on wheels

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 Insurance

What was most foreign to me in the tiny process? If you guessed 'tiny house insurance' then you may very well be a genius. Go you! Fortunately, I met a man who explained the in's and out's very thoroughly and now I'll share that experience here.

Darrell Grenz is a full service independent insurance broker located in Portland, OR who founded his agency in 2004 and was the first to pioneer the tiny house product. His philosophy involves assessing each individual situation and catering to specific risks, rather than some blanket coverage.

Why have THOWs been difficult to insure?

A tiny house on wheels, or THOW, is hard to insure mostly because they are all so different and some so strange. Which is a really good thing, unless you are an underwriter of an insurance policy. Then it’s… well it’s not good. See, insurance is the product of trying to keep a lot of similar items divided into homogeneous categories and making an assessment of risk based on that.

Of course, the wheels pose an obvious concern. There is a possibility of theft, although it can be easily avoided and is not a common issue. More prominently, is the change in fire protection class when moved. In a situation like moving from an urban into a more rural setting, or off-grid, a normal fire may become a total loss. Wind is also a concern that must be addressed with a tiny house.

Tiny homes have not been a movement for very long. There has not been a lot of data collected yet because of this but more importantly it makes tiny homes a curious attraction. People want to check them out! This is a particularly subtle liability concern that must be addressed and includes issues like lofts and stairs without rails and skirting under the trailer, especially around the jacks.

Who are using tiny spaces?

All kinds of people choose to own a tiny home. The most common is owner occupied. Tiny homes, especially those on wheels, are great for in-laws. Of course, the best idea I know is sending a kid off to college in one. It’ll likely cost less than years of rent and you get a house out of the deal! Easy money.

A lot of people have them as an option for vacation, seasonal and retirement homes. Many are used as studios, workshops, businesses and even affordable housing. Short term rentals are booming with so many people curious to find out if tiny living is right for them. Best to spend the weekend in one to find out!

When can I get insurance?

There are Builders Risk Policies for tiny home builders, both DIY and contractors, that protect the trailer and tiny structure materials from fire, theft and most other concerns for whatever timeline you need during the build process. This lowers the initial insurance cost, as the policy is based on project value. It can be adjusted at intervals and once it’s done, easily transfer to finished policy.

There are a lot of companies out there selling tiny house shells, allowing the homeowner to finish out the interior. Customization is a huge part of the movement and so more people are wanting to do the work themselves. If choosing to start with a shell, it can be insured at a much lower cost as a shell. And again, once it’s done just transfer to a finished policy based on occupancy. Incidentally, it can also be written that the shell is the finished product and be left that way.

IMPORTANT: A DIY THOW build must be inspected and signed off on by qualified electrician for insurance purposes. Have an electrician hook up the breaker box and do this while the wires are all exposed.

A tiny house does not need RVIA certification for insurance. A tiny house doesn’t need any certification for insurance. Certifications are good for financing (RV loans), parking and resale value. An insurance policy for a THOW does not need certification.

RV loans are used to help many people finance a THOW. RV Loans require comp and collision which is on auto insurance policies. Because tiny homes are usually a homeowner’s or dwelling policy, without comp and collision, banks may not be familiar with the similarities between the two but can usually be convinced. Trip coverage is very similar to comp and collision.

Where will the tiny end up?

If you’re planning a stationary tiny house, then I have great news! A lot of times, a ground bound tiny home can be written into a typical homeowner’s policy. Even if a separate policy need to be purchased though, it’s way easier and much cheaper.

It is critical to know that car insurance will usually cover bodily injury and property damage when moving a tiny home, but you will need a separate policy to cover the tiny home. If you plan on moving it at all, ask for trip coverage on the road. Ask the agent a lot of questions in general and do not move the tiny house without insurance.

Ask the builder about their coverage. Does their insurance account for the move to final location or will this exceed the boundaries of their coverage? Many times, this is the case and the tiny home is not insured as soon as it leaves the premises. Know where the coverage starts and stops and fill in the gaps. Sometimes, with trip endorsement the builder can offer the additional move as part of the sales contract. Ask a lot of questions!

If a towing company is hired out to move the house, ensure that their Motor Truck Cargo Coverage is greater than the value of the tiny home. A lot of times, the driver won’t know the details for certain so get a copy of the certificate of insurance from the tow company.

What’s the rest of the story?

Off grid can be insured, but typically represent a higher risk. Fact of life: Higher risk, higher premium. Also, either off-grid or grid-connected solar power systems must be included in the insurance assessment.

More and more municipalities are allowing tiny homes to park in the back yard, but here an issue arises with the traditional ground bound home on the lot. Not all homeowner’s policies are comfortable with the presence of another home on the property. It can be seen as a nuisance and if seen during an inspection, can be grounds for canceling the policy.

A lot of times they don’t know the tiny has a separate policy. Other times they don’t care and you just have to find another policy. Sometimes it’s a big deal and sometimes it’s not, but just know that it’s a concern worth looking into.

So, the demand for tiny houses and insurance policies to protect them is consistent and construction quality is improving. There is now GPS technology that allows you (and the insurance company) to track the location of the tiny house at any time.

Good news for policyholders is that very few claims are made and this trend tends to keep the premiums lower. What this all means is that the underwriters are allocating more resources in this direction and every year it is easier to insure tiny homes on wheels.

If your living in or thinking of living in a tiny house, get insured. Contact an agent. They will have a third-party contractor come and inspect the tiny house, usually just the outside. Show them your electrical paperwork, you’ll install a GPS tracker so they can know what the protection class is wherever the home is placed.

How much will it cost?

A couple dollars a day. Policies range from $500/y -$1500/y but most fall in the average range of $600/y-$700/y. No question about it though, the peace of mind is priceless.

Answering the Why

As we're building the Earthwagon, many people ask us WHY we are building a tiny house. With everyone trying to navigate some type of debt, things can feel a little discouraging when it comes to home ownership. At around $250,000 (YIKES!), the median cost of home ownership in the US is staggering with wage/job growth sluggish compared to inflation. If you throw into play the desire to live a sustainable/minimal lifestyle, it may feel like you run out of options fast.

Blake and I were feeling that pressure. Add to that, all the aggravation of the ever-rising cost of apartment living and we were rattling our brains trying to figure out the next best move. We want to live a sustainable life with an ecofriendly home and plenty of fresh air. 

In all honesty, there are too many different reasons people decide to go tiny to name them all here, but I'll share here some of the main reasons people choose to downsize.

Living an Eco-Conscious Life
Did you know that over the last 40 years, the average US house size has increased in size by more than 1,000 square feet? The typical square footage is now lingering around 2,687 square feet and building a home this size takes a lot of resources.

With a tiny home, much less material is used and so you can easily incorporate reclaimed or sustainable materials into the structure. Larger homes are typically not very energy efficient, but when you build your own home you can make energy efficiency and green technology a priority.

Utilizing solar and wind power in combination with tiny living can significantly reduce your carbon footprint. Most tiny homes use composting toilets and therefore don’t generate any black water. It is also easy to reuse your gray-water and be aware of your water usage when living tiny.

Less House and More Home
When I think of all the “stuff and things” that we own, I get a little overwhelmed. One of the most exciting aspects of this project for me is that I get to sort through everything I have and keep the possessions that I find useful and meaningful, and donate the rest! Switching to life in a small space means reevaluating your lifestyle habitats and making changes accordingly.

I know letting go can be hard, but I believe acknowledging that things are really just “things” and deciphering between need and want is critical for happiness. Ever since we found out about Baby Moore, I've been thinking about this a lot more. I want Baby Moore to recognize what is really important and not be so wrapped up in material consumption like too many people are today. Our children learn by example and I know choosing this lifestyle over any other is the best way to show our tiny human that less is truly more.

Enjoy Flexibility
Many people choose the tiny life so they can be on the move. With a tiny home, you can go wherever you please and possibly even work while traveling. A lot of us aren’t exactly sure where we want to settle, but tiny house communities are popping up all around the country! You can switch it up and always have a place to park your home.

A lot of people love this aspect of tiny living, and if this is your main reason for going tiny I would suggest checking out Jenna, or "that tiny house girl’s" story at Tiny House Giant Journey. She built her own tiny and has traveled the country with it!

Experience Freedom
As I mentioned previously, home ownership is expensive. A tiny home is a lot more financially attainable, and therefore can give you much more freedom. Freedom to think about all the time you'll save not having to keep up with such a large space. Freedom to pay off your home in years instead of decades. Freedom to move about.

All in all, it means you can spend more time doing the things you love! Rather it be spending time with family and loved ones, traveling, pursing hobbies and passions, or maybe even helping others accomplish their dreams of tiny house living, you will not feel like your home is draining your time and bank account.

Customize Based on Your Wants and Needs
Many people have also asked, “Why not just get an RV?” and the answer simply comes down to longevity. For one, our tiny home is built to last (RV’s are generally not designed for full-time living). We want our home to last a lifetime and you just can’t get that type of quality out of an RV.

I really love that we can tailor the wagon to our needs and incorporate our own personal style and be creative with our home. We are building our tiny house to fit our needs and wants:

  • a place for Baby Moore to feel comfy
  • a large kitchen space a lot of counter space
  • comfortable bathroom with five-foot tub
  • a full-size refrigerator and air conditioning
  • a wood stove and propane hot water heater
  • a place for our huge California king (couldn’t give that up!)
  • storage compartments incorporated just about everywhere
  • off grid capabilities (This is a huge one for us!)

So, we designed the wagon with these things as priorities and had to sacrifice in other areas. Since we want to spend more time outdoors and plan on adding a large patio around the wagon, we decided that we could live without much indoor relaxing space.

The reasons for minimizing your footprint are numerous and will vary from person to person. I believe that there is really no clear definition for “tiny house" and have heard from pioneers of the movement such as Dee Williams and Jay Shafer that “tiny” is different for everyone! If you know what your wants and goals are, having a home of any size that helps you achieve those goals is what it is all about!

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!