Tiny House Details: Chapter 3, Lighting

Tiny House Lighting

Tiny House lighting is important during the long winter nights

For the majority of my adult life I have rented apartments for my home. As a renter, I always took lighting for granted. I moved in, flipped a switch, and light would appear. I changed bulbs when necessary, but lighting fixtures were beyond the extent of my knowledge. Once I set out to design a tiny house, I found my ignorance challenged by an unexpected abundance in lighting choices. How ignorant you ask? Well, lets put it this way, I was unaware that “sconce” was a word.  Not only did I have to battle my ignorance I also had to consider lamp type, placement, fixture type and cost. Below is a summary of what I learned and a story of the saga I endured…

Lamp Type:

Light Emitting Diode (LED):
These lamps are wonderfully bright, energy efficient, and compact in size making them ideal choices for a tiny house. Although they are relatively expensive in upfront costs, they tend to last longer and be more conducive to off-grid power set-ups. In my experience, LEDs seem best suited for spotlighting task areas in the house. Although I have not tried the LED bulbs designed to broadcast light and illuminate entire rooms, reviews of these products suggest they are not as suited to this as incandescent or CFL bulbs. Other complaints of LED lights typically describe an unaesthetic blueish color to the light. These complaints are a bit outdated as more yellowish wavelengths are becoming more available in LEDs due to the public demand for a “warm white” bulb. Some users experience a “flicker” with LED lights but this problem can be eliminated by reducing the small fluctuations in household voltage.

Compact Fluorescent light (CFL):
The CFL bulbs are an inexpensive and energy efficient replacement for incandescent bulbs making them a great compromise to the larger upfront costs of LEDs. This lamp type has an intermediate lifespan between LED and incandescent bulbs and gives a terrific color of light. The biggest complaint most owners have about this light is the fragility of the bulb and the relatively toxic contents of mercury.

Incandescent:
This technology type is similar to the original application of electricity to lighting and over 100 years old. These bulbs are cheap, bright, and hot. The United States Congress have passed legislation to phase out this lighting type due to its inefficiency and soon these bulbs will no longer be available. Some tiny house folks have joked that have a few of these bulbs would be all that was needed to heat a tiny house. However, there are more efficient heat sources and you don’t have to worry about the heat in the summer time.

Halogen:
In my opinion this lighting type is similar to incandescent technology. Halogen lights have a tremendously bright output given their relatively compact size and are commonly used in more specialized applications. The main disadvantage is the relatively high cost of the bulbs given their short-lifespan and the heat output.

Field-Induced Polymer Electroluminescent (FIPEL):
I have no experience with these lights. I read about them recently as an interesting new commercial venture that produces light with electricity and a conductive plastic. As I understand it, the technology is relatively old but new carbon nanotube production methods have effectively increased light output. Although no hands-on reviews are available yet, the advantages of these lights appear promising. I believe these lights will likely have all the benefits of CFL lights yet lack the shortcomings of fragility and toxic contents. According to the developers, FIPEL bulbs are expected to be available in late 2013.

What we installed:
After experiencing a paradox of choice, Tammy was overwhelmed with the thousands of lighting fixtures and a multitude of lamp options. I was abandoned and left to narrow down the options. To simplify my choices I tried to focus on my needs, budget and long term cost to operate. Each area of the house had different needs so I tried to consider each area as a separate project instead of trying to find a light type that would be a compromise fit for everything.

Kitchen, Reading Bench, and Bathroom:

IKEA Inreda LED puck light

IKEA Inreda LED puck light

For the areas of my home that were task-oriented I chose the spot-light puck-style IKEA Inreda LED lights. Although these lights are designed for cabinets they work well for our needs. The lights cost approximately $50 and are bundled as a pack of four with a built in transformer and a plug for an outlet. Katy, our tiny house builder, stripped the plug and hardwired the lights so they would work with a traditional light switch. The IKEA Inreda LED lights have worked well for us the past 14 months, however the quality of these lights are a bit flimsy and not robust. The connectors between cables are relatively loose fitting requiring extra care in the set-up. We had to trouble shoot a few issues with a poor cord connection because of the cheap IKEA components. Thanks to Katy, we had easy access to the LED hardware for trouble shooting. She artfully hid the cords under molding and placed the LED hardware (cords and transformer) in sensible cabinet areas for future maintenance and repair. In retrospect I’d suggest using a USA based LED manufacturer like Affordable Quality Lighting that makes better quality components and values customer service.

Loft and “Great Room”:

Wall light Sconce

Wall light sconce with CFL bulb

For areas of the house that needed more general lighting I chose more traditional wall sconces with CFL bulbs. These sconces were relatively inexpensive, put out plenty of light, and allow for upgrading bulbs in the future if we decide to try LED bulbs, or potentially, the new FIPEL bulbs.

Porch:

The porch light was my most challenging decision. This light choice was challenging because of the limitations of outdoor options, house design and the amount of light needed. Because the house has windows on both sides of the front door there was no room to fit a wall-mounted porch light. Further, the porch roof is only a few inches above my head so a recessed light was required. Since there was only about 4 inches of space between our loft floor and the porch roof this was too shallow for a traditional recessed light fixture. I ended up choosing a recessed LED step light from Affordable Quality Lighting.The compact size of the LED fixture was perfect with a recessed depth of less than 2.5 inches. It makes me smile that our porch light for the tiny house was so small that it required a fixture that most people use for lighting stair steps. Even the LED “bulbs” were small, at about the size of a quarter dollar.

I no longer take light fixtures and house details for granted. After going through the process of choosing tools and materials for the tiny house I can now appreciate the small details I find in other homes. I now pay attention to how things work and the rationale behind why they were chosen. After reading an entire post about lighting I’m sure that you are also a connoisseur of tools and materials so tell me in the comments about your favorite lamps. Why are your favorite lamps so special? Further, if I missed any lamp types or fixtures that deserve recognition please let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!

Cheers,
Logan.

Further resources: For greater detail on lamp specifications see this guide and FAQ provided by ELEEK in Portland, Oregon.

Tiny House Details: Chapter 2 – Cooking

Many tools and materials comprise our tiny house. Photo by Tammy Strobel

Many tools and materials comprise our tiny house. Photo by Tammy Strobel

Years ago, the idea of living in a tiny space piqued my curiosity and I wanted to learn how people adapted to this alternative lifestyle. Learning about the details of materials and tools made the idea of “living tiny” less abstract and more practical. To address similar interests of readers I have started a series I’m calling “tiny house details” where I will discuss the tools, materials, and appliances I chose for my simple lifestyle and why I chose them.

Cooking in a tiny space is a big challenge. Fire safety, ventilation for carbon monoxide and moisture build-up are the primary concerns in small space cooking. Further, when you add the choices of fuels and appliances for the daily task of cooking, the challenge can feel overwhelming. To help Tammy and I decide how to cook in our tiny home we observed our cooking needs and looked for others with similar habits for examples. I found solidarity in Sheila and Kai on their blog 2cycle2gether.com. We both used bicycles for transportation, we shared the love for tiny living and baking and we both had concerns regarding energy sustainability. Kai’s article on their Swedish alcohol cooking appliance had a big impact on me. I hadn’t even considered alcohol as a fuel source but his reasoning intrigued me. The same day I read the article I looked on craigslist and found a used version of the alcohol range for sale and I was sold on the idea.

Alcohol Range made by Origo. Photo by Tammy Strobel

Alcohol Range made by Origo. Photo by Tammy Strobel

Why Alcohol?

I covered the topic of fuel choice in an earlier article but I will briefly review my choice here. Propane stovetops and ovens were the clear favorite among tiny house and RV owners due to the low-price and ubiquity. However, I had concerns regarding how simple these systems would be to use and maintain in the long term. Specifically, because of my bike-centric lifestyle, fuel transportation and sustainability were my big concerns. In addition, an explosive pressurized gas made me feel a bit uneasy when it came to safety. Switching to an electric cooking system would seem to be the ideal solution to address these concerns but the demands of such a system and our dream of living off-grid made this choice similarly less favorable.

Alcohol requires relatively simple ventilation (open a few windows) when cooking, is easy to transport as a liquid fuel, easy to install (free-standing with no wires or gas lines), and is safe to use. Ultimately, it was the easy to understand nature of the fuel and cooking range that made alcohol attractive as a fuel source. Ideally I hope to one day learn enough to distill my own fuel through a solar still.

Materials and Installation.

Our cooking range is a Swedish made Origo 3000 and it uses alcohol as a fuel. The current model of this range is called the Origo 6000. I doubt the new models are twice as good but I’m sure name changes help sales. The number one thing I love about this appliance is how robust it is. This stove is robust because of its materials, simple design, and easy to understand operation. It is made of stainless steel, glass and wool is used as a fuel binder in the burners. This stove spent over 15 years on a sailboat and its still running strong. The Origo 3000 was designed without the planned obsolescence nonsense that plagues most of the recent appliances designed in the United States.

The Origo range is a free-standing appliance so installation was relatively easy compared to setting up gas or electrical lines. Basically you just bolt the cooking-range to a solid foundation that brings the top level with the surface of the counter. Because the oven is relatively shallow in depth we left the cabinet space behind the oven open with access via a hatch-type door in the counter that doubles as a cutting board. Using the oven generates some residual heat from the back of the appliance so we only store items that aren’t sensitive to the heat back there like metal baking sheets.

Design Features:

The Origo cooking-range is well designed not only in its longevity but also in its ease of use and cleaning. Adjusting the heat of the burners is similar to other stoves where you move a knob on the front left and right. The knob controls the heat through a simple burner door that adjusts the size of the flame. For example, opening the door completely gives a large flame for boiling water or frying food; partially closing the door is for simmering; and turning the knob back the starting position closes the burner-door and extinguishes the burner flame (turning it “off”). The oven works in a similar way. To pre-heat the oven, simply open the burner-door completely, light the burner and close the compartment. The oven has a glass door so you can see a thermometer mounted in the oven. Once the thermometer reads your preheated temp you can turn down the knob halfway to maintain the temperature.

Cleaning a traditional oven is usually a big chore involving harsh chemicals and getting down on your hands and knees to scrub. Thankfully, the Origo cooking-range was designed with cleaning in mind. Almost any surface that comes in contact with food can be taken out and scrubbed in a sink to give your knees a break. For example, the glass oven door can be dismantled and cleaned inside out and the bottom of the oven can be removed for cleaning if something was spilled while cooking.

Challenges:

Surprisingly, the biggest challenge we faced with this stove was how to ignite the burners. There is no built in igniter. It appears that the top of the stove was designed to make efficient use of the fuel but not to make it easy to ignite. To ignite the alcohol burner you have to get a spark or a flame very close, yet from the top of the stove the burner sits about 3 inches down a narrow flame well. To address this issue we tried a number of different tools for igniting.

  • Matches – simple, cheap, and relatively easy to use by dropping the match into the flame well. The problem was the sulfur smell, the smoke from the wood and the left over bits of matches that accumulated on the burner.
  • A butane trigger lighter – very effective for getting a flame into a small space and keeping your fingers safe from burning (e.g. barbecuing) but very poorly designed. Most of these lighters are made to be disposable after the fuel is used up. I find this design irresponsible so I paid a bit more for a refillable model from Coghlans. Unfortunately, this lighter quit working nearly a week after using it.
  • Flint striker – Also known as a metal match, are used in science labs and in welding businesses all over. These tools are robust, easy to use, and still made in the USA. Squeezing the handle moves flint across the rough surface and produces a spark. The only issue with this tool is its size. It is too big to fit down into the flame well so we had to open the top of the stove to light the burner directly. Admittedly, the stove was likely designed to have burners ignited this way.
  • Lantern flint striker – This is a variation on the tool above that is used to get sparks into a small enclosure. This tool was the best of both worlds. A hybrid between the long and narrow butane lighter with a robust flint spark to ignite the alcohol. Unfortunately, Coghlans was also the manufacture of this product and, like their butane lighter, it also stopped functioning about one week after using it.
Tools for igniting the alcohol burners: matches, butane lighter, flint striker, lantern flint striker

Tools for igniting the alcohol burners: matches, butane lighter, flint striker, lantern flint striker

Cooking Accessories and Size Limitations:

Due to the size limitation of the cooking range it may be difficult to find non-traditional accessories. However, it is possible because, as I like to say, if you want to buy something, chances are there is someone out there willing to sell it to you. Believe it or not, we have a perfect fitting cast iron griddle and indoor cast-iron grill for the stove and an insulated baking sheet for the oven.

People often jokingly refer to our cooking range as our “easy bake oven” because of its diminutive nature, but our range will cook what any other stove and oven can cook. Admittedly we won’t be cooking a 25 lb turkey in our oven for thanksgiving but we do use our stove and oven daily to meet our cooking needs. We bake biscuits, pizzas, breads, cookies, casseroles, roasts and all sorts of things. Our stove works just like any other and we use it for frying, boiling and griddle cooking all the time.

Fuel Reload and Cost:

Alcohol for marine stoves is relatively easy to find at any hardware or paint store. Specifically the product we use is called “denatured alcohol”. Denatured refers to the additive to the alcohol that makes it toxic to drink and can be regulated differently than drinkable alcohol. Denatured alcohol is commonly used as a solvent to “thin” oil based paints and so most paint sections of hardware stores have it in stock. We typically purchase a one-gallon container size that is specifically labeled “for use in marine stoves”. We pay about $15/gallon. This amount lasts us about 3 weeks on average. Maybe a bit less in the winter (cooking more) and bit longer in the summer (cooking less) and comes out to about $20/month. This is relatively expensive compared to tiny house friends that use propane at approximately $3/gallon but we figure the benefits of alcohol out-weigh the costs for our needs.

Maintenance:

To refill the burners, simply open the top of the stove (or bottom of oven), lift the burners out of the stove, and take them outside. Pour alcohol in the top, wipe up any access spills and replace in the stove. This process takes less than 5 minutes for all 3 burners. We typically have to refill the burners about every 10 days. The burners are shallow, cylindrical steel cans that are stuffed with sheep wool to help keep the alcohol from evaporating. Amazingly, the wool does not burn. Although you can purchase replacement burners from Origo we have not had to replace ours in a year and we believe our current burners were the originals that came with the Origo range >15 years ago.

Do you have more questions that I didn’t address here? Or do you have other cooking appliances that you would recommend? Let me know by leaving a comment below.

Tiny house details: Chapter 1 – Spice jars and food storage

Glass Jar storage between loft joists

Glass mason jar storage between loft joists

One of the wonderful things about having my own writing space is that I get to discuss issues that wouldn’t be appropriate on my partner’s blog Rowdykittens. Tammy and I have received a lot of questions regarding tiny house details. Tammy does her best to keep up with these questions by adding notes to her tiny house frequently asked questions (FAQ) page. However, most of the answers on the Rowdykittens FAQ page are rather brief. When I was searching for tiny house tools and appliances I yearned for more details than most blogs or videos provided so today I thought I would start a series called tiny house details. In this series I will cover the tools and materials we chose and why we chose them. Here are a few examples of tiny house details chapters you can look forward to seeing: alcohol stove review, composting toilet system, windows, flooring, lights, loft bed frame, etc. After I complete the series I want to post an easy reference page where Tammy and I can refer readers in the future who have interests regarding tiny house materials and tools.

Chapter 1: Spice jars and food storage

Glass spice jars above stove - photo by Tammy Strobel

Glass spice jars above stove – photo by Tammy Strobel

Shortly after we moved into the tiny house we had some dear friends, Dave and Trina Feucht, over for dinner. Trina is wonderfully clever when it comes to design and what she refers to as “nesting”. Tammy and I were cooking for Dave and Trina and we were having trouble finding our spices in the midst of our moving disarray. Trina suggested that we should think about installing a few small mason jars above the stove to artfully display the spices and allow easy access. We loved the idea, it reminded me of workshops where I had seen similar a storage solution for bolts, nuts and washers of different sizes.

We installed the small glass jars with a simple screw through the lid and surprisingly its one of the first space saving details that guests remark on about our home. The solution is simple, elegant, and eye catching because of the glass. Besides being beautifully shiny, glass also makes it easy to see the

Jar lid

Jar lid with screw to attach

quantity of the contents and is impervious to moisture and pests. Screwing the lids to the bottom of the shelving allows both sides of the vertical space to be used and saves valuable counter space.

Recently we decided to expand this idea further. All of our dry pantry items like rice, wheat flour, sugar, lentils, beans, etc are now contained with glass mason jars and displayed on the shelf above our seating area. In addition I’ve started adding short, wide mouth pint mason jars to take up the space between the 2X4 loft  joists above the front door. I’ll likely start putting drink mixes here like tea, coffee and hot cocoa mix.

What about you? What space saving ideas have you devised for your pantry? Please share in the comments below. :^)