Tiny House Utilities

How to water a tiny house

Where’s the water going to come from and what plumbing setup options exist for tiny living? No plumbing is obviously the simplest and easiest option but not quite everyone is ready to live without running water. For those who prefer the convenience of constant supply and constant pressure, hooking into municipal water supplies is very common with tiny homes. The plumbing, water heater and fixtures can all be set up just like any other residence.

If off-grid living is a goal with the tiny structure, then a ground well can be dug or rainwater collection to a freshwater tank can be used. Either of these setups will usually require a pump and pressure tank as part of the setup, along with the appropriate level of filtration for the source. Freshwater tanks come in all sizes and can be very creatively located. From between floor joists to a loft tank with a gravity feed, many tanks will fit under the cabinet.

Tanks do take up space so if water storage is a needed for the build, give it plenty of thought during the design and layout phase. Most tanks are plastic and relatively light, but when traveling with a full tank the weight may become a concern. About rainwater collection, a tiny house has a tiny roof and therefore a tiny water catchment area. In some areas with lower average rainfalls, a tiny house dweller may need to manually refill the tanks or cistern during dry spells. Water is heavy, so ideas like this must be addressed before the build begins.

 A hybrid system is recommended. A hybrid water system combines having a tank and pump with the ability to hook into city pressure. This gives the user both options and the freedom to choose between more options whenever the tiny home is moved.

The Earthwagon has 200 gallons of enclosed freshwater storage beneath the bathroom floor in a dedicated 40 sq ft compartment. We went with a two-pump system, very similar to a conventional well. One pump will actuate with a low-level switch to move water from a cistern, or collection of rain barrels, into the onboard storage tank. Once the fill-level is reached, the pump will shut off once again. There is about a sixty-gallon margin between the two levels. Depending on the usage, this rotation should only cycle a few times per week.

The second pump will keep a smaller 6-gallon tank bladder pressurized. This pressure tank must be designed as a pressure tank or a busted tank in a wet mess is all you will have. Between the rainwater collection and the onboard storage will be basic water filters. After the pressure tank, I purchased a multistage drinking water filter with a small spigot that is plumbed to the kitchen sink. There is also one more filter before the tankless hot water heater that will absorb any minerals before they have a chance to deposit in the many tubes that circulate water through the thing.

Not every tiny house has a shower because some lifestyles don’t need a shower at home. There are plenty of cases where showering at the gym or using locker room facilities provided by the college or workplace is preferable to spending space on a shower. Showers and moreover bathtubs do take up a lot of space and can be fairly costly.

A wet bath is growing in popularity and can be used with a tiny home. This is when the showerhead is hung to spray directly onto the floor of the bathroom into a drain and the shower area has been tiled anywhere water may splash. These can be very ergonomic with small spaces because they don’t require a big walled box to be built inside your tiny walled box. Speaking of, the shower inserts or bathtub inserts are just that. A plastic box that you can sometimes just slide in and hook up the plumbing easy as pie.

Custom shower solutions are as varied as the imagination can allow. Depending on how much you care about the appearance of your shower as well as if you even want a shower, the sky’s the limit. I know of one tiny house that is the master bathroom. It was cheaper than remodeling the old bathroom and it has a large glass walled shower at the back, with a huge jacuzzi tub in the center and a double vanity with a toilet at the front. Like everything else, every tiny house can be customized for any solution.

*Important* - Protect outside pipes from freezing! (Specifically pipes that are exposed to outside air passing from the ground to the tiny house)

A THOW must account for the outside temperature if there is any exposed plumbing between the home and the frost line, or the depth at which groundwater freezes. Depending on your climate, pipe insulation and skirting around the tiny house may be plenty but northern climates must take further measures like using electric heat tape.

This is not so much an issue with water in drain lines, as long as their sloped properly. Properly sloped drain lines do not need insulation. In the case of showers and tubs though, the p-trap beneath the drain may end up beneath the floor and outside the tiny house. The conventional p-trap has standing water that is very susceptible to freezing.

There are two main solutions to keep this from freezing: more electric heat tape or a water-less P-trap. In very cold environments, electric heat tape may be a great solution but can be tricky to install correctly. The water-less p-trap has two rubber flaps in a short vertical tube that open to let the water through but stay pressed together when not draining to create an air trap. Cold enough temperatures can cause moist flaps to freeze, nothing a cup of hot water down the drain won’t solve though before hopping into wash.

Ethan Waldman, founder of The Tiny House, shared a story at the Jamboree of a time in the Vermont winter when the kitchen sink had been left dripping all night. The drip, drip, drips moved too slowly and froze building up in the pipe during the night. Fortunately, after a quick trip crawling under the house with the hairdryer, all was melted and none of the pipes had burst.

Tiny House Utilities

With a conventional house you can put in a utility room, there’s plenty of space for any hot water heater and furnace options. You can figure out most details of the installation later, not with a tiny house. Everything fits together more like a puzzle so you really have to know what you will be piecing together BEFORE you begin building. So, BEFORE cannot be overstated.

Ethan Waldman got the tiny bug in 2011 and, over fourteen short months, built his tiny home in Vermont during 2012 to 2013. He parked it, has lived in the same spot ever since and loves it. For a DIY or first time THOW builder, there are a number of things he highly recommends thinking through BEFORE beginning a tiny house. His guide and videos are an excellent resource for anyone interested in tiny house living.

During a presentation at the Tiny House Jamboree 2017 in Arlington, Ethan gave a seminar that presented tiny house utilities as 9 systems decisions that you need to make BEFORE you build your tiny house. Building a tiny house shares a lot with building a conventional house, but with a tiny house you really, really have to figure out how they’re going to fit Inside the tiny house BEFORE you start building.

  • ·         Fuel
  • ·         Water
  • ·         Showers
  • ·         Freeze Protection
  • ·         Heat
  • ·         Toilet
  • ·         Electricity
  • ·         Refrigerator
  • ·         Ventilation

The decisions that you make designing the layout of your tiny house affect how you will live and what your lifestyle is going to be like. I’ve spent countless hours learning these principles of tiny decisions since when I first set out designing the Earthwagon and Ethan was able to sum it all up in an hour or so. There is so much to know and learn, I will do my best to present it here in a short series of posts based on the approach Ethan recommends when beginning your own tiny project.

Fuel - Propane, electricity and wood

Propane burns clean and hot and is widely available at convenience and grocery stores. Propane has a lot of uses and a wide variety of options exist for any situation. Stoves, water heaters and furnaces can all be run on propane.

Propane can be dangerous so it is important that you call a plumber to install and connect your lines. It can be a little complex and expensive when compared to an electric heater. Propane will require a more permanent installation and of course propane is the fossil fuel so there are environmental concerns with burning propane.

Depending on your demand for propane you will also need an appropriately sized tank. The small 20-pound sized propane tank that you would use for your barbecue grill doesn’t produce enough head pressure for high Btu heaters. 100-pound tanks are the same diameter but are several feet tall.

CAUTION: Do not buy a vent less heater for a tiny home. They do not exhaust to the outside and carbon monoxide can build up quickly in a small space.  They are inexpensive and high Btu, but they are designed for sheds, barns, open garages and other open spaces. On the same note, there are combination propane/CO alarms that are designed for marine use and they are highly recommended if you use gas heat.

Electric heater units are much cheaper to buy and can come as heat pumps, oil filled radiators, radiant panels, thermal mass radiant and all kinds of other options depending on how much heating you need, what your budget is and where you live. The big downfall is that they are much less efficient so, depending on what climate zone you live in, the cost to heat with electric may not be cost effective. It can cost 2-3x as much to heat with electricity but in more temperate zones, where an electric space heater is all you need to take the chill out in the morning and is off the rest of the day, it may be sensible to use electric for heating the tiny house.

The high energy demand of any source of electric heat make combining with a solar system especially disadvantageous. It’s highly unlikely that you will want the size of solar array and battery bank you would need for heavy usage of electric heaters.

Wood is the third option. It can be environmentally friendly, reliable source of fuel and is very aesthetically appealing. The wood stoves are very cozy. They also need a lot of space. Because wood stoves are designed to radiate heat from the hot metal surface, the couch, cabinets, walls and other combustible materials cannot be within 12”-24” depending on the particular stove. Space is a precious commodity with smaller homes but providing enough clearance is extremely important that cannot be understated.

A considerable downside to heating with wood is burn time. Wood must be manually fed into the stove and during extended periods away, freezing weather can wreak havoc on an unheated structure. Heat protects your pipe from freezing so in colder climates, after 7-8 hours the house will quickly begin to cool down.

Combining wood with a backup heat source is yet another space consideration. Wood is a great off-grid solution but again a conundrum exists because most off-grid setups use solar. With the wagon, our ductless mini-split is both an A/C and heater so my solution includes a generator backup in case the winter sun doesn’t provide enough energy to keep the space above 50F.

So how cold is your climate and how much work do you want to do? Do you want to be chopping firewood or switching out propane tanks, or would you rather just set the thermostat and forget about it? There are a lot of options to consider and each situation will have unique requirements, but in the case of all tiny builds one thing is consistent. Decide before you begin building!