Going Off-Grid in a Tiny House

Now that I’ve got you thinking about your winter utilities, you might be thinking about how this translates if you are hoping to take your tiny house off-the-grid, all year round. Buckle up, this article is a long one!

Start by reading our Winter Utility Guide and seeing if the rigors of going off-grid in the winter is for you.

One of the most frequently asked questions I get about tiny houses is about how to go off-grid.

With all the romantic portraits of tiny houses out in the wilderness and all the dubious parking possibilities, it’s a very popular query for good reasons - if you are going to invest in going tiny, you might as well be self-sufficient too! However, as builders, here is our two cents about going off-grid, especially if you are interested in adding that “as a package” to your tiny house design or contract.

First of all, there are two ways to go about going off-grid: you can hire us to design and install the whole system for you or you can install the system yourself after purchase. If we know that you plan on installing the off-grid amenities after you get the house, we can still help you plan where the systems will go and lay the groundwork so your DIY work jives well.

However, it is important to know that, while going off-grid may save you money in the long run, it is not cheap to install and in some cases can be prohibitively expensive. Asking for “off-grid” capabilities may add up to $20,000 to your quote, which can be shocking to some people and leave others scratching their heads thinking, why? All tiny house off-grid systems will require custom work that is individual to your design, needs, and parking location. If you hire professionals to figure this all out for you, you will have to pay them for their time and expertise.

Second, being off-grid is not as easy as being on the grid. When you are on-grid, utilities are simply plug-and-play and can be very hands-off. You don’t have to worry about clearing solar panels, battery venting, porting water, or installing bulky pumps and tanks in your house. You probably won’t have to worry about your resource consumption outpacing your storage abilities, such as using one whole tank’s worth of fresh water to run a cycle on your washing machine. Being on the grid is ideal for people who aren’t very handy, are away from the house for long periods of time, or don’t have the physical ability to handle manual labor tasks day-to-day.

On the grid, we tend not to worry about our utilities. If we pay the bills, the lights are on and the water is flowing. Occasionally, a rare event can halt our service, but we are confident that our providers and the town will fix the problem for us. If you are off-grid, you do not have access to this same reliability of service - you are responsible for everything going right and everything that goes wrong.

In New England, this can spell disaster for your house, your wallet, and even your health. Frozen and burst pipes can cause major damage to your home and running out of propane in the middle of dark winter’s night can be very serious, especially with pets or children in the house. Knowing how to troubleshoot utility system problems is very important. If you choose to go off-grid, please understand the risks and responsibilities you are accepting into your life. Having backup power sources is extremely important. Tiny House Crafters is not responsible for your ability to properly use and maintain your off-grid systems.

So, what does “off-grid” mean?

It means being completely independent of private and public utility services like electricity, water, and phone lines. Being tiny means you will likely have tiny systems, so unless you can spring for site improvements like well or septic installation or leasing large propane tanks, you will have to attend to your resources on a near daily basis. Before discussing off-grid options with your builder, let them know if you will be able to have access to technically off-grid well water or above- or underground propane tanks. While that is technically off-grid, most people who are interested in going tiny are interested in self-contained sustainability options, which is what we will talk about here.

Going off-grid can be great for a tiny house that is always on the move, but it can also be difficult to fit all these systems in a house that needs to keep a small footprint. A full solar system may need panels arranged in a field, gray water may need a branching drain system or under-trailer storage, and fresh water tanks can take up valuable space in the house.

If you want to go off-grid and keep your house self-contained, you may need to compromise by choosing small systems, small appliances, and practicing minimalistic resource consumption. Make sure you communicate your off-grid needs with your builder so they can help you design a system that suits your needs. Also be aware that there may not be a perfect off-grid system for you and your lifestyle and that finding that system may take trial and error.

Fresh Water

We will start with the trickiest off-grid utility of all: fresh water access. If you don’t have a winterized waterline (buried at least 5’ below the frost line), you will likely need to get creative about your fresh water source for some part of the year, possibly the whole year if you are on a completely undeveloped site.

Unfortunately, there is no way around it: if you don’t have access to year round, unfrozen water, at some point you will have to carry in your water by hand.

If this is the case, inside the house (or outside in a shed) you will need to design enough space for a fresh water tank and pump system. The tank should be about 25 to 40 gallons or larger and should be located somewhere nearby to your water heater, either in the bathroom or in a lofted area above the bathroom. Remember, if you are filling this tank by hand, you will want it to be somewhere you can access easily. You may have to include a pressure tank if your water tanks are outside or need help crossing certain distances.

If you do decide to take on the task of off-grid fresh water storage, it is smart to know how much water you use on a daily or weekly basis. You don’t want to get into a situation where you have run out of water in the middle of critical water based activities! Here is what tiny house dweller, John Rodrigue, has to say about the matter:

“Before downsizing back in my old apartment, I was using 16 to 18 gallons [of water] a day!!! isn't that terrible? I measured my water use for a month to get that average. I would plug sinks and showers and then measure the water before draining. I knew that if I decided to live in a tiny house, the water consumption would have to drop drastically as gray water disposal is such a big issue. I began looking at ways to conserve water, washing hands, dishes, showering differently and not as often. I am now down to 2 to 2.5 gallons a day, isn't that great?

"I fill my tank as needed, but I never let my 25-gallon tank get any lower than 15 gallons before I refill it. I always want to make sure I have enough in the reserves in case I need to utilize more water, but that has not happened yet. I generally can get away topping off the tank with 15 fresh gallons about twice a week, depending on water usage.”

Keep in mind that, like John, you will not only have to make space for the tank itself, but also for the vessels that you use to ferry water to your tanks.

Where you will fill your tanks is a matter that will depend on location. Perhaps you will be lucky enough to be near a year round spigot you can use - ferrying water and hooking up a temporary hose when needed are both options here. John Rodrigue has an aboveground water line during the summer but must rely on an off-site source in the winter.

If you decide to go off-grid with your water supply, you should make sure that the appliances in your house will favor water conservation. I often have to cheekily ask clients if it makes sense to have a dishwasher and washing machine if you have to lug in your own water to use it. Did you know that washing machines can use over 15 gallons in one cycle? An average shower is 18 gallons and a dishwasher adds another 4 gallons. Is this really how you want to use your precious water supply?

And don’t forget about how much water weighs! A 5-gallon container of water weighs about 8 pounds which means a 40-gallon water tank will weigh over 300 lbs - you won’t be able to carry your full water tank around.

Certain individuals can get by with very small amounts of water by bathing infrequently and using a gravity-fed system for the sink (basically a bucket that drains into the sink). Some tiny house owners are comfortable showering at the gym or friend’s houses. Make sure you take into consideration how much water your appliances consume and how much hot water you need to be comfortable when you figure out how large your fresh water tank needs to be.

Gray Water

What goes into your tiny house must come out!

If your house does not have access to sanitary gray water disposal (septic or a lawful drainage system), you will need to use tanks to store your discharge until you can dispose of it properly.

Depending on where you are located, “gray water” can mean different things. The most general definition means that it is any household water discharge that doesn’t come into contact with feces or urine, otherwise known as “blackwater”. However, if you separate the blackwater from the rest of your tiny house’s water discharge, you will likely still have water that’s mixed with food scraps, oils, and cleaning chemicals. This kind of gray water may fall under different regulations in your area.

You may find other resources and tiny house stories around where people are dumping their gray water on the ground and this level of consideration may be the right choice for you. However, many tiny house dwellers will find that their municipality or landowner looks poorly upon this kind of lazy disposal method. Remember that gray water, especially with oil and food scraps mixed in, can cause odors and attract critters. This may be unenjoyable to you and could possibly attract the attention of your neighbors and your town, which would be bad news if you were doing so under the radar (Tiny House Crafters does not recommend "flying under the radar" - see more about this in our Parking Guide). This system may not work in the winter when the ground is frozen as well. 

You may be able to install a french drain, branched drain, or bucket draining system on your land. This is possible if you have a large enough piece of land that you can alter, a slight gradient so gravity can do all the work, enough money to invest in a permanent solution, and no plans to move your house once it is parked. Many municipalities, particularly urban ones, will likely not allow this type of gray water disposal and even still, it may not work throughout the winter. Check with your town to see what you can do on your land. Keep in mind that your town might require you to install a septic system if they know you intend to live there full time.

A popular option is to store your gray water in tanks under your trailer (or in your house if you have space) and to empty them once they are full. You can find tanks that are flat and already have wheels and a handle to make moving them easier. Hopefully, on your site, there is a location where it is permitted to dump your gray water, otherwise, you will have to transport these tanks to the appropriate location which could get a little difficult if it means hefting 300 lbs of water into your vehicle and securing a reliable offsite location to dump it.

Storing your gray water, even in the short term, becomes tricky in the winter. Obviously, you cannot let your tanks freeze, so in harsher climates like New England, you will have to insulate below the trailer and add a heating system to prevent freezing. You can read more about this in our Winter Utility Guide here.

Propane

If you plan on going off-grid or even just lessening your electrical load, you will want to install a propane system as a primary or back up heat source. You can install a small propane system to just run your heater, water heater, and range, or you can install a larger system and run your fridge and even your lights too.

Installing a propane system in the house will be expensive up front as the system itself is costly and propane appliances are more expensive than electric appliances. However, in general, propane will be cheaper to buy than electric power, so it might be a good choice for your wallet. The larger your system, the bigger the tanks connected to it will need to be. Running out of propane would be a really bad thing, especially in the winter, so make sure you are able to plan for backup. We typically include two 20# tanks with our builds, but our clients often upgrade them to 30# tanks before the first winter. Our client in Maine can get by changing out his 30# tanks once a month.

Keep in mind that propane systems are susceptible to extreme cold and can lose their pressure and stop working. If you can keep your tiny house in one place, leasing a larger tank from a propane company could be a good idea and they can take care of the responsibility of keeping them filled!

Propane is a good idea if you plan on moving your house a lot. Since you can carry the tanks with you, you will always have access to heat and hot water.

Solar

Of course you want solar. Solar is great! The whole world should run on solar! And many tiny houses do! But like everything in a tiny house, there is no straightforward answer or solution to the “can I power my tiny house with solar” question.

Many times the capacity of the system, the physical size of the system, the location of your house, and its cost can get in the way of the personal solar system reality.

In order to make sure you get the right system for you, it needs to be able to handle your electrical needs. You might find that a solar system that can power all of your devices and appliances all the time is too expensive and too large to even fit in your tiny house, especially if you are of the ilk that might want a washer/dryer, dishwasher, microwave, tv, and other modern conveniences. A solar system that does fit well into your house may only be able to power a few things at time and require a backup power system to run the rest or to run items in an emergency when the battery isn’t charged enough to meet your needs - this could be the ability to tap into the grid, a backup gasoline generator to charge up the batteries, or at the very least, a propane system for backup heat in the middle of winter.

There are many pieces of a solar system (read about them here in further detail), but basically, it consists of the solar panels and mounting racks, inverter, battery pack, power meter, and charge controller - and you better believe you will need to be intimately familiar with each and every piece of the system! For most conservatively sized tiny home solar systems, the solar panels can be installed on the roof of the house as long as the pitch and clearance are appropriate. You will just want to make sure that you can access the roof panels in the winter after a heavy snowfall so it doesn’t disrupt the power supply. If the panels are on your roof, the house needs to be parked where the house can receive the most amount of sun. This is easy enough unless the only place you find to park your house is in the forest or by the treeline.

Larger systems may need the panels to be installed next to the house or in a nearby sunny spot, however, this configuration may reduce your ability to be mobile with your home. Larger systems like this will be more expensive than smaller, more contained systems, but will have larger battery capacities which lead to greater self-sufficiency.

In northern areas, we have to worry about getting less light from the sun in the winter. If your system is just big enough in the summer, it won’t be big enough to meet your needs in the winter, especially as you are likely to increase your demand by keeping lights on longer or employing an electric heater. Make sure you have a solid idea of your power needs in the summer and winter when you are planning the size of your solar system.

It’s not only the panels that need a place to go, but also the batteries and the inverter. Keep in mind that lead-acid batteries and will need to be vented and they can be quite dangerous to keep inside the house. Depending on how much energy storage you need for your system, you might have quite a number of batteries to store which can be quite heavy - their placement on the trailer will need some consideration. A standalone shed is a good idea for storing and organizing your solar components, especially if you are already mounting your panels on the ground.

At Tiny House Crafters, we subcontract our solar needs to professionals. It is entirely possible to hire solar professionals from your area to help you with your solar needs after purchase. If it is not within your budget to buy a professional solar system for your tiny house, perhaps your best route is to install your own - there are many user-friendly packages and DIY instructions on the internet that can help you. We can help you design an electrical system that is ready to hook into your chosen solar components even if we don’t install the system in the end.

One other option is to elect backup solar, a smaller, much more manageable system. While you would never be able to run your whole house on backup solar, you can use it to meet the frontend of your electrical needs and then rely on the grid for the rest.

If you are interested in a solar powered tiny house, please do a little research about whether it is the right choice for your lifestyle before talking to your builder or solar professional about how much your solar system will cost - prices will vary wildly based on need! If you’re not sure about how much power you need, what you want to power, or how solar-friendly your parking spot will be, then a solar professional won’t be able to give you a proper quote for your system. Solar systems can cost anywhere between $5,000 for no-frills-attached backup solar to $20,000 or more for a professionally built system that provides year-round, reliable service.

Make sure you browse the internet and see what other tiny house owners are doing with their solar systems. My two favorite resources for technical solar information is Tiny House Solar at the Tiny Life and Ethan Waldman’s So You Think You Want a Solar-Powered Tiny House? 9 Reasons to Think Again where Ethan’s arguments against solar are rebutted by a solar professional in favor of solar-powered tiny houses. Both are great reads to anyone considering solar.

Wood Heat

While wood heat is an off-grid resource, having a wood stove in your house can have cons as well as pros. I have written about this in detail over in Part 3 of our Winter Utility Guide, so if you are interested in learning more about wood heat, head over there to find out more!

All of these off-grid utilities will require new and different considerations for winter weather, particularly if you live in New England like we do. I have covered this information in our Winter Utility Guide in three parts. I bet you didn’t know you will need to keep your gray water tanks from freezing in the middle of winter! Read about insulating your under-trailer area, keeping your fresh water line from freezing, and much more over here:

Part 1: Maintenance, Propane, and Electricity
Part 2: Fresh Water Access, Gray Water Disposal, and Blackwater Disposal
Part 3: Insulation, Humidity, Condensation, Mold, and Wood Stoves

Please be aware that off-grid systems are not for everybody. They take a higher level of maintenance and a comprehensive knowledge of how the system works and how to troubleshoot it. Many tasks associated with off-grid living will require weekly or daily physical labor, especially in the winter.

If you are just beginning to think about tiny house living and are excited about the choice to go off-grid, I urge you to consider the benefits of being on the grid as well. Staying on the grid will be your cheapest option. It provides reliable and hands-off service. Take a look and see if you can find any available parking that has access to septic or sewer and electric power before looking at undeveloped or hard to access land. And if you do decide to park in a location where you can’t bring utilities, know that making your house self-sufficient as well as the improvements needed on the land will be reflected in your budget.

For more information on parking, check out our Tiny House Parking Guide.

Drop me a line if you have questions about an off-grid system for your tiny house! Thanks for reading! Please share this article with all your tiny house friends!
 

Tiny House Parking Guide

The million dollar question around here is “where do I park my tiny house?” and unfortunately, there’s no easy or right answer to this question.

Take a look around the internet and you will find tons of opinions and guides on where to look for parking for your tiny house and all of them contain great information and advice that might speak to your individual needs… or might be completely useless to you. Depending on where you live, you might find strict rules and regulations against tiny houses, structures on wheels, and/or living in dwellings under a particular square footage, or you might not run into any trouble at all. Either way, it’s extremely important you know every possible consequence you might have from parking a tiny house in your chosen location before you buy or build your tiny house.

So, what is important to know about your parking spot?

  1. What utilities will you have access to?

  2. What are the zoning laws about the property?

  3. What features does the site have?

There are generally two camps about parking your tiny house: flying under the radar or playing by the books. Flying under the radar will likely mean that you do not attempt to talk to your town hall and hope that your tiny house goes unnoticed, that no one makes a complaint about it, and that no one asks you to move. It is risky and probably illegal. However, there are not many places in the US where parking a tiny house will be legal, so flying under the radar may be your only choice. If you fly under the radar, you must be willing to accept all the legal ramifications involved in ignoring the law, including potential criminal ramifications. You will be officially entering the “gray zone”.

Instead of me paraphrasing, I recommend reading this extremely insightful and well-written article about the tiny house “gray zone” and some challenges you might encounter on your tiny house journey: Legalizing the Tiny House.

Tiny House Crafters does not recommend flying under the radar. Please do your due diligence; know your rights and what is legal in your municipality before pursuing a physical tiny house or buying or renting land for a tiny house. This can be a bit disheartening to hear, as you may find that many places have strict rules in place against tiny houses and may not be open to discussing zoning changes or creating new regulations with you. However, there can be extreme consequences to flouting the laws and parking illegally. You may be evicted from your land or charged criminally. Depending on where you are located, you may have few other options in the area to park, especially once you land "on the radar" and you’ve ruffled feathers by attempting to skirt the law. Even though the old saying “it’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission” may sound tempting, in this case, you may cause more harm than good for yourself and for the tiny house community at large.

The only way that tiny houses will receive their own laws and regulations is if the traditional powers in charge decide to work with the movement to write and pass new legislation about it. Or, they could just as easily to make tiny house living illegal. This will depend on the nature of the folks who live in tiny houses; whether they play nice and follow the rules or are seen as rule breakers and ignoring the law.

There are plenty of obvious ways tiny houses flaunt traditional norms and come off as sketchy.

First, you cannot live in a temporary dwelling full time. This rule pertains mainly to RVs, but your tiny house may be considered as such if it is RVIA certified or if the local law decides. You will need to be able to receive mail at a permanent address and parking on undeveloped land or living at a campground, for example, may not afford this ability. Living legally on land may require improvements (septic, driveway, etc.) in order to stay there full time which will require additional investments. Forgoing grid-tied utilities will mean you have to have self-contained or inventive ways to handle resource consumption and disposal, some of which (like dealing with humanure or gray water) can be downright illegal, create unsavory conditions, and/or attract attention to you. If you don’t own your own land and aren’t a lawful citizen of a town, then you are likely avoiding paying the appropriate taxes, which is part of the reason towns don’t like tiny dwellings to begin with - they want their tax money!!

Please, don’t give other people in the tiny house community who are working hard to pass laws in favor of tiny houses a bad name because you are too lazy to go through the proper channels when planning on going tiny.

Our friend and client, John Rodrigue of the 8x24 Rodrigue fame, is championing the tiny house movement in his corner of the world, Pownal, Maine. Read a bit about how John is helping towns go tiny:

“Wow, I could literally write a book about this. But generally, I decided to not hide my tiny home from anyone or anything and wanted to educate municipalities that tiny house living is a viable option for people and towns. I began working with the Planning Board, Code Enforcement Officer, and Select Board. I am currently still working to get tiny house's legalized in my community. It has gone well, but it's a process that requires endurance and understanding. There is no place for frustration here or it will stress you out and cause animosity. The thought I always had from the beginning was to educate and help those that didn't "get it". I have invited many people to my home to get a hands-on feeling of tiny living, so far it has been working.

Some of the issues are size, wheels or no wheels, septic, gray water disposal, foundations, taxes, and MUBEC Maine building codes. They do not like those that are "trying to get away with something" like paying taxes or hiding in plain sight. Every municipality relies on a tax base to fund schools, fire departments, police departments and other things. All I am asking of them is that they tax me no differently than anyone else. Be fair. Treat me as they would any other homeowner.”

If you are thinking this article is making it seem rather hard to find a legal and above-the-books parking spot from your tiny house, then consider that it is! Many stories I have seen online involve either lots of grit and determination, good luck, or both. If you will need a place to park your tiny house, it’s a good idea to start as soon as possible.

Here are a few resources to get you started:

The Tiny House Map
Tiny House Parking
Tiny House Community Map

In general, you will find better luck in rural communities where zoning laws are much more relaxed. Our tiny house neighbors wrote to every farmer in southern Vermont until they found someone willing to rent a spot to them. My friend, Vicki, just got her tiny house approved by a mobile home park in New Hampshire through an ad we found on Craigslist. John Rodrigue is currently stationed at a state park in Maine where he pitches in with host duties in exchange for access to water, electricity, and gray water disposal. There are lots of different options out there for parking solutions, including parking on family land or buying your own, but they will require flexibility and a bit of ingenuity and a lot of understanding how the local law operates. You may have to hear “no” a few times before you get your “yes”.

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you narrow down your parking options:

Can I be flexible about where I live or do I need to be in a specific region or town? Some people have the ability to live wherever adventure - or tiny house leniency - will take them. Others may want to downsize and live the tiny life, but need to stay in the same area for a job or their family. Obviously, this is an individual preference. If you know you will want to stay in your area, it should be simple to identify the municipalities you need to contact and visiting a few town halls. If you have the ability to go anywhere, consider tiny house friendly areas like Fresno, California, or Portland, Oregon, for example.

What kinds of utilities will I need to be comfortable? While it is completely possibly to have a less traditional and more rustic utility system, most people who dream about tiny houses dream about also having the modern comforts of home: hot water on-demand, a flushing toilet, washing machine, and lots of power to their devices and appliances. If you have greater utility demands, you will have greater land requirements. For example, if you aren’t comfortable with a composting toilet, you will need access to septic or sewer. If you don’t want to port your water in by hand, you will need access to a year round water line. In almost all cases, the land will dictate how you will arrange and plan your utility systems. The more specific demands you have of your parking spot, the harder it will be to find.

Do I need access to WiFi? This many seem like a simple and somewhat trivial thing to mention, but knowing how much we love to be connected, it may be vital! If bringing water and power to your parking spot is hard, it will be just as difficult to get wifi. Cable companies sometimes do not offer service in very remote areas. Piggybacking off of nearby structures may be possible but insufficient. Of course, you may be the type for which internet access isn’t essential, but knowing if and how you can get wifi access at your tiny house may solve some make-or-break situations about parking earlier than you think!

Does my budget allow for site modifications and improvements? Maybe you’ve found the perfect land for your tiny house in your great-aunt’s backyard in the most welcoming community, but it’s completely wooded, at an angle, and has no utility access. What to do? You will find, in most cases, that your tiny house investment will surpass the cost of the unit alone. An ideal site is level and well-drained, bonus points if the house can be parked on hardpack, a gravel foundation, or better. The best site will be on high ground and stay moderately sunny so your house can stay as dry as possible. If you won’t have utility access, then you might need to invest in water tanks or drainage systems. Depending on your town, you may need to improve the site with septic or a driveway in order to be able to consider inhabiting the land full time. Make sure that some of your tiny house lifestyle budget has space for making your parking site the best that it can be!

Can I handle the rigors of off-grid and/or remote living it the situation calls for it? The cheapest and best parking options for your tiny house may be unimproved land in rural areas that will require additional upfront costs and increased maintenance and responsibilities. Conquering a piece of unimproved land is no easy task. Managing all your off-grid utilities will take planning, plenty of physical labor, and a good amount of upfront cost. If this kind of rigorous lifestyle is not for you or within your abilities, you will have to redirect your search for land to more urban or developed land, which will likely cost more or be unavailable in your area.

As a tiny house builder, we often won’t begin the design process with a prospective client until they have a solid idea of where they will park their house.

It’s much easier and cheaper to design the utility systems and layout if we know what kinds of utilities you will have access to than to design the house first and try to find the land that can suit what you built. You don’t want to be stuck with an RV flush toilet and then not be able to find any parking spots in your area that have septic access. Creating off-grid utility systems, like solar or water storage, can be expensive and take up valuable square footage inside an already small space. You may need to be able to expand your footprint and plant roots to make these systems work. Plus, there is a lot more hands-on maintenance and responsibility that comes with the challenge of being off-grid. Check out our Winter Uility Guide for more information!

Don’t get frustrated if we stop the design process and ask you to figure out where you will park your house. It’s a big - if not the biggest - question you will have to answer in your tiny house journey. It requires you answer a lot of hard questions about your future: where will I live, how much money can I spend, am I comfortable ignoring some parts of the law to get what I want? But living in a tiny house is a huge decision, and if you aren’t willing to start making phone calls, writing emails, and figuring these difficult things out for yourself, then you aren’t an ideal tiny house client.

A bit of frustration I have as a tiny house consultant is when I’m peppered with questions asking me to figure these things out for them. Not only can I not make these personal decisions for you, but I won’t! Yes, designing a tiny house is fun, but it requires so much more commitment than what built-in storage you will have. And luckily, the internet is a wonderful resource for seeing how other tiny house owners have figured this all out before you. Go check it out!

One last thing to mention is building codes. Most tiny houses will be built to universal building codes, but you can’t be sure if you don’t trust your builder or you don’t do the work yourself. Some municipalities may require a building inspector check out your house. You may find this is no problem or a serious problem, and this will depend on the day, the governing body, the person, and what side of the bed he woke up on. For example, if you buy your tiny house in Vermont and move it to Virginia, it’s going to be really hard for the inspector to approve of what’s going on encased in spray foam behind the interior cladding. If getting your tiny house inspected by a building inspector during the build is important to you, talk about it with your builder. They may not know what codes need to be enforced for you to live in your chosen location, therefore it’s your responsibility to educate them. Take a look at the building codes in the area you would like to park your tiny house to get an idea about this.

You may also find that all your problems start with complaints made by neighbors or people who see your house and have a hard time with it. Neighbors can cause lots of problems for you, whether you are flying under the radar or even if you are going by the books. Make sure that, no matter how you decide to go about the lawfulness of your tiny house, you play well with others in your community and that you are willing to accept all the associated risks involved with your decisions.

It’s important to understand that the question “where do I park my tiny house?” is a personal one and a question that will have more than one answer.

No tiny house expert in the world can answer that for you. Use what you have learned here as a jumping off point on your journey to find parking.

Want to learn more about parking your tiny house? Ethan Waldman of thetinyhouse.net has written an excellent ebook that I recommend to all my clients. Get it on Amazon: Tiny House Parking: How to Find Safe, Practical, and Affordable Land for Your Tiny House.

I can already hear what some of you are saying: but I want to take my tiny house on the road, so none of this applies to me, right? Well yes, and no. There are a LOT more considerations for making a tiny house mobile and you will have to stop driving it and park it eventually, right? This may not be a problem if you know where to go and whom to ask for tiny house lodging during your journeys, but it becomes a little more complicated when you think about how your utilities will work while traveling around to all sorts of different sites with many a-different utility offerings (or none at all). So, does that mean you just make your tiny house as self-sufficient as possible or do you make sure your house is flexible enough to deal with whatever is offered? Some great questions, which I will cover in an upcoming piece about taking your tiny house out on the road!

Drop me a line if you want to chat about tiny house parking!

Winter Utility Guide for Tiny Houses, Part 3: Insulation, Condensation, Humidity, Mold, and Wood Stoves

Are you ready for a tiny house but unsure of how or if they can withstand our New England winters? The following guide will familiarize you with all the challenges and choices you will face as you plan and build your perfect tiny house with special considerations for our harsh northern climate.

There are three major considerations: utilities, water, and warmth. This is part three of a three-part series on winter utilities, maintenance, and upkeep.

Part 1: Maintenance, Propane, and Electricity
Part 2: Fresh Water Access, Gray Water Disposal, and Blackwater Disposal
Part 3: Insulation, Humidity, Condensation, Mold, and Wood Stoves

Tl;dr? Building your dream tiny house is possible with the right building techniques, materials, budget, and appliances and of course, the right attitude!

People often ask me if tiny houses can withstand our New England winters and the answer is: Yes! We have clients in Maine and Vermont who report that they stay cozy and warm in their tiny houses throughout the winter. As long as your house is built well with the proper materials and the proper heating system, your tiny house will be a wonderful little pocket of warmth even in the darkest of winter nights - and your small heating bills may be another ray of sunshine!

The number one most important piece of advice I can give you about tiny houses in the winter is to not skimp on important investments like insulation, new double pane windows, mold and humidity abatement measures, and water resistant building materials where possible. Building your home using state of the art techniques and materials will ensure that your home is as efficient as it can possibly be, which is great for the environment, your wallet, and your tiny house investment.

Here’s what you need to know about prepping your house to stand up to cold temperatures:

Insulation

For New England climates, it is highly recommended to build your tiny home out of new materials with adequate insulation and that your house is not able to retain moisture which can lead to mold growth.

Tiny House Crafters uses the ZIP sheathing system for the exterior sheathing on the roof and walls, sealed with ZIP tape. The ZIP system has an integrated vapor and water barrier so there is no need to apply traditional house wrap. Between the siding and the ZIP we use a perforated rain screen which provides space and drainage for any moisture that gets stuck behind the siding. This allows the materials to dry out as fast as possible.

We highly recommend closed-cell spray foam as insulation. Not only does it have an R-value of around 5-6 per inch, but it also seals all air gaps and does not allow for moisture retention. It acts as a vapor barrier so there is no need for any interior membrane between the insulation and the interior cladding. There is controversy around spray foam insulation for its dangerous off-gassing of aldehydes and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). It’s true that installing spray foam releases fumes unsavory for our health and the atmosphere and some sensitive individuals do report issues from living in a spray foamed house because of possible latent off-gassing even after the foam has cured. This may be a good enough reason for not using spray foam and should be considered before applying. However, spray foam is the top tier for insulation in the industry and works extremely well in tiny houses. We have clients with spray foam insulation that are able to use their heating devices at low settings throughout winters in Vermont and Maine.

In comparison, extruded fiberglass, mineral wool, or other fibrous insulation has the ability to soak up and hold onto moisture like a sponge. If the insulation is unable to dry out - because of constant humidity, missing or inappropriately applied vapor barrier, or otherwise - then the wet insulation material will lead to mold growth. Not having to worry about your insulation absorbing moisture from condensation is another added bonus of spray foam.

Need spray foam work done in New England? We love working with Vermont local, VFI, Inc. Give them a call for your spray foam and energy consultations.

Humidity, Condensation, and Mold

I sometimes like to joke that the first thing you should consider when designing your tiny house is the venting! But joking aside, while venting may seem like a boring part of the process, proper ventilation and humidity control is no laughing matter. Tiny houses can be extremely susceptible to mold, especially in our wet summers and cold winter climate in New England. In the summer, we combat moisture infiltrating from the outside in and in the winter we worry about moisture getting from the inside out. Venting is extremely important and serious business.

It’s simple to mitigate rain and snow melt from penetrating your tiny home by making sure your roof is tightly sealed and there is adequate drainage between the exterior siding and exterior sheathing (use a rainscreen to ensure this). Parking your house on high ground and in a sunny location away from trees are also great ways to keep your house dry and happy.

In the summer, open windows, a ceiling fan, and a consistent temperature gradient inside and out allow us to vent and circulate air without even realizing it. In the winter, when we shut the windows and batten down the hatches, we face a different kind of moisture problem. Inside the house, we are running our propane heater at the same time as we are taking a hot shower; we are enjoying a lively conversation and a hot bowl of soup with our friends while our dogs sleep in the loft; we are coming in from a romp in the snow with a heap of wet, soggy gear. What do all these activities have in common? Moisture! Yes, even propane combustion devices create moisture, just like we do when we breathe.

Imagine your tiny house in your typical winter snowscape: there is snow up to the doorstep and a warm glow coming from the windows. Unlike in traditional houses, tiny houses do not have attics to act as buffers between the warm inside and cold outside. The comfortable interior of your house is separated by mere inches from the often below zero temps outside! And when the humid air rises up and meets the cold metal roof, for example, it cools rapidly and releases its moisture, creating condensation inside the house. The condensation can seep into your insulation (if you aren’t using spray foam) and soft framing members. Consistently wet building materials are breeding grounds for mold, which may not be noticed until it’s too late. Moldy building materials are a health hazard and can undermine structural qualities of your home and cause permanent damage in less than a year.  

By their own nature, tiny houses in New England should be tightly sealed and insulated. This ensures that the home can be heated efficiently. But it also causes problems because it becomes a sealed envelope that prevents the house and it’s materials from breathing properly. “Breathing?” you might ask. Yes! Houses need to breathe just like humans do and it’s important to both parties to have a house that breathes well. The house breaths by swapping stale air with fresh air and allowing materials to dry out, but sealing up your house with super-efficient spray foam will hinder the process… but you need the spray foam to stay warm and minimize air gaps! What to do?

Vent! Each appliance that uses propane combustion should have its own vent. At the minimum, that should include the propane oven, water heater, and heater. These are vented for safety concerns and because propane combustion also produces water vapor as a byproduct.

Installing an Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV) Unit in your tiny house is highly recommended and nearly mandatory in New England climates. An ERV freshens the humid interior air that rises to the top of the tiny house by absorbing the heat from the air into its ceramic core on its way out and then blowing fresh air back into the house that is heated by the ceramic core so there is close to no thermal loss. Install your ERV in the highest point of your house so it can properly cycle humid air for fresh air.

Truthfully, there is nothing we can do that will totally eliminate possible condensation and mold in tiny houses in New England, which is why it’s great to be aware and vigilant of these issues from the start. Help your house out by setting it up to be as dry as possible by parking it in a sunny location and properly venting it during the winter. If you notice excess condensation forming in your tiny house, it’s important to remediate the issue before it becomes a larger problem.

Wood Heat

Right about now, you may want to ask me if you can install a wood stove in your tiny house. It’s a very popular request and it makes a lot of sense, especially if you live in forested New England, in that you have local access to your resource and wood heat is very drying, which is great for our possibly damp houses, right? And of course, the answer is yes! Just make sure you have a big enough cushion for it in the budget and in your mindset, as it is a luxury and a risk.

You can have a wood stove in your tiny house, but there are a few reasons why you might not want one.

  1. Wood stoves make a tiny house harder to insure. You may want to check with your insurance provider before you commit to your design.

  2. Wood stoves need a lot of clearance, so they take up more of a footprint beyond the size of the unit. There will need to be a space for wood storage, inside and out, so be sure to design that in and make sure that it is permitted in your parking spot to have an additional footprint for wood storage.

  3. The wood stove cannot be your only source of heat. Small stoves will not stay lit for as long as large wood stoves and will lose heat shortly after the fire goes out, so you won’t be able to leave the house for long periods if you constantly need to be stoking the fire. You will need a backup source. Electrical will work, although it is susceptible to power outages which can be tricky if you are away from your home during a storm. Propane is also an option. However, if you have an adequate propane heat source, do you really need a wood stove as well? See Part 1 for more information about backup power.

  4. Wood stoves can be a safety hazard, especially if you have children or pets. If you are using a wood stove, your house will be very dry. This is great for the building materials, but also increases the risk of fire. Make sure you are using an appropriately sized stove for the space and that you are 100% confident with the placement of your wood stove and the materials surrounding it. Consider adding a second egress to your tiny house layout in case of emergencies. Clutter can encroach on the stove and make it unsafe. Storing books or fabric or other flammable materials near the stove is always a bad idea.

  5. New wood stoves are expensive, sometimes prohibitively so. Make sure you do your research so you know you are getting the right stove for your situation. It is possible to install a second-hand wood stove, but make sure you are using the right size stove and that it is in good condition. The perfect wood stove for you might be hard to find at the right price when you are ready to build your house, so I recommend you start looking soon to see what’s out there!

When consulting with clients, I often recommend away from installing a wood stove in their tiny home, but I know that a big part of the allure of the tiny house movement is to allow space to dream for these rustic inclinations. And while we all might love wood stoves, know that it won’t necessarily simplify your utility needs. However, it is not out of the question to have one if you are willing to contend with the above responsibilities. Going tiny is all about making sacrifices and room for the important things.

Hopefully, this guide has gotten you thinking about your winter tiny house needs. Make sure your house is safely heated by ensuring you have adequate backup power in case of emergencies. Understand that if you need to create off-grid systems for your tiny house, that you will need to be willing to be very hands-on in order to provide proper maintenance and monitoring. Don’t forget to plan for solid venting for mold and humidity abatement. Make sure you discuss how you will be using your tiny house in the winter with your tiny house designer or builder.

It’s up to you to make sure your house is ready to survive our harsh winters. There are lots and lots of resources and tiny house experiences on the internet that deal with winterizing and off-grid system, so do your research to figure out what system will work best for you and your chosen climate.

Stay warm and dry out there, friends!

Ready for more on winter utilities, check out Part 1 (Maintenance, Propane, and Electricity) and Part 2 (Fresh Water, Gray Water, and Blackwater)!

Contact me if you have further questions or concerns about winter utilities.

Winter Utility Guide for Tiny Houses, Part 2: Fresh Water, Gray Water, and Blackwater

Are you ready for a tiny house but unsure of how or if they can withstand our New England winters? The following guide will familiarize you with all the challenges and choices you will face as you plan and build your perfect tiny house with special considerations for our harsh northern climate.

There are three major considerations: utilities, water, and warmth. This is part two of a three-part series on winter utilities, maintenance, and upkeep.

Part 1: Maintenance, Propane, and Electricity
Part 2: Fresh Water Access, Gray Water Disposal, and Blackwater Disposal
Part 3: Insulation, Humidity, Condensation, Mold, and Wood Stoves 

Tl;dr? Building your dream tiny house is possible with the right building techniques, materials, budget, and appliances and of course, the right attitude!

Sourcing and managing water utilities, especially in the winter, is a topic that comes up frequently with prospective tiny house owners. You not only have to worry about fresh water intake but also about separating your gray water from your blackwater and disposing of both legally and keeping it all from freezing! Frustratingly, this isn’t always straightforward. Building and designing your house with off-grid water utilities will be unavoidably more expensive than without.

Where you will park your house will dictate how to design your water utilities. The best way to figure out your water needs is to start by figuring out where you will be parking your house. 

Winter Fresh Water

The water system in your house starts with fresh water intake. If you are lucky, your water supply will be potable, but if it isn’t, you will need to address your fresh drinking water concerns as well. A drinking water cooler or water filter are two possible solutions.

Attaching a pressurized fresh water RV or garden hose to your house is very simple in the summer but can become complicated in the winter. Any uncovered water line to your house will freeze. Make sure your water supply line is buried below the frost line, at least 4’ down or possibly more. It is best if you can have the water supply line come up underneath the trailer, so the vulnerable portions above ground can be protected by your tiny house’s skirting insulation. Electrified tape or an under trailer heating system may be necessary to protect vulnerable systems in harsher locations, as is discussed in the gray water section below.

Some tiny houses may be parked in locations that do not have access to a fresh water line. If this is the case, you must have tanks inside your house. To fill them, you may be able to hook up a hose when necessary or you will have to port your water in by hand. A fresh water pump system (how the water gets from your water tank to your water heater) will require an electric pump and possibly a pressure tank to maintain adequate pressure to your water heater and plumbing fixtures. If your power goes out, so will the access to your water.

Depending on the size of your fresh water tank and the amount of water you need daily, your tanks may need to be filled 2x per week or more (way more if you have a washer/dryer or flushing toilet), so it is handy if your fresh water source is nearby. In the winter, our client, John Rodrigue, uses 5-gallon water jugs and fills them up at local stores or other locations.

How big you need your fresh water tank to be will vary based on personal water usage and what appliances you have drawing water. Supplying clothes washing machines or dishwashers may prove difficult if you have to fill up the tanks by hand before each cycle. Even high-efficiency washing machines use 15 gallons of water per cycle and an average shower uses 17 gallons! Part of going tiny is about simplifying your resources consumption, so hopefully your personal water consumption will reflect these values. Remember to design enough room in your layout for your water tank and pump system and make sure that it is placed in an easy to access location so filling it isn’t a pain.

If you do decide to take on the task of off-grid freshwater storage, it is smart to know how much water you use on a daily or weekly basis before finalizing your utility plan. You don’t want to get into a situation where you have run out of water in the middle of critical water based activities! Here is what Mr. Rodrigue has to say about the matter:

“Before downsizing, back in my old apartment, I was using 16 to 18 gallons a day!!! Isn't that terrible? I measured my water use for a month to get that average. I would plug sinks and showers and then measure the water before draining. I knew that if I decided to live in a tiny house, the water consumption would have to drop drastically as gray water disposal is such a big issue. I began looking at ways to conserve water, washing hands, dishes, showering differently and not as often. I am now down to 2 to 2.5 gallons a day, isn't that great?

I fill my tank as needed, but I never let my 25-gallon tank get any lower than 15 gallons before I refill it. I always want to make sure I have enough in the reserves in case I need to utilize more water, but that has not happened yet. I generally can get away topping off the tank with 15 fresh gallons about twice a week, depending on water usage.”

Keep in mind that, like John, you will not only have to make space for the tank itself, but also for the vessels that you use to ferry water to your tanks.

Fresh water tanks and pump systems do not have to be inside your house. If you are able to park in a permanent location where you can improve the land and have the budget for outbuildings, a separate, insulated (and possibly heated) shed for water tanks, pumps, and pressure tanks may be appropriate for you. As long as your water lines are safe from freezing, this may be a great way to free up space within your home and still have a simple way to store fresh water.

And as I mentioned in Part 1, you do not need to install plumbing in your home. You can port in fresh drinking water and bathe sparingly using water heated on a stove, solar shower like devices, or by showering in an alternate location (like a gym or family member’s house). This is a much more rustic experience and definitely not for everyone.

How much fresh water do you think you use on a daily basis? You might be surprised with the total!

Winter Gray Water

Note that “gray water” refers to wastewater from sinks or showers, not toilets. Make sure you know how your municipality defines gray water. Some locations may lawfully require your gray water be discharged into a septic or sewer system while others may be more lenient about how you dispose of it.

The easiest and most hands-off option for gray water disposal in the winter is to have access to septic or sewer. The only concern might be the vulnerable, exposed parts of the pipe coming from the ground and connecting to your trailer, so you may have to apply electrified tape or a heating system to make sure water doesn’t freeze between the house and the septic or sewer (see Part 1).

If you don’t have access to sewer or septic, you have the option of storing your gray water in storage tanks under the trailer or draining it directly onto the land if it is permitted.

What goes in, must come out! If you choose to store your gray water in tanks, make sure your gray water system is at least large enough to support the capacity of your fresh water system. Most gray water tanks are stored under the trailer where there is space to store as many as you need. Once your tanks are full, you will need to be able to empty them. Depending on your location, some options for this may be an RV dumping station or hiring a septic company to pump it for you. It is ideal if you have a location to dump at your site so you don’t have to transport the tanks in your car. Some tanks have handles and wheels to make this easier, but make sure that you will be able to move the largest container filled with water by hand; a full 40-gallon water tank weighs more than 300 pounds!

In the winter, since the tanks are outside, they will need to be kept warm. The skirting insulation will help, but you will likely need a heating system. Tank heating mats or heat lamp systems will work, so if you need gray water tanks, consider adding an electrical outlet directly under the trailer to simplify the system. It’s important to regularly maintain the system to make sure it’s not too hot or cold and that the electrical components are operating safely. When you install your skirting insulation, make sure you can still easily access your tanks without compromising the integrity of the insulation. Gray water tanks can also be kept in the house but will take up precious floor or storage space, especially if you already have a fresh water tank and pump system.

In some instances, it may be possible to use your gray water to water trees and shrubs. Make sure you are using appropriate, eco-friendly products and that it is permitted into your area to do so. Gray water, especially if it has food wastes in it, can be stinky and may attract critters and complaints from neighbors or be harmful to the ecosystem. Depending on where you are, “gray water” may mean different things; water from the kitchen sink may be classified as blackwater due to the presence of food scraps and oils and may be prohibited at some gray water disposal sites. Make sure you know what the definition is at your gray water disposal site.

However, it is unlikely that dumping gray water directly onto the ground or into wetlands will be permitted in your area without doing so on the sly. Dumping water onto the frozen earth is also a bad idea, especially if the water is discharging directly from your kitchen sink. It can create a safety hazard, be unsightly, or compromise the stability of the ground beneath your trailer. Your town or neighbors may become upset if they notice dumping, so make sure you are 100% in the clear or have addressed all the risks before committing to this kind of disposal.

In some areas, it may be permitted to dig a french or branched drain system for your gray water discharge. Please check your local laws and regulations before you install a french drain. A french drain is a perforated pipe laid out at a gradual decline over several yards that disperses the discharge equally over a larger area. In the winter, the warmth of the water can keep the pipe from freezing if the system is operating properly. This option is only suitable for long term parking situations. Make sure that your french drain system is properly installed to maintain adequate drainage. This may not work if you have high volumes of water entering the system. Consult with a professional before installing your system

Winter Blackwater

If you do not have access to septic or sewer, you will have to separate your blackwater, or toilet contents, from your gray water. This is easy to accomplish if you have a composting or self-contained toilet.

Just like in the summer, you will have to make sure you have the ability to dispose of your humanure and clean your toilet as well as dump your urine. How and where you can put your humanure will depend on what municipality you are parked in. Do not mix humanure with compost piles that will eventually be used on food. Keep in mind that some municipalities may ban composting toilets outright.

Need to know more about humanure? The Humanure Handbook is the foremost reference on all things humanure!

But what if you want a regular flushing toilet and have nowhere to discharge it? You can also store blackwater discharge in tanks like RVs do, but make sure your system is designed so you can easily dump it at an RV dump station. If your tiny house is settled into its parking spot, it is not likely you will be able to drive the house over to dump it, so you will probably have to do it by hand. I don’t know about you, but that just sounds gross to me. If you are supplying your flush toilet with water from fresh water tanks, the flushing will cruise through your water supply - not the most conscientious way to use the water you’ve just lugged into the house. I think it’s wise to only consider a flush toilet in your tiny house if you are sure you will have access to year round pressurized water and sewer or septic access.

Truthfully, composting toilets are pretty rad!! I know they sound icky to some people, but they are a great way to conserve water and limit your resource consumption. They were practically invented to be put into a tiny house! We love Nature’s Head Composting toilets because they are affordable, sturdy, and well-designed. Check out other tiny house owners experience with Nature’s Head and check out this video by Gone with the Wynn’s to learn more about how to use it.

That’s a wrap on winter water utilities. Stay tuned for Part 3: Insulation, Humidity, Condensation, Mold, and Wood Stoves!

And check out Part 1: Maintenance, Propane, and Electricity if you haven't already!

Feel free to let me know if you have any questions about this!

Winter Utility Guide for Tiny Houses, Part 1: Maintenance, Propane, and Electricity

Are you ready for a tiny house but unsure of how or if they can withstand our New England winters?

Are you ready for a tiny house but unsure of how or if they can withstand our New England winters? The following guide will familiarize you with all the challenges and choices you will face as you plan and build your perfect tiny house with special considerations for our harsh northern climate.

There are three major considerations: utilities, water, and warmth. This is part one of a three-part series on winter utilities, maintenance, and upkeep for tiny houses in New England.

Part 1: Maintenance, Propane, and Electricity
Part 2: Fresh Water Access, Gray Water Disposal, and Blackwater Disposal
Part 3: Insulation, Humidity, Condensation, Mold, and Wood Stoves

Tl;dr? Building your dream tiny house is possible with the right building techniques, materials, budget, and appliances and of course, the right attitude!

Being ready for anything is an important part of being ready for the tiny life. It’s amazing how their small size can make them vulnerable to different weather patterns; a tiny house parked on a windy hill in Vermont will have different concerns than the same tiny house parked next to a barn in Massachusetts. Knowing where you are parking your tiny house is a big part of proper planning and design. This is also why it’s important to consider having backup systems and plans for when your power sources contend with our fierce winters.

Aside from building well, it’s also important to park your house well. Park your house in a sunny and well-drained location to allow the house to benefit from thermal gain and to dry out quickly. Placing your plumbing and other sensitive systems on the southern side of the house will reduce the likelihood of freezing.

Winter Maintenance

As my favorite client joked with me the other day: “Just because you have a tiny house, doesn’t mean you never have to shovel again!”

And isn’t that the truth! Tiny house enthusiasts often boast about how they have less to take care of in a tiny house and more time to spend doing the things they love. Please do not misinterpret these feelings to mean that there is nothing to take care of at all! There is a lot of serious maintenance and upkeep for a tiny house that will often just get harder in the winter. Note that chores will be different depending on your particular parking location and self-sustainability needs. Semi-urban locations may have access to infrastructure that helps maintain utilities, such as sewer or snow removal. Those located in rural or remote sites will often have to maintain their land or parking area and get creative with their resources. Stop and ask yourself who will be plowing you out if your tiny house is parked in a backcountry location, especially if it doesn’t have a traditional driveway. (Hint: the answer is most likely you!)

At the very least, your tiny house trailer will need skirting insulation to keep cold winds from whipping under your trailer and making your floor cold. That means you will have some sort of insulation around your trailer like hay bales, rigid foam, or even wood chips. Depending on what you have under your trailer, you may also want to install plastic sheathing on the outside of the skirting insulation as an additional wind and water barrier. Latticework can be installed on top of this for a neater look. Our client, John Rodrigue, buried his rigid foam board 1’ into the ground and Karin Copperwood of tinyhousehomestead.com framed out her trailer using 2x4s. Whatever you do, make it as insulated as you possibly can. Even if you are moving your house frequently, you will still want to make sure you can skirt your trailer in cold weather so make sure you plan to pack those supplies with you!

If you don’t have any sensitive utility systems under your trailer, like we will discuss in Part 2, skirting insulation will be adequate. If you do have utilities, like a water line or gray water tanks, you will need to make sure that you can access the systems through the skirting. You may have to add an additional heat lamp, electrified heating tape or cable, and/or heat mats under there as well to make sure your tanks don’t freeze. Make sure that you keep the area where you access your utility systems free of snow and ice, and that your skirting can’t be infiltrated by critters looking for a cozy place to rest!

It is important to make sure you can see and access your jacks and any assorted blocking you use to stabilize your house throughout the year, but especially in the winter. Make sure you consider this when you install your skirting insulation. Frost heaving can move these items out of place and knock your house out of level or worse. It is important to make sure your house is always level. An out of level house can allow water to pool and infiltrate the structure or possibly put stress on the trailer and the framing members which could compromise the overall integrity of the house.

And please assure me that you know you still have to shovel your driveway, right? ;)

Propane in Winter

Propane is powerful, abundant, and a great option for heating and powering appliances in your tiny house. In a properly insulated tiny house, you even might find that a propane heater is too hot for average winter temperatures. To save money on propane and to have a backup heating source, combining propane heat with an electric space heater is a great way to find that sweet spot so you are comfortable inside your home all year round. Make sure that you choose a propane heater with the appropriate BTUs for your space. Typically you will want something that can supply between 10,000 and 14,000 BTUs. We really like the Williams 14,000 BTU Propane Eco-Heater.

Protip: Just remember that whatever propane heater you use, make sure it is direct vent and not ventless. It is dangerous to install a ventless propane heater in a tiny house, as they are too small and tightly sealed for even camp-sized ventless heaters to operate safely.

Make sure that all the propane appliances inside your tiny house are properly vented, not only for safety reasons, but because propane combustion creates CO2 and water vapor that will lead to excess condensation in your house. Improper combustion can create carbon monoxide or leak pure gas, which is deadly. Having a propane detector on hand to monitor for leaks and installing a combination carbon monoxide (CO) and smoke alarm is a must.

Did you know that propane tanks can lose pressure in extremely cold temperatures and stop working? It’s true! A propane blanket might help. However, additional insulation is not the answer; tanks must always be kept uncovered by snow or otherwise.

Depending on the size of your propane tanks, you might find that the gas is quickly consumed due to high demand in the winter. This could be bad for the wallet or just plain annoying to refill every week. Make sure you have large enough tanks and a solid idea of your propane needs so there are no surprise outages.

Protip: Some propane companies will lease you a large, aboveground tank and can be scheduled to fill it for you. If this is appropriate for your setting, it can take the guesswork out of keeping them filled!

Electricity in Winter

It is possible to run a tiny house off of an extension cord but that can be dangerous and unreliable if you have a lot of electrical needs. We recommend, if possible, for our clients to have a dedicated 30 or 50 amp hook-up run to where they are parking their house. That means there are no other extension cords going from your hook-up to power anything else. Make sure that your power source is reliable so it won’t crap out on you in the middle of the night.

Most tiny house appliances don’t require 220V (usually needed for electric dryers or water heaters) so 110V is more than adequate. If you are able to have a dedicated line run by an electrician it would be a smart idea to have them run 220V so it leaves the opportunity open to install larger and more powerful appliances down the road.

When planning your tiny house, make sure you address your electrical needs - do you need power for lights, fridge, and charging your devices? Or are you the kind of person who wants a TV, washing machine, and microwave as well? Do any of these appliances call for 220-volt access? Don’t forget to factor in the needs of your venting system as well. If you have a lot of electrical needs, you may find yourself in a situation where you can only run a few things at a time.

Keep in mind that you will have greater needs in the winter; the lights will be on longer and you might consider adding an electric space heater to your power load. If you are running your house on just electric power (ie, no propane), make sure your power supply can comfortably handle the addition of electric heating devices. Some options for electric heaters are the Envi Plug-In Wall Panel Heater, Comfort Cove Radiant Heaters, or we even have clients who were happy just using an oil-filled radiator.

It’s important to have a backup source of heat. The small size of tiny houses makes them vulnerable to rapid cooling if the heating system fails and regardless of how reliable your power source is, there is a chance that it could be compromised during storms. If you are heating your house with just electric heat, you might find yourself in trouble. Tiny houses will cool down a lot faster than a traditional house. This can spell trouble for your pipes in freezing temperatures. You must make sure that your house is adequately heated throughout the winter, even if you are not there. Burst pipes will be expensive to fix. Dangerously low temperatures can also be worrisome if you have pets in your house and the power goes out while you are away. You do not want your house defenseless to freezing temperatures. An emergency gas generator might be something to consider if you are unable to secure backup power.

Most tiny houses will have a propane system as their primary source of heat. Many of our clients have found luck using both propane and electric heat throughout the winter. Using the propane heater while you are home and keeping the electric heater on a thermostat is a great way to maintain consistent temperatures inside your tiny house.

Many people are interested in supplementing their power needs with solar. You can certainly add solar to your tiny house, but solar shouldn’t be your only source of heat. I won’t get into all the specifics of solar here, but I highly recommend searching the internet for examples of tiny houses with solar and the inhabitant’s experience with it. Tiny House Crafters subcontracts solar work to professionals, however, there are lots of DIY options on the internet about how to assemble the right solar system for your needs so that route might be the best for you.

To ensure that you have reliable solar power throughout the winter, you will need to make sure you are parked in a location that gets the best possible sunlight. The sun isn’t out as long in the winter, which means that if your system is just large enough in the summer, it won’t be large enough in the winter. Large, reliable systems may include more panels than can fit on your roof. The panels can, of course, be placed in a location nearby to the tiny house, but it will likely be a permanent installation and will make you less mobile. Don’t forget that panels have to be kept completely clear of snow and debris, so if the panels are on your roof they might be difficult to access daily.

Ethan Waldman of thetinhyhouse.net wrote an excellent article including rebuttals from a solar professional addressing the pros and cons of solar. Read it here.

You don’t need to completely power your house on solar; you might want to combine solar with on-grid electrical and propane. If you are interested in solar and designing a solar system with your tiny house builder or a solar professional, start by figuring out what in your house will need power and how much. This will include what appliances you wish to power, what levels of power you need to stay comfortable, and any changes to the power load that may occur during the winter months.

One other option is to select backup solar, a smaller, much more manageable system. While you would never be able to run your whole house on backup solar, you can use it to meet the frontend of your electrical needs and then rely on the grid for the rest.

If you do not have plumbing lines in your walls, backup power for heat may not be a big issue for you as long as you don’t have pets or children in your home while you are away.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Fresh Water Access, Gray Water Disposal, and Blackwater Disposal

Drop me a line if you have any questions!