Interview with Tiny House Owner: John
John has lived in a tiny house on the coast of Maine since 2016 and he was one of our first ever clients! John is 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 where he lives.
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.
Is your tiny house warm enough for the cold New England nights?
The Williams direct vent propane heater is more than sufficient to heat the tiny house; It works great. It took me a few weeks to get the setting of the thermostat just right to be comfortable inside and not consume too much propane. I have since offset the use of propane by installing an electric space heater due to having on-grid electricity available. I only use the electric space heater when I am home and propane heater when I'm not. It has saved a considerable amount of propane.
Do you think your house gets humid in cold weather?
No, with the use of the TwinFresh ERV air exchanger I do not see any humidity or condensation other than when I shower. Even that humidity is dissipated very quickly between the exhaust fan in the bathroom and the air exchanger in the great room. The air exchanger can be adjusted to run in different modes, fan on low/medium/high. It even seemed to make the difference in the summer months.
What lessons did you learn during your first winter as a tiny house owner?
Good question… I think the one thing I learned is there is ALWAYS a good, viable solution to everything. Sometimes you just have to stop, think, and figure it out and ask a lot of questions, make calls, and contact those that may have experience. For example, I did learn that metal roofs still may need to be raked depending on how much snow you get in one storm!
I learned that porting water is not that awful to do, you just need to work up a system that works best for you.
I learned that it doesn't matter what type of home you own, whether it’s a tiny home, conventional home, camp or shed, there are always things you need to deal with in the harsh winters of Maine, it's all part of the adventure and journey. Embrace it, own it, make it fun and exciting.
I learned that I have to educate others about my chosen style of living. They will warm up to it if you invite them in to see how wonderful it is! It may not be for them, but they will warm up to the fact that it works for you.
You can survive a cold winter with minimal means or belongings, I just did!
And, just because you live in a tiny home, doesn't mean you don't have to shovel snow ever again… hahahaha!
What do you wish you had known about tiny house living during the design phase?
It is very important to consider where you will place your tiny house, especially during the winter months. It is no different than a conventional home. Winter living can be difficult depending on the area you live. Maine is unforgiving at times so being prepared is essential. With that being said, I should have put more thought into my winter water system before the first frost. It was a hurried experience as I sat on my hands until the last minute, thank goodness it all worked out.
Think about what you are willing to do and go through to maintain your home during winter months. Plan ahead. It is very difficult to make changes or alterations during winter weather, don't get caught with your pants down, it's going to get cold fast if you wait to figure it out. Think about it now. Don't get complacent when the going is good, think about what you need ahead of time and get it done. Remember, this is supposed to be a fun adventure, don't make it miserable.
Now that I have been living in a tiny house for almost a year, I don't believe living in a tiny home is any different than living in any other space or home other than the fact that most municipalities don't know how to handle tiny houses right now, but be patient, educate others, and learn from others. This movement is real and states/municipalities are going to have to join the bandwagon, so it’s up to you to be an advocate and help them learn. I would suggest staying in contact with your builder, ask questions, give feedback.
The one thing I wish I could do now is to help others in the transition from conventional living to tiny house living. It can be a hard process but it CANNOT be done over night, it's just not realistic. I have devised and implemented many ways of condensing and minimizing my life and then there is the task of maintaining that. I have rules I live by now to stay tiny. I wish I could convey those to many young people looking to make this jump.
Can you explain how you went tiny and how you stay tiny?
Well, going tiny is a process. You can have all the things you really NEED if you put your mind to it. I began my process by deciding to sell my 5-bedroom, 2-bath home with a full basement and in-law apartment and moving into a small apartment. As you can imagine, after living in that home I had accumulated lots of belongings which were great for caring for a house that size and being a gathering place for my two kid’s friends. But it became too much for me after my children left the home to go to college and then begin their own lives. So it left me in a huge home by myself.
I started condensing my life by choosing one month and starting to get rid of "one" item on the first day of the month, "two" items on the second day, "three" items on the third day and so on through the month. That meant at the end of the month I had to get rid of 30 items. It was easier than I thought so I did it another month. That was the beginning.
Then I added a rule: if I bought something new, I had to get rid of something old. It didn't need to be the same kind of item, it just had to be something. For example: if I bought a new pair of shoes I didn't have to get rid of an old pair of shoes, I could get rid of a t-shirt. It just had to be something.
Then, the tiny house construction was due to be completed the end of May. I was headed to California to run a 100-mile race two weeks prior so I decided to pack "everything" I owned (and I mean everything) into boxes the beginning of May and live out of the boxes for 2 weeks. I told myself that after two weeks if I haven't opened any of the boxes it meant I really didn't need what was in it so I took the unopened boxes to Goodwill and donated them. I still to this day have no idea what was in those boxes and have never wished I had known. I haven't missed a thing.
I still live by that "Rule". If I buy something new, something old has to go, other than perishable food of course. That has kept me living tiny and minimally.
Can you tell us a bit about your journey with tiny house zoning in your town?
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 houses 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.
I will give you more information about this process as I am currently writing it all down. But I will warn, every municipality is different in Maine. They each have their own zoning ordinances, codes, and requirements, so what is working in my community may not work in another. So in Maine, if you are accepted in one community it doesn't mean you will be accepted in all municipalities! It's getting better, but it takes patience and endurance and the willingness to explain and do the leg work and understand their points of view.
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.
Do you have any fun (or horror) stories about tiny house life to share?
Hmm, a horror story? Well, not a real horror story like hitting a low clearance bridge while transporting, but the one thing that I have dealt with is being in the harsh winters of Maine and having the plumbing freeze on extremely cold and windy days. If the temps are above 5 degrees and no wind, I'm good. If the temps are 5 degrees with heavy winds, the pipes freeze. I am currently trying to figure that one out. The only other thing that happened is I broke one of the scissor jacks under the unit. I have learned that the scissor jacks are not really to be used for leveling, they are not strong enough to hold all the weight and that it's better to use a jack rated for the weight and then block the wheels up as needed. The scissor jacks should be used as stabilization only once you have the unit level.
The one thing I feel will be a horror show is when I'm moving the unit and I get a flat tire. I am going to learn how to change a flat tire on the trailer before it happens to make sure I have the proper equipment beforehand. That seems like it could be a horrible process!!!
As far as a positive tiny house story - well, it may not be appropriate but here goes. All my friends were excited to see my tiny when I first moved in. All had great comments and questions. But one friend, Amy, had an odd comment but a good comment. She simply said...."yeah, the loft is not going to work", her comment was directed at the space for sexual activity!! Hahaha, she had a good point. Well, I have since informed her that the loft posed no issues of space and prompted creativity and fun.
Other than that, the tiny house has generated more positive things than you can imagine. curiosity, fun, friends, family, and tiny living. I am living minimally and effectively and what is more positive than that? The entire experience has been extremely positive but one has to make of it what they want out of it. From design to living it has been extremely positive.
Here is a more direct answer: I live at a State Park that I run in often with all my friends. We hold running events throughout the year. Each running event draws anywhere between 75-125 people. My typical comment to those that ask what it’s like living here is this...
"It's like living in an area where I get to have hundreds of my best friends come and run in my backyard, what better place is there to live?"