to 1.5 KW in a day.  So for 33% less money I can get around 30% more power AND have no moving parts to break.

DC appliances and propane fridges are worth the money

It is absolutely true that DC is much more efficient and inverting DC to AC takes up some power, but it’s not the only thing to consider.  There is a major myth that is perpetuated from information that was once true, but is now no longer.  The problem is that there are a lot of websites out there with old information.  With recent advances in inverter technology and lower costs for panels, the gap has dramatically decreased.  While it is inefficient to change from DC to AC, you can make up the difference completely by the addition of one or two solar panels.

When you weigh the cost of specialty made DC appliances, for example a Sun Danzer Fridge for $1100, against going regular AC fridge, mine was $130, plus an extra panel, mine are $290 each, the math is simple.  I can add one more panel and save hundreds.

The other part of the story is that a lot of electricians are hesitant to work on DC systems, many won’t.  In addition to that, the market for DC appliances is small; this means less options for a higher price tag.  Going AC give you lots of options, easily sourced electricians and all at a lower price.

My recommendation is to go full AC power and then just add a panel or two to your array.

 

Those are my thoughts on common misconceptions about going off grid

Your Turn!

  • What things have you thought about when going off grid?
  • What surprised you about this list?

My Tiny House Solar Power Setup & How To

I know many of you have been wanting this post for a while, but it’s finally here: my solar panel system for my tiny house.  I wanted to get the feel for what it is like to live off the grid so I could share more details with you all about what it’s really like.

Tiny House solar panels

So first, the high level details of my system:

  • 3,975 (3.9 Kw) of panels – fifteen, 265 watt panels – Canadian Solar
  • Batteries 1,110 amp/hr total – Twelve, 370 amp/hr 6 volt Trojan L16 flooded lead acid (series parallel)
  • Cost for parts about $20,000
  • Off grid, battery bank, plus 5,550 watt backup generator
  • 24 volt system

Specific Parts:

  • (15) Canadian Solar CS-6p 265 Watt Poly Black Frame  (Spec Sheet)
  • (1) Schneider SW 4024 (Spec Sheet)
  • (2) Schneider MPPT 60 Charge Controller (Spec Sheet)
  • (12) Trojan L-16 6v 370 AH Flooded Lead Acid Batteries (Spec Sheet)
  • (1) Schneider System Control Panel (Spec Sheet)
  • (1) Schneider Interconnect Panel (no spec sheet)
  • (1) Midnight Solar MNPV 80AMP Dinrail Breaker (Spec Sheet)
  • (2) Midnight Solar Surge Protection Device AC/DC (no spec sheet)
  • 50 Amp RV power Inlet (Spec Sheet)

Before anything I needed to determine the best placement for the solar panels to make sure it had good solar exposure and didn’t fall into shadows too much.  To do this I used a tool called a “solar path finder” which is a semi reflective dome that you position at the location, then snap a photo.  The photo is then loaded into a program and spits out a whole bunch of calculations.

Solar Path Finder

Solar Path Finder

So once you upload the image into the software and then trace the treeline outline, you enter in your location, date and time.  It then can calculate how much power you’ll produce based on 30 years of weather patterns for your exact location and tree coverage.

My reading with the pathfinder

My reading with the pathfinder

Then it spit out all the calculations:

Solar Power Energy Readings

With that in mind I knew what I could expect out of the system I had designed.  It also was a way to verify my assumptions.

Once I verified that the system was going to be well suited to my needs I had to build my panel support racking.  I did this out of pressure treated 4×4’s that were each 10′ long.  These things about about 300 lbs each so I don’t have to worry about wind picking up the panels.  I opted to build them because it was cheaper than some of the turn-key option out there and most of the for purchase ones required me to cement in the ground; I rent my land, so I wanted a mobile solution.  The racking is technically mobile, but not easily so.  If I remember correctly it was about $500 in materials to build this part.

Installing Solar Panels

Next we installed the panels.  This part was pretty quick and the stands worked out perfectly.  The panels are 250 watt Canadian solar panels.  They are wired in groups of three, then paralleled into the system.  To give you a sense of scale, these panels are 3.3 wide and about 4 feet tall.

Installing Solar Panels

Now I know many people want to know why I didn’t mount these on my roof or could they mount them.  You technically can mount on your roof, but honestly the number of panels that you need to practically power your house is too many for the roof.

There is some other major bonuses of being on the ground:

  • Much cooler, roofs are very hot places in the summer and solar panels drop in efficiency when hot
  • I can put my house under deciduous trees, this means in summer I’m in the shade, in winter I get the solar gain
  • Way easier to clean and monitor

Cleaning your panels is pretty important because you loose efficiency as residue (bird poop) builds up.  Also as I learned just a few days ago, when it snows, you need to clear your panels.  Cleaning becomes super simple and a lot safer when you don’t have to climb onto a roof via a ladder.

Maintaing Solar Panels

Just this week we got a decent snow, 3 inches, which is quite a lot for Charlotte.  The first thing I had to do when I woke up was clear off the panels because with the snow, they made no power.  This was compounded because since it was cold, I needed more heat.  I can’t imagine having to drag the ladder out and try climbing on a icy roof… No Thanks.

Housing your Gear

Next I built a cabinet to house all the gear.  I wanted a stand alone space because the batteries are so heavy.  At 118 pound each, plus cabling and other equipment the whole unit is over 1,100 lbs.   The top and bottom sections are divided so that the gasses from the batteries don’t go up into the electrical section and explode.  More on that later.

Solar Battery Power

The batteries are wired in series parallel.  The batteries are 6 volt each, in series of 4 the create a 24 volt unit, then I have two of these 24 volt units in parallel.  The reason I choose to go 24 volt over a 48 volt (which is more efficient) was because the equipment was a little cheaper, but also it allowed me to select components that I could add more panels and batteries very easily without doing equipment upgrades (just a factor of the abilities of the units I choose).  This way I can add up to 15 panels and a lot more batteries without upgrading the electronics; I can also stack these inverters so if I ever go to a normal sized house, I just add another unit and it just plugs into my current one.

Solar Power Gear

In this photo going left to right: Din Breaker Panel, Charge Controller, Interconnect w/ control panel, inverter.  In general the power flows in the same manner (but not exactly).

  • Breaker Panel: manages power from solar panels
  • Charge Controller: manages power to batteries etc.
  • Interconnect: a main junction box and breaker, holds control panel interface
  • Inverter: takes power in many forms then outputs to they type of power you need

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

Solar Power Plug

This is a 50 amp RV style plug.  The reason I did this was two fold.  City inspectors are less picky when it comes to non-hard wired things.  This setup also lets me roll into any RV campground and hook up seamlessly.

Solar Power Plug

The plug goes into a 50 amp RV female receptacle.  This is important that you don’t have two male ends to your cord.  This is dubbed by electricians as a “suicide cord” because if you plug in to a power source, you have exposed conductors that are live; accidentally touch them, you complete the circuit and zap!

suicide cable, use a male to female cord

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.

Shockingly Simple Electrical by Ryan Mitchell

If all these mentions of watts, volts, amps, amp hours etc are making your head spin a little, you may need to go back to the basics.  I have an ebook called Shockingly Simple Electrical For Tiny Houses which guide your through all the basics.  As of now, it doesn’t go too deep into the solar aspects, but the basics of electrical, wiring, power systems and determining your power needs are covered in depth and designed for those who are totally new to the topic.

Electrical Housing

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.

Electrical housing

Back outside now, looking at the cabinet, on the sides of it, you can see the vents.  When you use lead acid (LA) batteries you have some off gassing as the batteries discharge and recharge.  These gasses are volatile and can ignite, possible leading to an explosion.  So to take care of this I installed two vents like this which provide adequate venting.  As mentioned before my battery section is isolated from the electronics section where a spark could occur.

This off gassing is a concern with Lead Acid Batteries, but other battery technologies don’t have this issue.  I choose LA batteries over AGM (absorbent glass mat) because LA’s have more cycles and cost a bit less.  Lithium Ion at this point is cost prohibitive.  My batteries should get about 4000-5000 cycles (11-14 years) before I need to replace them.  I figure in about 5 years battery technology will have progressed so much I’ll change early.  New batteries will cost me about $4,000 of the LA variety.  Grounding wire

Here is my grounding wire for my system.  This is actually one of two, another is located at the panels them selves.  My house is also grounded to this through the cable hook up and to the trailer itself.  A really important note: ground depends on a lot of things, one of which is if you house electrical panels is bonded or not, if you don’t know what that means, read up on it, its very important.

The other component of this system is the generators.  In the winter months I may need to top off my batteries every now and then, basically when its been really cold and very cloudy for a week or more.  I had a Honda EB2000i already which I really like.  It’s very quite and small.  The one downside to the Honda is that it only does 1600 watts and only 120V and I needed more power and 240V.  So I picked up another generator, a 5500 watt 240 volt Generac for $650.

generac generator

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

So that’s the surface level details of the system, I’m going to be doing something in the future which will be a how to size, choose parts, hook up and all the other details of doing solar for your tiny house, but that is a longer term project, most likely will take about 6 months to pull together in the way I’d like to do it.

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.

First Winter in a Tiny Home: How to prepare

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.

First Winter in a Tiny Home: Preparations

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.

RyansPlace-wKey

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.

water

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.

photo-4

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?
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