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!