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.
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!