Why a tiny house and not an RV?

Tiny House in an RV park - photo by Tammy Strobel

Tiny House in an RV park – photo by Tammy Strobel

I received a question via email recently asking about our reasoning for choosing a tiny house design rather than a traditional recreational travel trailer. The reader asked:

“I’m a builder so I’m wondering about standard construction used in tiny houses and what kind of weight it adds up to? RV manufactures go to great lengths to minimize weight and tiny houses are a direct opposite of this practice. Just wondering if this is an issue for people who want to travel.

Tiny houses seem very attractive and cozy to me, but I am puzzled why people wouldn’t just opt for a travel trailer. This to me is the biggest mystery associated with the excitement that seems to be attached with tiny houses…”

Tammy and I get variations on this question quite often. To help other readers understand our decision I thought I’d post my response below:

Most tiny houses are built to the international building code. This building code is a robust and well established construction guide. Dee Williams describes this construction process very well in her ebook “Go House Go”. We have never weighed our home but we estimate based on the weights of other stick-built (wood framed) tiny houses that it weighs approximately 5,000 lbs. There are some manufacturers of tiny houses that have chosen lighter weight materials such as steel framing however the purpose behind these tiny houses differ from traditional RV applications. Tiny houses are usually built for permanent use throughout all four seasons. Thus they have greater insulation and are built with traditional materials to stand up to environmental exposure (sun and snow) and the needs of daily living. Further, tiny houses are usually parked in one place for a longer period of time and because the design aesthetic is typically not aerodynamic or lightweight, they are not intended to travel frequently. Although some RVs may also fit the above application of four season use, most are built for 3 season occasional use camping and are built with less robust materials designed to be efficient in gross-weight and aerodynamics for travel.

If a potential buyer were interested in frequent travel I would not recommend a tiny house. Tiny houses are basically smaller, more affordable versions of traditional homes with the added benefit of having the ability to move it.

Tiny house energy: Heating and Cooking Fuel Choices

Alcohol Range made by Origo - Photo by Tammy Strobel

Alcohol Range made by Origo – Photo by Tammy Strobel

A friend recently contacted Tammy and I to ask about our rationale regarding our choice of fuels for heating and cooking in the tiny house. I wanted to give a thorough reply to him and then post my reply here just in case others in the Tiny House Community are considering similar questions. Feel free to leave a comment below to share your ideas or questions.
Fuel type choices for cooking and heating were a problem that we struggled a bit to decide on, because after considering propane, wood, electric and alcohol we realized they all had potential advantages and disadvantages. Especially considering our circumstances of a no-car, urban living situation. The notes below were our conclusions on the four fuel types that we considered.

Propane:

Propane gas is the most popular choice for tiny homes. Its cheap (~$3/gallon), its ubiquitous, has small storage space, there is minimal cleaning involved, and its easy to fire up. However, for our situation on the bikes, propane was problematic due to the size and weight of the cylindrical tanks. Also we had qualms about the environmental damage that results from fracking and the potential future volatility in that market (peak oil). Further, these systems require powered ventilation systems due to the relatively large amount of oxygen consumption along with carbon dioxide and moisture production.

Wood:

We were very interested in wood stoves since the fuel source is the most sustainable and most resilient. However, we were concerned about size and weight on the bikes again, its messy to clean up, relatively difficult to ignite and install (chimney with guy-wire supports) and puts out smoke that neighbors may complain about in a urban/suburban area.

Electricity:

Electric ovens and heaters are miraculous. They are relatively cheap to purchase, they are clean, and have the greatest ease of use. The biggest drawbacks to these appliances is that they can be expensive in their cost to operate and as cheap appliances, they can break easily. Electric heat in anyform is also a dealbreaker when it comes to off-grid power sources. Solar and wind powered batteries can’t be used for the prodigious electricity requirements of these tools. This being said, small electric space heaters have been a wonderful asset to us. Although not all space heaters are created equal (see this review) ours runs at a minimum of 700 Watts and only costs about $17/month to use. Dee Williams uses a very small 400 Watt model heater but since her solar array can only deliver 240 watts its insufficient to run the heater and she must use an extension cord from on-grid power to operate it. Also Lina Menard has used a different 475 Watt system that she has really enjoyed.

Alcohol:

When we heard about alcohol stoves from Kai and Sheila at 2cycle2gether.com we realized that alcohol fuel offered a good compromise compared to the above options. Although the fuel source was relatively expensive compared to natural gas ($15/gallon vs $3/gallon) it was easy to carry home by bicycle from the hardware store. Further, alcohol fuel is clean, easy to ignite, ventilation was very simple (crack a window), and it has the potential to be renewable like wood. Cooking with ethanol was the best option for us however heating a home with ethanol, although possible, is not ideal mainly because of the cost/benefit ratio of its relatively low efficiency in heating a room.