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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Living Eco-Friendly in a Tiny House

Alisha McDarris

We live in a tiny house. You probably know this. You've probably read the posts and seen the photos and thought "Oh, I love the idea of a tiny house!" or "Oh my gosh, I could never live in that small of a space!" But we love our tiny house. I love the fact that I'm no farther than 10 steps away from anything I could possibly need. I love that no matter where I am in the house sunshine pours in through the windows. I love that I never have to yell across the house to get Josh's attention (unless I want to). And I love that it's so eco friendly. How, you ask? Let me tell you.

First of all, let me point out that our tiny house could absolutely be more environmentally friendly. We could have rain water collection (we will, we just haven't set it up yet), solar panels (also on the horizon as soon as we save up enough to pay for panels and batteries), and our own garden (we are really bad at keeping plants alive). But what we do have (an efficient water heater and appliances, a composting toilet, a water-reducing shower head) is a big leap forward on the sustainability front, which is how I like it. Oh, and we're vegan. (For those of you unaware this is the most effective way of going green known to man).

Let's walk through "green" things, shall we? Starting with appliances.

We don't have a stove or oven. Not a proper one, anyway. Full size ovens consume massive amounts of electricity (or gas) and are usually way bigger than you need (unless you're regularly baking 6 dozen cookies at a time or a turkey three times a week), making them very inefficient. Instead, we have a convection toaster oven that's big enough to bake a dozen muffins (or a roasted chicken if you're into that), a 12" pizza, even a casserole. And on top of the counter we have two very efficient induction burners that heat up in seconds. Very efficient.

Our fridge isn't particularly efficient (try finding a compact model that is!), but it doesn't have one of those fancy water and ice dispensers or a window to the inside that reduces efficiency, so that's a win. Our compact washing machine, on the other hand, is a high-efficiency model. We don't have a dishwasher. We live in a tiny house. We don't have enough dishes to warrant the use of one.

Another appliance we don't have is a dryer. We live in Texas; don't nobody need a dryer in Texas. OK, that's not entirely true, but in the last three months we've probably used the shared dryer on the property a total of three times. And that was mostly when we were renting out Serenity and needed sheets or towels washed and dried stat! On a sunny day it takes a total of an hour and a half to dry clothes in Texas, so there's really no need for such an energy-sucking appliance. A fold-out rack and a clothes line do just fine.

In the bathroom

While most homes in America have 2-3 porcelain thrones that get flushed a bazillion times a day, we have a composting toilet. And no, it's not like using an outhouse, so wipe that cringey look off your face. While you can fashion one yourself out of a bucket and a funnel and a heap of other supplies, we sprung for a fancy (read: expensive) model that does all the work for us. We turn a crank instead of flushing and empty it when it gets full. It doesn't smell and you don't have to touch anything gross. And a huge plus for me is the reduction of bacteria. Even with a toilet lid closed, flushing sends all kinds of nasty bacteria all over every surface of your bathroom. How close to your toilet is your toothbrush? Closer than five feet? You may want to reposition.

What about water?

Well, a conventional toilet uses between 10-18 gallons of water per person per day depending on whether you have a low-flow model. That's a lot of a precious resource literally going down the toilet, especially in drought-prone areas like California. A composting toilet eliminates all of that. Plus, you can actually reuse all of your waste if you want to. Diluted urine has been proven a delightfully effective fertilizer and human waste, properly composted, can be used on your flowerbed and around trees.

The shower was a tough one to figure out. Since we couldn't use a super efficient electric tankless water heater (something to do with voltage and plugging in, etc.), we purchased a 7-gallon model that is 94% efficient. Still good, but it only offers seven gallons of hot water at a time. And since most shower heads have an output of 2.5 gallons per minute, you're looking at less than a three minute shower. Yikes. So we looked for shower heads with the WaterSense logo. Still couldn't find anything under 1.5 GPM (or a 4.5 minute shower, which still didn't seem like enough some days). So we did what we always do when faced with a problem: we turned to the internet. Where we found a showerhead that you can adjust from 1.5 GPM to .5 GPM. We set it on .5 and haven't had a cold shower since! We're not even sacrificing water pressure!

Since we're not hooked up to sewer (and never will be), our grey water (the stuff that drains from our sinks and bathtub), goes straight into the ground. We make sure to use only eco-friendly products with no harmful chemicals, dyes, etc., but plants actually do an awesome job of filtering out that stuff in addition to food particles and so forth, so it's all good. We could even store our grey water or divert it if we ever plant a flower or veggie garden, meaning we wouldn't have to use up fresh water to do the watering.

Keeping cool (and warm)

We went back and forth a lot on the AC front. I even considered trying to go without it for a hot second, there. But between living in Texas and Josh's propensity to complain if the temperature rises above 78 degrees, he wasn't having any of that. So we got ourselves a ductless mini split, one of the more efficient AC/heating units on the market. But before we ordered we had someone who installs them for a living (or used to) come out and measure windows, square footage and ceiling height so he could tell us exactly what we needed. Having a unit that's too big or too small for your space isn't helping anybody. Or the environment.

Taking out the trash

Since Serenity is parked more or less outside the inner city limits, there's no recycling service. Maybe there is and our landlord just doesn't want to pay for it, but the fact remains: no one comes around in a big truck once a week to take our recyclables off our hands. And since not recycling isn't really an option for us, we simply collect our recyclables, along with those of our tiny house neighbors, and deliver them to the recycling center about 3 miles away. It's free and they even take styrofoam (which, in case you weren't aware, never breaks down in a landfill).

As for the rest of our rubbish, we produce very little, actually. At least since we started composting all of our food waste. Instead of throwing banana peels, coffee filters and the last three bites of crusty stir fry in the trash, we chuck it in a bucket and then transfer that bucket to a compost pile (or we will as soon as we build a box for it). Vegetable scraps we stuff in a plastic bag or bowl in the freezer to use to make vegetable broth every few weeks. If we have too much, we chuck it in the compost bucket.

Let's shed some light

First off, we only need to use artificial light in Serenity after the sun goes down (except occasionally in the one-windowed bathroom). She has eight windows and two large glass doors and sunshine just pours in! But when we do need to turn on the lights, there's no issue with energy efficiency. Every light from the dangling overheads to the recessed discs are LED and consume minimal energy. The overhead lights are even dimmable so we can use even less energy (or create a little mood lighting for a romantic dinner--or more likely, late night movies).

Being environmentally responsible is important to us. We've only got one Earth, so we've got to take care of it. If not for our generation, then for the next. There's so much you can do to make a difference and you don't have to live in a tiny house to do it. Oh, and we'll let you know when we install those solar panels.

Alisha McDarris / Author & Editor

Alisha is a freelance writer and photographer based in Austin, TX. She loves her tiny house, vegan food and experiencing the community of travel in far away places. She’s also pretty sure she’s addicted to coffee. [Portfolio]


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