The first question that came to my mind when I started researching on tiny houses was, “Are Tiny Houses self contained? If yes, “How long can we live off-grid?”.
Tiny houses need 2 inputs to be considered as ‘Self Contained’: Electricity and Clean Water. For electricity, solar panels and generators can provide the power. For the clean water, the tiny house can have tanks installed. So definitely tiny houses can be self contained.
There are various ways to have power in your tiny house. The solution should be formulated based on your needs:
- How many people will be living in the tiny house?
- How many electrical devices you are planning to use in the tiny house?
- Are you planning to use only summer time, or winter time as well?
- What kind of appliances you will have in your tiny house (propane range, or electrical)?
A similar exercise will be needed to understand the clean water needs as well. Definitely you wouldn’t want to be in the middle of nowhere , with no clean water supply.
Let’s dive deeper into the utility needs in a tiny house for self contained living.
What Does ‘Self Contained Tiny House’ Mean?
The Self Contained Tiny House means, a house that you can live for a while without any interaction with outside support systems; for power and for water.
For example when we are living in a traditional house; we receive our electricity through utility companies and through power cables. The power comes through a panel, usually located in our basements or at the entrance of our apartment and we use the power throughout our home.
The situation is different for Tiny Houses; especially for the ones designed for off-grid living purposes. Even though most tiny houses have capability to hook up regular utilities, if you are planning to live away from anything and everything; you should be looking for different solutions for power: generators, solar panels, or wind turbines.
The similar logic is applicable for water source: If you are living in a traditional house or in an apartment, you have a main water line comes to your home and as long as the utility company doesn’t have any problems, you will have a running water at your kitchen and bathroom.
Similar to the power situation that I explained above, the first option is to be able to hook up to regular water and sewer systems. If you are planning to live off-grid for a while, this options will not be applicable for you.
The real self contained tiny house should have a solution for your water needs. Typically, you should be considering 4 different items for water solution in your tiny house: water tanks (freshwater tanks, greywater tanks, and blackwater tanks), water pumps, water heaters and toilets.
Once you have a power solution (generator, solar, or wind power) and water solution (water tanks); you can consider your tiny house as Self Contained Tiny House.
How Do Tiny Houses Get Water and Get Rid of Water?
Water is the most important utility in our houses. Usually; we can live without power for an extended period of time. But water is different. We have to have a clean water source to be able to survive.
If your tiny house will stay in one location which has water utility service (when you are ‘on the grid’) then your solution is easy: You can follow the standard plumbing methods. This solution includes 2 separate connections:
- Connecting to a full pressure municipal water source
- Wastewater disposal connection through city sewer system
This method has one problem, especially for cold climates in winter: If your hose will be exposed to cold weather, the water can be frozen in the hose.
To prevent this, you may want to consider buying ‘heated hose’. These kind of hoses need constant connection to electricity, but if you are planning to spend time at freezing temperatures in your tiny house, definitely you’ll need to consider this solution.
If you are planning to move your tiny house to different locations or to live totally off-grid for a while, you will need 3 individual water tanks in your tiny house for various purposes:
1 – Freshwater Tanks
As the name suggests; freshwater water tanks are the main water source in off grid tiny houses and they are used to keep your drinking, cooking, bathing, and cleaning water.
According to US Geological Survey, an average person in US uses 80-100 gallons of water everyday. If you are planning to live in a tiny house with freshwater tanks, you will need to decrease this average number drastically. Maybe around 5 – 10 gallon / day is a good target.
Decreasing the water usage amount sounds really hard, but actually there are many simple water saving methods that will help to reach this target:
- Use low flow showerhead in your bathroom
- Use low flow faucets in your bath and kitchen
- Change some habits (for example stop running water while brushing your teeth)
- Install a water friendly toilet into your tiny house
Freshwater tanks can be filled with a hose, or manually pouring water from water jags. The one important point is; you have to have separate hoses for different purposes.
You can use the below table to estimate the number of days that can be lived with the available freshwater tank in your tiny house:
|1 person||2 person||3 person||4 person|
|15 gallons||2 days||1 day||less than 1 day||less than 1 day|
|45 gallons||6 days||3 days||2 days||less than 2 days|
|90 gallons||12 days||6 days||4 days||3 days|
The freshwater tank cost is between $40 – $200 depending on the size and the quality.
If you don’t want to have another cost item down the road, make your calculation properly at the beginning, (changing the freshwater tank may be costly – if it’ll be possible at all with the available space.).
For such decisions, I prefer to be safe and install a bigger tank, as much as possible.
2 – Greywater Tanks
Greywater tanks are the tanks in a tiny house that will hold the waste water which does not include human waste. For example your shower water, dishwasher water, or other kitchen water can be listed in this group.
Since these tanks will not hold any pathogens in it, you can buy any type of tanks to use as graywater tank; either freshwater tanks or blackwater tanks would do the job.
There are also portable greywater tanks – with wheels. These kind of tanks make the life really easy when you want to dump your greywater.
We cannot say that the greywater is clean; since it will likely contain food, hair, dirt, soap, bacteria, grease, etc. And we cannot simply dump it to a lake, or to sea (which will create pollution).
On the other hand; in general if you are using bio-degradable products for bath, and for kitchen needs; you can dispose the graywater back to the environment. Plants (trees etc.) can filter your greywater. Even more, they may use some of the content as fertilizer. (Still; I suggest you to check your local rules and regulations; different towns have different rules for greywater management)
I personally prefer to empty the greywater tank to a dumping station.
There are greywater recycle systems for tiny houses. If you decide to install one of those, you will be able to get rid of greywater and also minimize the water waste at the same time.
The other option is to hook up your grey water tank to RV sewer system (usually can be found in RV parks and tiny house communities).
Or you can treat your grey water tanks as if they are blackwater tanks, and get it pumped out.
Since most of the water that you use in your tiny house will go into greywater tank, you will need to remind yourself to empty the tanks as often as possible. Once this will become an habit, your waste water management will become really easy in the long run.
3 – Blackwater Tanks
In our regular homes; when we use toilet and flush, the water goes through pipes which connects to city sewer system.
In our tiny homes; as long as we are not connected to sewer system and as long as our tiny house is not using composting toilet; we need to collect the waste water somewhere. This place is called as Blackwater Tank.
The blackwater tanks don’t need to be big like freshwater tanks or greywater tanks. Because, only the toilet waste ends up in it.
Discarding dirty waste from your tiny house (blackwater) is a little harder than the greywater tanks. Simply because it contains harmful bacteria from toilet waste; and they need to be emptied to a proper location – either by you or by a professional that can be hired by you.
Usually blackwater tanks have gauge, and you can check how much waste is in the tanks. The suggestion is, to empty the blackwater tank when it reaches 70% level.
- If you wait till 100%; there may be some leaks and also it adds weight to your tiny house (In average every 10 gallon blackwater weights 80 pounds).
- On the other hand; if you empty the blackwater tank too often; there may be some clogging problems with the hoses.
I suggest you to take good care of your blackwater tank and hoses. A problem with freshwater or greywater tanks can be fixed without a nasty situation. On the other hand; a problem with blackwater tank can be quite nasty.
For blackwater tanks; the price range is between $50 – $250 in most products; depending on the size and some other characteristics (portable or not, drain connection positions, gauge availability etc.)
Another Solution for Water: Rainwater Collection (Rainwater Catchment System)
One great idea is to use rainwater as your water supply. Even though I haven’t implemented this method yet, collecting rainwater and using it for the daily needs sound great.
The main factor is the amount of rain and the surface that you can collect the rain.
With a very basic calculation, if we assume you use 7.5 gallon water / day and your tiny house water collection area is 8 * 24 feet, you will need 2 inches of rain in a month to cover your needs.
You need 3 main components to collect rain water:
- A gutter system for your tiny house
- Container for rain water: If you are planning to move often, better to pick something more mobile (ie; rain pillows, soft pvc containers etc.)
- Pump to push the rainwater into your tiny house. There are some pump models with filters; so the water gets filtered before entering your tiny house.
You can find whole rainwater collection packages for $2,000 and $5,000 for your tiny house. This may sound expensive, but think about this as a one time payment and you will use free water going forward.
Even if you will move pretty often or you’ll live in a location with limited rainfall; wouldn’t it be nice to cover at least a portion of your water needs (if not all) through rainwater?
How Do Tiny Houses Get Electricity?
As I mentioned above, the first (and maybe the easiest) option is to hook up to a utility company outlet. Most tiny houses have a connection on their sides, so you can simply get electricity through an extension cable.
If your target is to live off-the-grid, you will need to have a solution for your power and energy need.
Here are the main different ways to have power in your tiny house. You will find a comparison table at the end which listed the pros and cos for all different power sources.
Solar Systems for Tiny Houses
Solar panels are the most environment friendly solution for your tiny home’s power needs. Solar panels not only will help to environment, but also to your ongoing monthly budget.
Basically solar systems have 4 main components:
- Solar Panels; will charge your batteries. The more number of panels mean the quicker filling up your batteries. You can install the solar panels on top your tiny house, or to the ground. Solar panels come in many different sizes.
- Converters; in between solar panels and batteries. Helps to ‘convert’ sun light to power.
- Batteries; will hold the energy until its needed. The bigger the battery size, the more power you will have. The batteries will be inside your tiny house, along with a control panel for your solar system.
- Inverters; to convert DC power to AC
Solar system will give you more flexibility with your tiny home. You will not need to look for a power source to hook up, or gas station to fill your power generator’s tank.
On the other hand; solar power may have some limitations. In theory, you can run your AC units, or space heaters in your tiny house. However, this will empty your solar system batteries quickly and you will need more solar panels to fill your batteries in a short period of time.
My suggestion is; if you are able to limit your power consumption in your tiny house (not using space heaters, or hair dryers); go with a solar system.
The solar system cost for a tiny house is anywhere between $3,500 and $10,000, depending on your power needs (number of solar panels, number of batteries etc.). Even though the initial cost is higher then other solutions, in the long run the system will payoff its cost.
In most cases, the solar system pays itself off in about 8-10 years. Considering the lifespan of solar systems are about 25 years; the solar system owners will be using the free power for about 15 years.
Grid Tied Solar Systems for Tiny Houses
Even though Grid Tied Solar Systems are listed as an option for tiny houses, you will need to keep in mind that, this solution is mostly for the tiny houses which will stay at the same location.
As the name suggests, these kind solar systems are tied to the main power grid (from a utility company), addition to solar panels for power generation. Here are the main points for such systems:
- If you are generating more power than you need, the excess electricity goes to utility company ‘batteries’ for future use. Think about this like, ‘savings’ account. When you have some extra ‘energy’, you deposit them to utility company’s ‘batteries’.
- When you need more energy than you generate (after sun sets, or very cloudy days) , the system gets energy from the grid.
Since the system will not have one of the main components of typical solar systems – batteries -, the initial cost will be lower.
On the other hand; if you don’t install batteries to your system, your tiny house will not be a self sufficient tiny house.
The other solution is to have a grid tied solar system with battery backup. This solution is good from many points, if you are planning to stay long periods of times in a location with grid connectivity. If this will be the case, you can have both advantages of solar panel systems and also grid systems.
Generators for Tiny Houses
Fossil Fuel Generators:
The most known type of generators are gas generators. I’m 100% sure that you have seen and heard (!) one of them. There are also diesel and propane generators, that we can list in the same class.
As long as you have fuel, or easy access to fuel, these types of generators can provide enough energy to your tiny house.
This sounds great; except they have some disadvantages as well: Noise and fuel cost. The noise level is much better now, comparing to 5-10 years ago. But still, I wouldn’t suggest fuel generators as for your tiny house’s only power source
Solar Power Generators:
Solar power generators use ‘sun’ as energy source. Similar to solar systems, they have solar panels and battery to store the energy. Usually the battery size is smaller for these generators, which makes this solution relatively limited.
These generators may not be enough for most of people. If you can really downsize your power consumption, this may be a good solution for you. However, if you ask me, I suggest to use solar power generators as backup system, or emergency power system.
On the other hand; these generators definitely have some advantages: No noise, no running cost, no fumes, environment friendly.
Other Power Sources for Your Tiny House
There are 2 other power source that can be listed in here:
- Wind Power Systems
- Hydro Power Systems
However, because of multiple reasons (cost, efficiency, mobility, maintenance problems); I am not suggesting any of them as tiny house power system. I suggest you to skip them, and make your selection by using the table below.
Which power system to choose for tiny house?
Power is one of the important systems for your tiny house (along with water systems), and better to pick the right one for your usage and needs.
Here is a comparison table for various power sources for your self contained tiny house. Depending on your needs and personality, you can pick the right one. Hopefully you will use the power system that you choose, many years to come:
|Solar System||– Environment friendly |
– Cheaper on the long-run
|– Expensive installation|
– Limited by battery size
– Cloudy days, or nights might be problematic
|Grid Tied Solar |
|– Cheaper than solar systems (no battery)|
– Quicker payoff
– Environment friendly
|– If the grid goes down, systems shuts itself off |
– not self contained (no battery versions)
|Gas Generators||– Cheaper initially||– Noisy|
– Continuous gas cost
– Continuous trips to gas station
|Solar Power |
|– Environment friendly|
– Initial cost is on the cheaper side
– No running costs
– No noise
|– Limited capacity|