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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.