Interview with Tiny House Owner, John Rodrigue, Part 1

Last year, we had the honor of building a tiny house for John Rodrigue (see his namesake model here!). Since John moved into his tiny house in the summer of 2016, he has been incredibly helpful and supportive of Tiny House Crafters as well as a terrific friend. We are grateful for our relationship with John and how he has helped us become a better business by sharing his experiences with us.

Earlier this spring, I interviewed John in great detail about his tiny life, everyday tiny house maintenance, and how he manages his utilities at the state park campground he lives at in Pownal, Maine.

There is a lot of information ahead so it is split into two parts. However, it's all extremely informative and a simply fantastic point of view if you are interested in what it takes to go tiny.

Thanks so much, John! 

Can you explain briefly how your water utilities work? 

Warmer months: For my tiny house, I have a hook up to a spigot that utilizes an ordinary RV hose, which does not collect gunk or bacteria like a normal garden hose would. I am also in the process of designing and installing a rainwater collection system that will collect rain from my shed style metal roof and collect into a 55-gallon food grade drum. I will then connect my current winter water supply system to it. This would give me two options for water sources in the warmer months (rainwater and RV hose connection) and get me one step closer to my goal of being completely off-grid and being able to make the jump away from my known utilities.

Colder months: Due to the water supply at the state park being drained in the winter due to freezing, I had to design a water storage system inside the house. I purchased a 25-gallon food grade drum that could be easily filled by hand and fit nicely in my bathroom, a Shurflo domestic water pump and filter, and a small Shurflo accumulator tank. Then I had to install plumbing on the tank to the filter, pump, and accumulator and plumb that to my Takagi On-Demand Hot Water Heater to complete the system. I have to port water in by hand to keep the 25-gallon drum filled, but that’s easy to do. I keep three 5-gallon water cooler containers full all the time and empty them into the drum when needed. The 5-gallon containers are easy to handle and easy to fill anywhere

Where do you fill your 5-gallon water containers?

I purchased three 5-gallon Primo drinking water bottles at Lowe’s for about $13-15 each. I kept those three bottles and their cap and fill them at the Bradbury Mountain Park Manager’s house or a local sandwich shop down the road that agreed to let me fill them there. 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.

I store the containers in the tiny house as they would freeze outside. I keep them between my dining table and the kitchen counter top on the floor. They are out of the way and do not cause a space issue. I also keep a separate 3-gallon bottle for my on-the-counter fresh drinking water dispenser in the same location.

This system has worked well through the winter. I had a great flow of hot and cold water whenever needed. The only time the system failed was when we had -15 deg F temps and 25 mph winds. The pipes froze on the side of the unit where the wind was blowing the hardest. I am hoping to resolve that next year by applying a wind barrier, basically plastic or a tarp. It wasn't the cold temps that froze the pipes, it was the wind, that I do know. Wind can penetrate the smallest cracks or holes in the home.

How much water do you use every day?

Well, that is a great question! 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?

What sort of daily or weekly tasks do you perform to keep your house functioning properly?

My daily tasks are just a general check of the unit. I walk around it every day to check the electricity hook ups on both ends, check the water level in the 25-gallon drum each day, and check for snow and ice build up after snowfall event (which we had a lot this year). Because I have installed the pump system in my bathroom and it only operates when water is called for, I check to make sure there are no leaks in the plumbing when I’m in the bathroom. If there is a leak it will just keep signaling to the pump that more water needs to be pumped and just keep going until the tank is empty. So if I leave home for several days at a time, I unplug the system so if there is a leak it won't keep calling for water and drain out.

Some of the other checks are for my gray water storage tanks. They are 45-gallon tanks that fit under the trailer. I check them every week and empty them if needed in the park’s septic holding tank, which I have to keep free of ice and snow to maintain access through the winter. I built an insulated cover for the holding tank which helps tremendously. I keep the tanks from freezing with the two 100 watt light bulbs I placed under the trailer. This works great, but the bulbs need to be checked and replaced on occasion.

I also check the propane tanks each week even though I only change one of them out about once a month depending on how much cooking I do. I replaced the two 20-gallon tanks that I purchased the house with for two 30-gallon tanks for more capacity and kept the two 20's for back ups. Works great!

Once every two weeks, I have to get under the unit. My tiny house is skirted with 2” rigid foam insulation which is dug about 1’ into the ground and up to the bottom of the exterior siding. I get under to check the jacks and the blocks as the frost has the ability to move the unit as the ground freezes and thaws.

My Nature’s Head composting toilet is awesome. I can go roughly a month of composting humanure before having to empty in my special humanure composting bins. The toilet is easy to empty and clean and is a great use of compost. The urine container is emptied more often, maybe once every two weeks, but it depends on how much you pee and poop. The urine can be emptied anywhere on the ground but while at the park I dump it in the outhouse vaults where it can seep into the ground or be cleaned by a septic truck.

The only other equipment that needs to be checked and cleaned periodically is the TwinFresh Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV) air exchanger, which is installed to prevent humid air from stagnating and accumulating in my tiny home which can lead to excess condensation and mold. The air exchanger will begin to beep if it needs cleaning of the filters, so that is fairly easy. I love the air exchanger and I think every tiny home should have one. It keeps the air fresh and circulated, makes a huge difference in condensation issues as well.

What do you do with your humanure compost when your bins are full?

The Nature's Head composting toilet needs to be changed out roughly once a month depending on my usage; the more you poop, the more often you will need to change it. I have two 55-gallon trash cans that I turned into compost bins to take the humanure. I place it in the first one right out of the compost toilet and keep turning it for several weeks, then I transfer into the second can to complete the composting process. After the second can completes composting, I spread the compost on trees, shrubs, flowers and give it away to others that have flower gardens. I do not use it on vegetable gardens.

NOTE: I also compost food scraps which are held in an entirely separate composting bin. That compost is used on vegetable gardens.

How have you upgraded your house since you purchased it?

Every tiny house will need adjustments or additions, but be cautious as to what you do as to not add too much weight or maintenance. Since May, I have added a built-in seating bench that converts to a full-size bed for company to sleep on. I have added the winter water source in the bathroom (mentioned above) that can be removed for the warmer months or used in the rainwater collection system. I have built shelving where I needed it. I installed the air exchanger, which was easy to install. I have drawn and painted artwork on my walls when the weather was too nasty to get out. I had a friend weld me supports for the dining room table so I can remove the legs and have more floor space. I upgraded the 20lb propane tanks to 30lb propane tanks. I plan on installing a railing at the end of the loft because I have friends that have kids that like to visit and play in the loft. I installed a railing along the wall where the storage stairs are so I don’t fall during the night while going to the bathroom haha! I also added a roll-up awning over the door so I don’t get wet entering the unit when it rains or snows.

The one design issue that was rectified was the placement of the Williams direct vent propane heater; don't place it under the roofs drip edge unless the drip edge is beyond the exhaust pipe. We had to add a small cover/canopy above the exhaust vent due to water entering the unit during the first rainfall. The canopy worked perfectly but will need to be removed prior to moving the unit over the road due to width limitations.

Why did you wait until after you purchased your home to make the upgrades? Why not just have Tiny House Crafters do it for you?

That's a really good question. there were several reasons for waiting. First, I wanted to get my hands dirty in some of the additions to the home as I like creating and building things. Secondly, I was unsure of what exactly I would need or want for special upgrades until I lived in it for some time. I needed to live in it and apply what would work for my lifestyle and belongings. It didn't take long to realize what I would need so I just made it happen. Thirdly, I have great friends who were all very much into my tiny house adventure and I wanted to give them a chance to get their hands dirty in helping tiny house too. It ended up being a great thing. There's nothing greater than having your friends over, drinking beer, and discussing how to implement an upgrade, then getting it done.