DIY

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! 

Build a DIY THOW

This a whole new type of construction. There is no actual code base yet, but there are a lot of people working on that. That being said, there are all kinds of different ways to do the construction. A THOW is a Tiny House on Wheels and when you Do It Yourself, there are some guidelines to follow that ensure the bumps and potholes of your adventures don’t shatter your dream home along the way.

There are builders who are taking this extremely serious and others who may not be doing enough. The ways we will be covering here are based on methods used by Sam “Woody” Underwood and his wife Lynsi at the Small Dwelling Company near the DFW Metroplex. Their philosophy is simple: It’s very important for the home to be extremely strong. The construction should be built to Hurricane Coastal Codes, a home built right that when strapped to the ground will survive anything. A home built to last a lifetime.

There is a National Tiny House Appendix that has been approved and made available for every state. It is up to the states and so far, only Idaho has adopted it. Oregon, Georgia and Maine are looking to do the same on Jan 1, 2018. Massachusetts and New Mexico also have it in motion within their legislatures. Although this appendix does not include THOWs, it is a step in the direction of gaining approval for small dwellings.

One of the first things to mention is that correctly building a conventional home on a modular metal frame can be just as strong as any other conventional home. An obvious advantage is that termites just cannot gnaw into a metal foundation and that value cannot be understated. Also though, because it is metal, it can get really cold. Thermal bridging of this cold into the floor can be minimized by using high density spray foam beneath the floor.

To strengthen the structure, using oversized hurricane rafter and floor ties will give the build a rigid frame far stronger than using wood and nails alone. Speaking of fasteners, Sam also mentioned that Grade 8 bolts are far superior (2-3x stronger) to plain galvanized bolts. The largest concern revolves around an idea called Continuous Load Path and maintaining this is critical to the overall integrity of the structure.

These strengthening ideas cost a little extra dough, but the peace of mind is priceless. On the outside of the framing, before the structure is sheathed, diagonals of coiled wall strapping will stiffen the structure just like you’d think straps of metal would. Using CDX plywood for sheathing also will give you superior results over using OSB, or oriented strand boards. The plywood is stronger and holds fasteners better.

The extra cost of these materials for a tiny home is actually tiny too, simply because a smaller home requires far less material to complete. On this same topic, having less house to finish out allows the homebuilder more flexibility to invest in higher quality and more ecofriendly materials such as high-quality flooring and sustainably sourced hardwoods.

If cost is an issue, a sad truth is that the construction industry throws a lot into dumpster. Reclaimed material is especially convenient for tiny homes because each home requires fewer square footage materials and so small quantities that may not be enough for a traditionally sized home are plenty for a THOW project. Just remember, when approaching jobsite foreman about collecting their useful waste, to frame it as saving them on disposal fees. For instance, say “I can save you on waste and disposal fees by allowing me to bring insured people out to the jobsite weekly and taking usable material that would otherwise be discarded.”

Another aspect that Sam pointed out is Quality Control. It is particularly crucial with tiny homes because every detail tends to be visible, nowhere to hide so to speak. On a good note, it is also much easier to strive for perfection on a smaller build for just that reason: it’s smaller. Construction has changed through the years and a lot of times faster construction processes can compromise quality. The most important thing to remember is take your time and use the resources available online and in your community.

In a lot of ways, the DIY tiny home movement is a step back in time. More people used to build their own homes and now more people are building their homes again. The most exciting part about the movement are the opportunities to come together and help others, similar to how our not so distant ancestors would have house raisings.

Around here, we have the DFW Tiny House Enthusiasts and there are many other social groups and meet ups in a growing number of communities around the country. There are likely occasional gatherings or workshops near all metropolitan areas so do a little research and reach out to those people around you!

Sam’s final thoughts had to do with some of the deeper feelings behind the growing movement. A lot of people are downsizing and smaller dwellings don’t have to mean a THOW or even a tiny house. The trend for some time has been bigger homes, but as homes have gotten bigger doesn’t it feel like families have gotten smaller? Most of our ancestors lived in much smaller spaces and were probably as comfortable as their hearts would allow. When you drive through more recently developed neighborhoods today it seems like every house looks the same, with more house on the lot than lawn. A DIY tiny home is an opportunity to express yourself, minimize your baggage, narrow your focus and get out of the house!

Tiny House Jamboree 2017

Last week, somewhere on the interweb, Melissa found all about this tiny house festival going on in Arlington the weekend before Halloween. I said “Great, let’s go!” We've been planning, designing and building ours all year and all that we've learned has generated so many more questions. She looked into it the next day let me know that there would be a lot of seminars and presentations going on that were only available to premium access ticket holders. For us to go and see all that we wanted to see was going to end up costing a few hundred dollars.

One thing to know about building a tiny house, is that you’re still building a house. Houses are expensive and we’re definitely already feeling that burden on this project, now we have another expense to consider.

Now the question, is it worth it? Everything that we can learn during the weekend must be available online, right? Either in YouTube videos or blogs and websites. Why should we spend hundreds of dollars to go hear it in person? I’ll spare you the details of our considerations and say that it was probably the best money that we’ve spent so far. Without a doubt.  

There were dozens of commercial builders and dozens of do it yourself builders with their homes set up all around the convention center, there were also over a hundred vendors of products related to tiny houses. What interested us most were the hours upon hours of great programming, a lot of which were only accessible to premium ticket holders.

There were two 4-hour seminars available that came with premium access, so I chose the one on Friday morning and Melissa went to the Sunday morning one. There's a lot of information covered in each one of those so then it was just a matter of narrowing down which of the other programs we would go to in between touring homes and talking to vendors.

We ended up listening to speakers cover:

To cover all that we learned this weekend will require many blogs posts and to say the least I’m feeling very inspired, invigorated and excited about this whole tiny house experience. Check back often for updates covering all these topics and connect with us on the link below!

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