Like a lot of people, I find tiny houses really appealing. I’m not sure why: is it because I have a lot of stuff, and tiny house living represents enforced minimalism? Or does the appeal come from the application of design principles? After all, most living spaces aren’t even badly designed – they’re not designed at all. Just big rectangular boxes to live in, as if we’re just big hamsters. Or is it that a tiny house is essentially an alchemical device that converts poverty to cachet? (This is precisely what most subcultures do.)
Whatever the reason, I’ve thought seriously about tiny house living. But as with the beginning of any relationship, the dreamy idealizations quickly fade, leaving you to confront some very hard questions. (“Will my parents believe that her tongue piercings are speech impediment correction implants?”) Most tiny houses are either in the middle of nowhere, or sitting in a lot – off the grid, even if they’re in the city. So what about water? Electricity? How does the toilet thing work? And most importantly, what about internet?
Turns out there are some unexpectedly elegant solutions to all these problems. For less than a year’s pay, you could be living in a well-designed, totally independent and off-the-grid tiny house. Think of the independence, the freedom! You could finally get down to the important things in life, like working your way through that huge backlog of “Us Weekly” issues.
Consensus in the tiny house community seems to be that solar is the way to go. Solar panels have gotten way cheaper in the past several years (China), so a setup will run you somewhere in the two to six thousand dollar range, depending on wattage. If that made you spit your cornflakes out, keep in mind that after the initial outlay, you pay nothing. Forget Pepco – from now on, you’re stealing all your electricity from the sun, you disgusting leech. Get a job!
You could also go with wind or hydro power, if your tiny house is on a mountain peak or next to a raging river, but those options aren’t usually ideal for most setups. You could also just use a huge gas-powered generator; if you go this route, I’d suggest putting your tiny house right next to a gas station, so you could walk over several times a day for refills. (Don’t do this.)
This could be the real money pit in your setup. Buying water by the gallon can really add up, so a lot of tiny housers use rain catchment systems for their non-drinking water. Ideally, you want to place your tiny house on land that has its own water source – a brook, a well, a Costco that sells pallets of cheap bottled water. If you’re doing the rustic, country tiny house thing, then this shouldn’t be too much of a problem. If you’re doing the urban tiny house thing, you’re just going to have to shell out (or convince a neighbor to let you use their hose). But most of the water most people use is from flushing the toilet, an option you won’t have in a tiny house. Wait, what?
Yeah, think about it. No water line, no flush toilet. You could use a low-flush toilet like they use in RVs, but that’s cheating, and it also necessitates sneaky night-time raw sewage dumps. So what do tiny housers do? Well, the usual method is to go in a small brown paper sack, put it on your high school principal’s doorstep, and then light it on fire. Ha ha! Seriously though, there’s a tier of systems. At one end of the tier is the simplest and most disgusting option: an outhouse. Just a little wooden shack, and inside is a hole in the ground and maybe like a lawn chair with a hole cut in the center of it. Maybe a little magazine rack. That’s it. Don’t go with this option.
The next option is a composting toilet, which is, you know, also disgusting. You wouldn’t think that you could make the word “toilet” more disgusting than it already is, but you pair it with the word “composting” and it really achieves a quantum leap in gagginess. This probably isn’t fair, since composting toilets are actually really dry and odorless, since microorganisms break everything down into, I don’t know, whatever is one rung up on the disgustingness scale. McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets maybe?
The gold standard of toilets, though (where did I go wrong in my life that I just typed that phrase?), is the incinerator toilet. They run on propane or electricity, and one will run you about two grand (same as a high-end composting toilet). It zaps waste, leaving behind only ashes. It’s basically magic. They should’ve had one in Harry Potter.
Ideally, you want to live someplace that doesn’t get frigidly cold for half the year. (Tiny houses are more popular in the South and West for this reason.) If your tiny house is in a temperate climate, you can get by using propane tanks; the usual system is to hook the propane up to your gas grill, cook up a bunch of chili dogs and hamburgers, and then trade the chili dogs and hamburgers to people for, like, thirty minutes of huddling in front of their space heater.
Even if you live someplace with frigid winters, though, heat isn’t that big of an obstacle. I know a guy in Iowa who lives in a totally off the grid tiny house – not because it’s hip, but because he’s completely insane – and in Iowa it stays below zero for months at a time. He heats his house with an Amish-made wood-burning stove – you can get a really nice one for less than two thousand dollars – and before that, he had a corn-burning stove. (What, it’s Iowa, corn is basically legal currency.) My father once stopped off at this guy’s house during a mid-winter hunting trip, and said it was hotter than a sauna in there, so I guess it works pretty well. You can also buy a stove that burns “biomass,” which sounds like a system Russians use to dispose of bodies.
Your only real option for off-the-grid internet service is going to be satellite. You can get it for a reasonable price – let’s say around $50 – if you don’t download stuff or stream videos. Since there’s not really any other reason to use the internet, let’s discard that stupid option. If you want Netflix, Bittorrent, hacked celebrity pics, etc, you’re going to have to shell out a hundred to a hundred fifty dollars a month. If you’re an urban tiny houser, you could also do what “my friend” did and buy a special internet antenna off of Ebay that will allow you to hack any router – forty bucks for free internet basically for life.
BY FRANKLIN SCHNEIDER