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. :^)

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.

Can you fit your life into a backpack?

Editor’s Note: The following was a guest post I wrote for my partner’s blog on RowdyKittens

Recently I asked a friend about her moving experience. She replied that she was so sick of moving boxes that she considered downsizing to just a backpack. Her frustration about moving reminded me of our moving experiences prior to downsizing.

Minimizing our possessions is the method we used to pursue simpler living. However, my friend’s exclamation of “downsizing to just a backpack” inspired me to consider extreme minimalism. Could I minimize my needs to fit into a backpack? I realized having such a tool at hand could be extremely valuable for more than just travel and hiking recreation.

Miniaturizing your life into a backpack is useful.

Having a minimized copy of your life in a backpack could be very useful in an emergency requiring evacuation. Victims of natural disasters (e.g. fire, flood, etc.) commonly describe their experience as having only enough time to “grab their stuff and run.” Imagine yourself in this scenario and ask:

“Could I evacuate my home in 5 minutes or less and be prepared to have everything I need for at least 72 hours?”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) advises that people should be prepared to be “without assistance” for 72 hours or longer. After hurricane Katrina many experts advised people to be prepared for a much longer response time, ranging from 1 – 2 weeks. By having a backpack organized to meet minimum needs and comforts we can be more physically and emotionally prepared for an emergency situation. We consider our backpack kits essential emergency insurance.

Can I really fit everything I need into a backpack?

Yes. World travelers practice the simplicity of backpack living on a daily basis. Considering the hierarchy of needs, humans require relatively little to live. Our basic needs are shelter, water, food and companionship. To complement our needs acquiring stuff provides us with comfort.

Finding the appropriate balance between need and comfort is a journey all of us face on the path to simpler living. More comfort and stuff does not necessarily lead to more satisfaction or happiness. Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin describe this relationship as the “enough point” in their book Your Money or Your Life. What is your “enough point“? What is the minimum amount of stuff required to meet your needs and be adequately comfortable?

5 Tips to Get Started

In a backpack kit one’s “enough point” is going to be limited to portability (namely size and weight). If removed from our everyday environment you must make accommodations to meet your personal needs independently. Here are some suggestions for items to consider when building “the house on your back:”

1. Pack in consideration of your basic needs first and in order of survival priority: shelter, water and food.

2. Choose items in your kit that have a multipurpose use (single task items have less value per weight). In a future post I will detail the items we included in our emergency backpack kit.

3. Make digital back-ups of irreplaceable pictures and paper copies of important documents (e.g. Birth certificate, social security card, photo ID, etc).

4. Prepare personal skills such as map reading and first aid to complement your pack kit. As your skill level increases your “enough point” decreases. As bushcraft author and instructor Mors Kochanski says “the more you know the less you carry”.

5. Plan your actions for responding to different emergency scenarios that are likely for your area (e.g. earthquakes, fire, flood, hurricanes, etc.).

Many of the items you need to pack you probably already have around your home. All it takes is gathering them into one location. You may need to purchase a couple items such as first aid supplies but relative to other emergency insurance plans these items are very inexpensive.

What the hell does all of this mean?

Preparation of a backpack kit is useful not only as emergency preparedness but also as an exercise in minimalism and simpler living. Being aware of our “enough point” boundaries is very empowering. Upon personal reflection, simpler living has given me an almost indescribable sense of satiety, peace of mind and liberty.

Further Resources…

Non-conformity Musings

Crossing-Bridges

I often feel the pressure to conform in my life story and find myself being who others think I should be instead of who I am. I was inspired by an analogy while attending a “Art of non-conformity” book signing by Chris Gillibeau in December of 2010 (and its taken awhile to sink in). In Chris’ lecture that evening he used an analogy to describe the problem with conforming through a cliche’ children’s tale. “If everyone was jumping off a bridge would you follow (to your peril) or would you choose your own way to live?” He mentioned that we often learn the moral of free-will as children but then forget it as adults. His solution was to adapt this lesson to adult living and embrace non-conforming free-will.

Chris’ metaphor deeply resonated with me and I tried to extend the metaphor by asking questions to myself such as:

If people “jump off of bridges” to conform what does the bridge symbolize?

What does the water under the bridge symbolize? Put another way, what were all my friends and peers jumping into?

What does the land at the entrance of the bridge symbolize?

What does the land of the exit of the bridge symbolize?

These questions made me realize that this metaphor resonated with me so much because the bridge represented all of the doubts, fears, and transitions that were plaguing my life and the lives of my friends and peers. I was depressed and I wanted to cross the bridge to see if I could improve my life on the other side but I was scared. Institutions like schools and governments tell us there are lifeboats below the unsteady bridge of doubt that are much safer. Institutions instruct us to jump off the bridge and into these lifeboats to keep our routines, embrace certainty, and live a predictable life. The problem is, once you are in the “safe” lifeboat you have to conform to stay safe otherwise you risk “rocking the boat”. Put another way, if you “rock the boat” and don’t conform to the herd you risk tipping the boat over and drowning all of those around you.

I realized I needed a forum to explore the problems and solutions to crossing all the bridges of change in my life. Writing seems an ideal way to distill these ideas and provide a focusing lens for all of my unfocused emotions. And so it begins…