Weather Report: Rain on the Skylight

Recently a couple people have asked for updates about how the tiny house and I have fared through the Portland winter. "Winter?" I think. "What winter?" Ice Crystals by Moonlight

There have been cold days. There was, for instance, the day that sleet froze on my skylight, making beautiful crystalline patterns when the full moon shone through it.

I used the oil radiator heater in addition to the wall-mounted heater several times a week during December and January. Twice when I was using the oil radiator heater I tripped the circuit breaker because I made the mistake of also using my electric water kettle which is electricity intensive. The irony is that both times I turned on the oil heater because I had company coming and wanted to make the place nice and toasty for them even though I would have been fine just wearing my down vest and slippers if it had just been me at home. It was when I decided to make my company a cup of tea that I lost all power which meant all heat and light. In trying to make everything warm, bright, and cozy I made the tiny house dark and cold. I couldn't find the circuit breaker in the big house, so I boiled water on the propane stove, bundled my company up in blankets, and lit some candles. I have that little propane boat heater, too, but without the electric fan it's pretty useless. I turned it on for the psychological warmth even though it didn't do much good. Fortunately, one of my visitors is a fellow tiny house dweller and the other is a nomad and minimalist so they were both good sports about candlelit conversation. The first time I maxed out my electrical capacity I hadn't realized how I'd done it, but the second time I figured out where the circuit breaker is located and I learned to make a choice between heating the space and heating water in a hurry. I started boiling water on the stove more often. It was an easy adjustment.

Propane Boat Heater

Throughout February I've been back to using the Envi wall-mounted space heater as my sole heat source and I've been very pleased with it. It's silent, has a sleek, slim design, and has kept my house at a pleasant temperature. I do keep it on 24/7 because I find that if I turn it off the house cools down enough that it takes a while to get all the surfaces warmed up again. But here it is February and there are times that it's been so warm I've been able to turn it down a notch. In the next two months I'll be weaning myself off of it.

Winters here are so mild compared to what I'm used to that it's amusing to me that winter is already on its way out. I was delighted to discover a front yard in my neighborhood completely covered in crocuses while I was biking home from visiting another tiny house dweller this afternoon. I always think of my friend Claudia when I see the first crocuses of the year. When we were in college she helped call my attention to crocuses, teaching me that they are a harbinger of springtime to come. Next: daffodils. Then: tulips. Stay tuned. The world is about to become a lot more colorful!

Crocuses: Harbinger of Spring

Claudia's attention to natural cycles and her giddy appreciation for little joys are two of my very favorite things about her. This winter I have found myself thinking of Claudia frequently, imagining how much she would like being in a house so small that the rest of the world surrounds her. We have had several storms that have lashed winds against the tiny house, sending driving rain through the screens and onto the window panes. When the bluster really picks up momentum the house rocks, ever so slightly, and I imagine myself on a sailboat.

It's fun to watch the way that the sunlight moves around the house throughout the day, first peeping in through the eastern windows, then the southern, casting rainbows across the sleeping loft from the prism that hangs in the window there. The evening sun spills in through my western window, above my desk. The days that I focus on my internship instead of classes I luxuriate in an afternoon nap in the sleeping loft and then enjoy the sunshine's company as I type up reading notes or a blog post.

On clear nights I love falling asleep to the stars shimmering through the skylight in my little wooden ceiling. Mornings that I wake up to the drum of rain on the skylight I grin and hit the snooze button, knowing that I'm off the hook for riding my bike to campus. I have twenty more minutes before I need to get up, make my tea, and catch my bus.

A Tiny Truck House

For a week earlier this winter every time I caught the bus on Alberta Street I admired the tiny house built on the back of a truck, which was sitting across the street at the transmission shop. I stood there and memorized it: the graceful arch of the front door and the window matching the curve of the roof, the brass clip near the door for hand-delivered mail, the wee windows, and the storage hatches tucked near the cab. When I had a long wait I'd tiptoe around the little wooden gypsy wagon and try to peep in the windows... with little success since they're high and I'm short. The folks working at the auto shop were protective of the little house so I didn't want to push my luck by asking for contact information. I could only imagine that the space inside was wonderful.

Luckily, the tiny house world is, well... tiny. This week I finally got to see the inside of this delightful little abode and meet its owner. In fact, I had the chance to swap tiny house tours with the fellow who built this little house on wheels a couple of years ago.
Entering John's house is like unwrapping a present. John's artistic touch is evident in every ledge, knob, and surface of his cozy home. Sitting on John's window seat on a rainy day, sipping tea, and talking for three hours about the process of designing this tiny house I was impressed by the high level of thoughtful consideration he committed to his live/work/play spac. While John's quick to give credit to the craftspeople whose expertise he relied upon, including Dee Williams, the design is very much his own. I was particularly fascinated by the details that make John's place uber multi-functional. His desk can convert to another sitting space or a dining bar. His bed also serves as extra lounging space. His mom used the window seat as a bed the last time John took her and the house for a road trip. There are little latches that hold the drawers under the window seat closed while the house is in motion. The space under the bed provides easy access from the inside for pantry staples and deep storage for camping gear, accessible from the outside. Did I mention that this house is only 14 feet long?!
John is probably my nearest neighbor if you count only tiny house dwellers. I feel very lucky to have found him since it's always a joy to "talk shop" with someone who shares my passions. It was fun to have John over for tea at my little place, too, and to show him drawings of my tiny dream home. He's already given me plenty to consider as I revise my tiny house plans.
In a future post I'll share more about the tiny house design considerations we've discussed. For now I wanted to introduce John and his wee house, Polymecca. John's house will be on this year's Pedalpalooza Tiny House Bike Tour in June. Mark your calendar for June 24th so you can see it, too!

Lazy Snow!

What a perfect morning for cocoa and hot cereal! The snowflakes that have sputtered around Portland for the past three days are the northwest kind: lazy, sloppy flakes that fall in big clusters and disperse as soon as they hit anything. Even so, they confound us. School is delayed two hours this morning. Many of the busses are sporting chains and running behind. They pile up and then leap frog past each other, alternating stops to pick up red-cheeked folks who have been standing in the flurries for twenty minutes. Passengers are not sure whether to be bemused that two buses arrive at once. They're not suddenly chatty because of the snow, but they are very conscientious about not dripping on their stranger seat mates. Rumor has it the light rail and street cars are still running on time. Another reason to consider rail, but not good justification in a region that gets spooked by the mere mention of snowfall.

Most cyclists have switched to transit, more out of fear of ice and out-of-control cars than the unpleasantries of riding in the snow. Depending on the conditions, snow biking can be plenty of fun. My friend Baker reports that zoobombing in the slush is quite amusing. (If you're not familiar with that particular Portland tradition, wikipedia's zoobomb post can help you out!) On Sunday I rode my bike to meet a classmate for brunch at Pine State Biscuitsand kept blinking as snowflakes plopped into my face. I couldn't help thinking of my eyelids as windshield wipers working on their highest setting to provide proper visibility. As we stood in an unusually short line to place our orders (so many people scared off by the weather!), the snow mustered determination for the first time this season. Giddy Portlanders slipped out of the restaurant to twirl on the sidewalks and laugh about making slushmen after brunch. They then promptly resumed their places so they could ensure that their winter adventures would happen on a full stomach of fried chicken on a biscuit, smothered in country gravy.

Last night the snow actually started accumulating and by time Raffi and I climbed the ladder to our sleeping loft my tiny house was masked in a dusting of snow. Unfortunately, it rained all night, so we'll probably have layers of ice to contend with today.
Meanwhile, the wall mounted Envi heater hasn't been able to keep up with these below-freezing temps. (Read more about my slim electric space heater.) Over the weekend I used the propane boat heater twice because it's such nice ambiance on a blustery day, but the fan is still bothersome. So the past couple of days I've kept the Envi heater running at full tilt since it uses less electricity than the oil radiator heater. I set the timer on the rolling oil heater to come up to temp for the hours in the morning and evening that I want the house warmer. So far, so good.

How Many Lightbulbs Does it Take to Heat a Tiny House?

Last fall I designed my tiny dream house in a workshop called Less is More, which was taught by Andreas Stavropoulos and Dave Cain at Yestermorrow Design-Build School. As I was deliberating about heating options, my classmate John joked, "Sheesh! That place is so small you don't need to install a heater - you, your cat, and an incandescent light bulb would heat the place right up!" John had lived on and built boats in Maine for decades so I took most of what he said very seriously. But I also knew I'm a wimp compared to him, so for the last year and a half I've been paying attention to different heating options for small spaces. Heating seems to be a dilemma for many tiny house dwellers. Some folks love wood heat so they install tiny wood stoves and stoke their fires and call it good. A friend of mine who is an arborist says wood is the way he'd heat a tiny house since he has a limitless supply of it. But crawling out of a warm bed to build a fire doesn't even sound fun to me when I'm camping! Besides, I'm a little pyrophobic. Even if I did like building fires I'd need to get good at it so that I could control temperatures so it was comfortable. And since my schedule often involves being gone for 12 hours at a stretch it I wouldn't be around to stoke a fire.

Taking a page out of Jay Shafer's book, lots of folks have installed propane boat heaters in their tiny houses. They have great ambiance (a flickering blue flame) and they heat a space up quickly and without the mess of wood. But in order get the heat distributed throughout the room you have to have the fan on. And the fan is noisy. Obnoxiously noisy. I have a hunch that when you live in central California heat's not quite as critical as it is during the winters here. Portland has a nice, mild climate, but we still have plenty of heating degree days! Brittany installed one of these propane boat heaters (which requires clearances, running a propane line, and adding an additional penetration in the ceiling).
By the time Brittany turned her little house over to me she had pretty much quit using her boat heater. Instead she had switched to a portable oil radiant heater which has a timer so that it can be set to come during certain periods. Unfortunately, it doesn't have a setback temperature so it would come on and bring the temperature up to the set temp from whatever the house had cooled down to. Depending on how cold it is this can take a while! At the end of the set time it again turns off completely. I found that it worked pretty well to just set the temp to about 60 degrees and manually adjust it whenever I wanted it warmer for a while. But it also took up precious floor space, I sometimes tripped over its cord, and it was a little clunky to have to move it every time I shifted the desk over to use it as a table for dining. So I started looking into other options.

space heater installed

Last week my new heater arrived and, as promised by the website, installation took just a few minutes. The new heater is a wall mounted convection heater with a nice slim profile and some sort of special stack effect technology. (I understand the stack effect - I think! - but I don't see how it can be very effective in a heater that is only two feet tall, so I put it on the near the loft so that the height differential can give it a boost.) The heater is made by a company called Envi and after reading reviews for the three heaters on the market that are similar, I went with this one because there's a temperature control and the design has curved edges which I figured would help me be less likely to snag myself on it. The others also had some reviews that talked about worrisome defects and poor customer service, but it doesn't help that all three of them have very similar names. So I sprung for the one that cost $30 more.

Which brings me to the notion that $130 is a lot of money to spend on a space heater - unless it's your entire heat system and then it's nothing! I like the slim profile and it seems to be heating up nicely so I'm impressed so far! It doesn't actually have a thermostat, but it does have a temperature control. I can turn it up and down as well as on and off. I can't tell what the temperature is in my tiny house. But there's only been one day since I installed it that I felt chilly (and that was after I turned it down because I'd gotten too hot). It was also right around the winter solstice. Short, dark, cold days. So for now I'm just keeping it at full tilt and appreciating that it's always warm inside my house.
Perhaps the coolest thing is that, unlike the oil heater which was a 1500 watt heater, the new one only uses 475 watts (basically like having five incandescent lightbulbs on!) Which, I'll admit, got me thinking of John's comment: it might actually be more cost effective in the short term to just swap out all the nice CFLs Brittany put in for incandescents since they produce so much heat I might not need a heater at all! But really I don't think they'd quite do the trick...

Keeping Cozy

I've started a paid internship with a planning organization so my schedule is very full these days. It makes me really appreciate the tiny house when I'm able to be home. I love sitting in the window seat reading for classes with my cat on my lap, cooking hearty food in the little kitchen, or sleeping in the snug loft.

I have found that the radiator heater works best if I keep it at a baseline temperature and crank it up when I feel too chilled. There is a timer on the heater but it doesn't have a setback option, so I haven't been using that feature. (It comes up to the temp you've set at the times you tell it to but then it turns off completely at the end of the period you've set and I find that if I turn the heater all the way off for a long period of time it takes a while for the house to heat back up again.) If I keep it set at 58 while I'm away and then bump it up when I get home, it doesn't take long before it's nice and cozy. I don't know yet how much electricity I'm using now that I've got the heater turned on since the electricity meter I purchase to monitor my usage doesn't fit in the outlet because of the way the plugs are oriented. I'm curious but not enough to have figured out a way to check. That will be one of my projects once the term is over.
One of my neighbors recommended a heater that is installed on the wall and I'm considering getting one because it would be less obtrusive than the one on wheels that I've been using. I wouldn't have to relocate it every time I have a friend over for dinner and need to turn my desk into a dining table. I'll keep you posted about whether I decide to go for it and, if so, what I think of it.

Taking the Heat

I've lived in the tiny house for a month now and I'm still a little giddy every morning when I wake up. I've settled into some routines that work well for me and it's feeling more and more like home. A friend helped me fetch my oh-so-comfy Savvy Rest latex foam mattress from Walla Walla where I'd stored it with a friend for a few weeks while I settled in. It's 10 inches tall, which reduces the headroom when I sit up in the loft, but it's so luxurious I'm perfectly okay with it. It's such a cozy spot, especially on chilly mornings.

Out of sheer stubbornness I decided I wasn't going to turn the heat on until November. It's the 2nd of November now and I'm really grateful for the heat. I'll take it! Brittany installed a propane boat heater but she said she actually preferred using the electric oil radiator heater on wheels, so that's what I've used today. It's been nice and toasty. I think the heater will become part of my daily routine, too.

Each day I crack the windows top and bottom to provide good ventilation while I'm out since there isn't an exhaust fan in the house. Brittany had trouble with condensation last year, so per her request I'm also running a tiny dehumidifier. When it fills up (which happens about once a week) I use the contents of the little pail to water my two house plants.
I do a load of laundry at my host house once a week. When the weather is nice enough to dry clothes outside I do. I haven't tried line drying inside the tiny house because of the moisture management issues, but I might give it a go now that I'm using heat again. I do have a five-line retractable clothes line I could run between the lofts.
The water heater is a four gallon tank instead of an on-demand model. I don't figure I need it on when I'm not using it, so I flip the water heater on when I get up in the morning. I do my cooking early in the day and pack food to eat in between classes. I turn the water heater off before I leave for school so it isn't using up propane during the day while I'm gone or over night while I'm sleeping.
Tidying up the house goes pretty quickly since everything is close at hand. I put things back in their places, wipe down the counters, shake the rugs, sweep the floor. It only takes about fifteen minutes!
And I don't need to deal with the least favorite of chores: cleaning the shower. The tiny house does have a shower but I haven't used it since I have access to the gym on campus. I bike to school several times a week which takes me about an hour since I'm a slow poke. When I get there I shower and get ready for class. I like that the tiny house has a shower and if I wasn't going to shower at the gym almost every day anyway I think I'd probably be using the one here. Instead I'm using it as a closet. The shower curtain rod works perfectly well for clothes hangers and it makes the bathroom a sweet little dressing room.
It's such a good Little Life!