a story about living small

Heating our Tiny House: Wood vs. Propane.

Back in March, when we interviewed Ann Holley and Darren Macca of Protohaus (pictured above), we asked them what advice they would give to someone just beginning to build their tiny house. Ann immediately had an answer, “It’s really important to have all of your utilities before you begin building,” she said, “so that you know the exact dimensions and what you’ll need to do to install them. It really helps to plan that out ahead of time.” Christopher and I looked at each other, the obvious truth of this statement dawning on us. Ohhhh. Yeah. That would have made our own construction process sooo much easier.

In case you’re new to this project, here’s some important background info:

1: Neither Christopher or I have any building experience whatsoever.

2: We did not use any plans in the building of this house. Christopher pretty much figured it out/ made it all up as he went along.

For us, this has been part of the adventure. But it has certainly come with its share of challenges. Such as that fateful summer day when we realized that all of the windows we’d bought were horizontal instead of vertical, and that yes, this matters when constructing a house.

This project has been about learning as we go, and part of that, inevitably, means making mistakes, having a sense of humor, and adjusting accordingly. Picking out a stove for our house has been no exception.

From the start, Christopher and I loved the idea of heating the tiny house with a tiny wood stove. One of the first tiny houses that we visited, near Telluride, Colorado, was arranged around an amazing reclaimed cast-iron stove called “The Magician,” that the owner had found in a junkyard. After scouring Craigslist and doing some research into new cast-iron wood stoves made for boats, we found an amazing company—full of friendly and helpful people—based out of the Northwest, called Shipmate.

Shipmate’s boat stoves are gorgeous, modeled after the antique stoves used on fishing vessels and ships at the turn of the century, crafted out of porcelain, iron, and steel. In addition to heating the house, we would also be able to cook on top of the unit, and even bake inside of it. (How cool is that?!) I had images of curling up and finally finishing my hardbacked copy of Moby Dick. Dreams of perfecting my recipe for wood-fired bread loaves. Perfect.

We also liked the idea of using wood as fuel, instead of propane. We have plenty of scrap wood from 10 months of building and using those remainders to heat our finished house seemed like a great way to dispose of the scraps. And since fracking and the politics of natural gas extraction is an issue that hits close to home in this region of Colorado, we liked the idea of avoiding propane as a fuel source.

Amazing! We high-fived and ordered our Shipmate stove. And then we started to do some research…

It turns out that because we didn’t plan to drill a huge hole in our ceiling to fit the stove pipe from the very beginning, drilling through our already-installed ceiling and corrugated roofing would be risky. On top of that, because our floor plan wasn’t designed with a wood-burning stove in mind, it would be hard to give it the amount of heat clearance that it needed without eating into our living space. In a larger house, a few inches wouldn’t have been a big deal, but in our tiny house, a few extra inches on either side meant having to jump over our couch to get from the door to the kitchen.

After much deliberation, we came to the conclusion that having a wood-burning stove in our tiny house would have been amazing, if we have planned for it correctly. Because we did not, we turned to another great tiny home heating option: the propane heating stoves made for boats by Dickinson Marine.

Dickinson’s propane stove is pretty cool piece of machinery—sleek and modern-looking, with the frames visible through a glass door (so I won’t have to completely give up my dreams of reading fireside), and a small fan that we can turn off and on, which will blows hot air through of the bottom of the unit onto the floor, keeping our feet toasty warm through those long mountain winters. We are super excited about this option, loved how easy it was to install, and will post more about it as we fire it up during the winter months up in the mountains.

When all is said and done, we have learned a lot during this process and whole-heartedly agree with Ann and Darren’s advice to research and purchase all of your utilities before beginning to build your tiny house. Now we have our Dickinson propane stove installed and ready to go, and our Shipmate wood stove sitting in its cardboard box in the garage. We are still deciding how we will use it—possibly in a future tiny building project, or as an outdoor fireplace, or something yet-to-be-dreamed.

What about you? How do you heat your tiny house, or how would you, in an ideal world?

~ Merete Mueller, 4/9/12

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24 Responses

  1. Great article Merete! :)

    Heating is such a challenge, especially in your climate and given the small design. Tammy and I took advice from Dee Williams to just use an electric radiant oil heater for our tiny house. Ideally, given plenty of clean electricity, radiant floor heating is the way to go since it takes up virtually no space in the interior of the house. Our hope is to eventually install a one cubic foot Navigator Stove Works “sardine” model wood stove. However, we are concerned about the same challenges you faced: Space needed, heat shielding, and venting placement. The reason we did not build around a wood stove was the fact that we are living in an urban area and woodsmoke would likely be an issue with the neighbors. Perhaps if we move to a more rural area we can get back into planning for a wood stove retrofit. :)

    May 7, 2012 at 8:17 pm

  2. Great post, Merete! The toughest appliance choice I’m faced with right now is with the fridge. I really want to be able to power my house with the sol-man (like you), but I’m concerned that a regular AC powered fridge will be too much for the system.

    However, propane fridges are a little frightening to me. They are difficult to install and require not one but TWO wall vents. I’m really torn.

    As for using electric heat, I just don’t think it would be a viable option in Vermont (where I’m located) or in Colorado without using a ton of electricity. Not good if you want to be solar powered..

    May 7, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    • Hey Ethan, thanks for reading.

      Right now, we are using this high-efficiency electric fridge that we found on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Avanti-Superconductor-Refrigerator-Model-SHP1712SDC/dp/B0028MOZI6

      I think it’s about 83 watts. Since our house is heated with propane and the cooking stove is alcohol-burning, our electricity needs are pretty low—light bulbs (which are mostly LEDs and CFLs), charging laptops and phones, occasionally running an iPhone stereo…that’s pretty much it. So we have plenty of wattage left over for the fridge. So far in our experience, the SolMan solar generator charges very quickly as soon as it’s exposed to sunlight, so it provides enough electricity to power all of our needs.

      More to come on the SolMan soon, as we continue to become familiar with it and use it on a regular basis.

      Also, with regards to propane fridges, I think Anne and Darren currently use (a large) one of those, and I’m sure they might have some thoughts on those types of utilities. (Their contact info is available on their site: http://www.protohaus.moonfruit.com/)

      And yes, Christopher did all of the wiring himself, after a tutorial from his boss, who had done some amateur electric work in his own home.

      May 7, 2012 at 9:55 pm

    • Hey Ethan,

      You may want to try living without a fridge as well. Unless you need a freezer for long term storage of meats we get by on storing food (securely) outside in the winter and using a insulated ice box in the summer. We noticed our diet doesn’t need much refrigeration and we adjusted our cooking to not result in leftovers. Just something to consider…

      Cheers,
      Logan.

      May 9, 2012 at 11:05 pm

    • In answer to Ethan’s statement about a propane refrigerator. We just purchased a new replacement for our old RV style model. We found one produced by Unique that is a home style propane fridge (they come in all sizes). It comes with an option for a CO detection device with safety shutoff. We opted for that rather than the outside vent model. I’m not sure if the US allows this option, but they do sell across North America. http://www.uniqueoffgrid.com

      FYI, we have used propane refrigerators since 2001 without any problems, even with the old RV model. We replaced it because we wanted a larger model, not because it went out of service.

      Margy

      May 24, 2012 at 6:14 pm

  3. Thanks Logan! Great to hear more about your heating choices in your own home, and that you are considering installing a wood-burning stove in the future. If you indeed do that someday, we’d love to hear more about how it works out!

    May 7, 2012 at 8:41 pm

  4. As Logan and you both point out Merete, we are not going with wood burning because of space requirements, etc. I am, however, going to use one in my “office” when I build it on our land one day (sooner than later as Crystal wants me out of the house, I think…HAHAHAHAH). I will have plenty of wood to burn as well as some newspaper logs we can make at home. Because of fracking I have also thought a fair amount about propane but I think we are all going to be surprised how little heating we need once we get in our well insulated, small spaces, with a bit of body heat, and maybe a quilt or two!

    May 8, 2012 at 7:15 pm

  5. Donna

    We lived in our bus this past winter and used the Big Buddy propane heater. We had to step over it and the propane tank that was located in the hallway each time we walked from the front to the back, but it was fine. Due to not being vented, we had a LOT of moisture build up inside this tin can! Also, it was very difficult to get the temperature regulated…there was no thermostat, so I was the thermostat, getting up and down all night. NO fun! Does the Dickenson heater have a thermostat?

    May 10, 2012 at 3:54 am

    • Hi Donna, thanks for reading! The Dickinson has a dial from low to high, with a pretty wide heat spectrum, and we can control the amount of heat that is blown out by turning the fan on and off, but it doesn’t have a thermostat that would allow us to set it to a particular temp. So yeah, lots of adjusting as we get familiar with it! Luckily it’s warming up out here in the mountains, so we can turn it off before we go to bed and snuggle up under a few quilts, but I’m sure come winter we’ll be doing a lot of climbing up and down from our sleeping loft in the middle of the night to get the temperature perfect. :)

      May 10, 2012 at 4:25 am

  6. Hi! I fell in love with the Prothaus when I first saw it years ago & think it’s one of the cutest tiny houses I’ve seen.

    Kai & I designed our floor plans around our tiny stove, a Little Cod manufactured by a company in New Brunswick, and less than half the price of most other tiny stoves (see photos/details of the stove here: http://2cycle2gether.com/2010/08/wood-heat-and-hot-water/). We were willing to give up space for it in order to have a renewable source of heat & one that was more environmentally friendly than that of other sources (although wood has it’s issues as well). It took a lot of time to think through all the details before we started building but I totally agree with Ann & Darren – it’s well worth the time to get all the dimensions together before hand, design and then build around your basic needs/desires. This is especially important if you’re building on a limited budget. There’s nothing worse than buying something thinking it will fit in the house but then later having to sell it at a loss because it doesn’t work out(which is how we found our unused and new composting toilet on craigslist for half-price — it didn’t fit in the space on the seller’s boat).

    Love following your posts and can’t wait to see the film!! :-)

    May 10, 2012 at 7:15 am

  7. Victoria Reid

    I have a house that is 368 sq ft. I heat it with one oil filled heater because it is cheap and I am on the grid.
    I had a wood cook range and the heat was so intense, windows and doors had to open in the winter. Then if I wanted heat during the night I had to go and add wood every few hours. It can be exhausting.
    My compromise is a small wood fireplace for the days I am home, and turn the oil heater on during the night.
    IMHO I think your propane furnace is perfect. You have good heat and you can enjoy the fire. Later you can always build a shed kitchen and put your cook range in there for baking.

    May 10, 2012 at 3:46 pm

  8. kate

    Thought I would share my experiences heating my 8×12′ tiny home using a Four Dog camp stove, an ultraportable woodburning stove (fourdog.com – I have the 2dog model). I was obsessesd with Four Dog even before designing and building my tiny house last autumn, and i have easy access to scrapwood and timber where I live, so wood heat made sense from an economic perspective. After using my 2 Dog for the past month, I can honestly say this is the most exquisite stove I have ever used. It is incredibly efficient (I feed it two logs in the evening and am warm all night with coals in the morning!), fires start very easily – I never even need my bellows – and with a little practice the stove top is a perfectly serviceable cooking surface; you just have to get a feel for where the sweet spots are. My only warning to those considering woodstovs is that they do take up a good deal of space. Mne is entire corner of the house, but it also serves as the center of my kitchen space since I keep my tea kettle and skililet on it and use it for much of my cooking.

    November 29, 2012 at 6:43 pm

  9. Robert

    Hello everyone,

    For someone who is about to begin work on their own tiny house the information here has been so helpful, thank you.
    I have a question for Margy about her Unique fridge, is it quiet? In a space this small a noisy fridge would really get to me.
    To Merete-just a thought about alcohol stoves. I have used an alcohol lamp in my work space for soldering silver. I have seen two fires resulting from alcohol and I can tell you they were really scary. If the alcohol spills and catches or explodes it is very difficult to put out. I don’t use it in my work anymore. The simplicity is attractive but it may not be worth it in the end.
    Thanks,
    Robert

    December 31, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    • Hi Robert,

      Thanks for reading and for your comment. Since we’ve pretty much been learning as we go along, we really appreciate people sharing their own experiences with us as well! As for the alcohol cookstove, we are still a bit unsure how much we like it. We’ve learned that at high altitude, alcohol can let off quite a bit of carbon monoxide, so when we cook we are sure to always keep the kitchen window open to ventilate. We may consider swapping it out for a propane stove in the future. Your comments about safety are making me lean in this direction even more!

      All the best,

      Merete

      December 31, 2012 at 6:59 pm

  10. I’m curious to know how much propane you are going through heating with the Dickinson heater? My husband and I are planning on going with the Dickinson, but the fuel consumption seems high.

    February 18, 2013 at 2:48 am

    • TinyHouse

      Hi, Big Lake!

      It really depends on where you live and how high you turn up your stove. I have heard that folks in Portland can go a whole month before refilling those small (20lb?) canisters. Up where my Tiny House is at 9,300′, I use more like 2 or possibly 3 of those a month. I also am heating a 19′ x 7′ Tiny House.

      Hope that helps!

      - Christopher

      February 21, 2013 at 3:27 am

  11. Gary

    Hello,

    I have been struggling with the heat source issue since deciding to start planning my tiny home a year ago. My big issue is thermostat. No thermostat means that not only do I have to adjust it constantly, but that I’m really not safe to travel for work for extended periods of time without just leaving it on low and hoping for the best. I love the look of the Dickinson stove, however the lack of a thermostat kills it completely for me for the reasons above.

    I did find a propane direct vent unit with thermostat “HouseWarmer Slim-Profile Direct-Vent Wall Heater with Built-In Blower — 18,000 BTU, Propane, Model# HWDV181BDVP” Its cheaper than the Dickinson, but its ugly as sin! This brings me back to the days I spent staring out the window in grade school thinking about escaping – a terrible juxtaposition with how i feel about the rest of this adventure – it may be my only recourse.

    I’m positioning this home in my mind as off-grid completely.

    In consideration of this and the fact that it will live in a temperate zone with freezing winter temperatures (Canada), I’m looking at the following:

    - Propane incinerating toilet (no frozen plumbing, holding tanks, dumping human compost someplace i don’t have etc)

    - The propane heater i have listed above

    - Small solar power generating station with 2 days effective standby power. mostly 12v DC lighting w/LED illumination – can also use candles as this is not only cheap, it can beautiful too

    - on demand propane water heater with an indoor 10 gallon pressurized water tank and 55 PSI RV water pump run off solar

    - Internet through Cellular (LTE) rather than landline.

    My goal is to be very portable. I need to be able to toss the propane tanks and solar kit in the back of the truck, back up to my tiny home and drive off to somewhere new (or out of harms way..why not tke your house with you lol)

    If anyone has any experience with these items, id love to hear about it. Thanks for a great blog.

    February 19, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    • TinyHouse

      Gary,

      Thanks for posting. It sounds like you have a done a lot of research already, so I am not sure I can add much. But if you are off the grid, your options are limited in terms of heating. But, I bet you could easily leave it without heating it, assuming you drain your water supply.

      YOu could easily have a decent solar setup that can serve you well without ever running out and still be portable.

      It sounds like you are doing it right. Keep us up to date with you build!

      Best,

      - Christopher

      February 21, 2013 at 3:31 am

    • Hi Gary,

      I too am in Canada and I’m just starting to plan the construction of my retirement tiny house. I hope to install it either on Vancouver Island or on one of the Gulf Islands. I will need help building my tiny house and I’m currently investigating my options. Where are you located? Are you living in your tiny house yet? Or, is it still under construction? I’d love to pick your brain about your experience.

      Louise
      November 11, 2013

      November 11, 2013 at 3:50 pm

      • Hi Gary,

        Thanks for your interest! We completed our house in May of 2012 and Christopher is currently living in it full time (I’ve since moved across the country, to NYC).

        November 25, 2013 at 4:48 pm

  12. Freshbrood

    Try the Engel 12v DC Fridge/Freezer! It can be run off of solar panels!

    February 25, 2013 at 3:35 pm

  13. Lara

    Here in Alberta, Canada, denatured alcohol is expensive and hard to come by. I’m curious about how you source your alcohol for your stove? Have you or do you have plans to distill your own? We love the idea but need to do much more research to ensure we won’t run into any roadblocks (financial, regulatory or otherwise).

    Thanks!

    March 18, 2013 at 8:30 pm

  14. jack chen

    Has anyone tried the “Kimberly” Wood stove? Apparently it uses a quarter of the amount of wood most small stoves need and it is up for an award in the “Wood stove Design Challenge”. It also produces a very small amount of particulates.

    July 31, 2013 at 2:35 am

  15. Pingback: Wood vs. Propane Heat for Small Spaces | Tiny Wood Stove

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