It was really only a few short years ago that I was reading blogs about others living simple, off the grid lives. It was a dream, with parts romanticized but also parts feared. Could I really do that?
But now I am doing that. And I am blessed to have a community of people around me also doing that in their own similar and unique ways. And I love it. Sitting here on this below freezing day, with the wind whipping around outside, I am cozy inside my tiny house at a comfortable 75 degrees, in a tank top and what I call my Aladdin pants, reflecting on a life that I know is uniquely blessed, and yet that sometime I forget is not what most of the world calls normal yet.
What is this life I am talking about? For me is is a life where my electricity comes from the sun, a little wood stove keeps me warm, I poop in a 5 gallon bucket which I empty every few days into a compost bin, and I carry in my water, using generally no more than 4 gallons a day, for drinking, dishes, hand washing, and cooking.
You might say, wow, that life is not for me. But let me tell you of all the beauty and luxury that I also have, and how these simple systems have worked out for me. In this post I am going to focus on heat and my wood stove and its performance, but keep your eye out for future posts on pooping in a 5 gallon bucket, living with off grid solar, and living without running water.
First, the warmth! The beautiful, guilt free, cozy warmth of a wood stove heated house! I do not like the cold, and so I keep my little house at a comfortable 70-90 degrees fahrenheit. Yes, that is right, because I like to wear my sundresses inside through the cold New York winters! Parker, my partner, says one of his favorite things about Mayu is being able to sleep on top of the covers, even on the coldest days- something he can not achieve in his old, drafty, downtown apartment, even with the petroleum powered heat blasting. I have truly been blown away by my little Little Cod Marine stove. Choosing a heat source for a tiny house is something I and many tiny house builders agonize over. It is still a niche market and information is hard to find, but I could not be happier with my choice.
For those who are perhaps trying to make a similar choice here is a bit about my process and why I am so so happy with the choice I made.
I knew from the beginning I wanted to heat with wood. I love the smell of a wood heated house, the unbeatable quality of warmth that they give off, and the ambiance that real fire creates. It is a primal thing, I believe, something wired into us that we have been doing since the beginning of time: making fire and gathering around fire, cooking, singing, sharing stories, warming our toes.
But I had my worries too. Would everything in my house freeze if I left for an 8 hour work day and the stove went out? Would the ash and the wood be too messy in my little house? Would I be able to find a stove that didn’t take up too much space but provided enough heat for my little house? Would it be too much heat and would I cook myself out of my little house? Well, this first winter has been a good trial, and here is what I found out.
First, my house holds heat incredible well! So my fear of things freezing has proven unwarranted. The care I took both to insulate, but particularly to air seal was well worth it! My house is NOT drafty. Unlike many friends who I hear say how they can really feel the difference on a windy day, my house stays just as warm on a still day as on a windy day. And yet it also seems to breath, as I have experienced no moisture problems despite not using any mechanical ventilation system. I accredit this to a few particular details: Taping all plywood sheathing seams with zip tape, using Mento airtight but vapor open house wrap, using Roxul insulation bats in my wall cavities and Roxul boards as an exterior wrap, and taping not only the exterior window flanges but also the interior of my windows with Tescon Vana tape. All this means that my house holds heat! This winter my house was often vacant for weeks at a time, yet only three times have I come home to find anything frozen, and that was only in the bathroom, which tends to be a bit colder than the rest of the house, and 2 out of the 3 times it was just thin films of ice, not frozen solid. In the morning, after the fire has been out for most of the night, the house is generally close to sixty degrees, meaning it has only dropped maybe 20 degrees from the toasty 80 degrees I usually get it up to before bed. On a sunny day, the house seems to get some good solar gain so even if empty and without a fire it is usually at least 15 degrees warmer than it is outside. And so basically, my fears of everything freezing inside have been obliterated. When I do plumb my house I probably would still drain the pipes if I was leaving for more than a weekend and it was supposed to be cold, but I no longer have fears of pipes freezing while at work, or even if I sleep downtown at a friend’s for a night!
And my Little Cod stove is a beast in terms of the heat it puts out! The first real test was when I had my house warming party on a fall October day and the door was propped open all evening as people went in and out. Once the sun went down it was a bit chilly but people cycled through the house and were amazed at how comfortably warm it was inside due to the wood stove going, despite the door and windows being open! Once I figured out my method, which is a little bit of paper, about three pieces of Fatwood fire starter sticks, and then some 1″ thick medium sized dry hardwood pieces, I found I can get a good hot fire going with one light in under 10 minutes. The draft on this little stove is awesome, in my opinion, and the cast iron radiates the heat out just like a big stove. You do have to stoke it more often than a big stove since you are using smaller pieces of wood, but once I have a good bed of coals and the house is pretty warm I will put a pretty large piece in and close the damper all the way and I can get a good slow burn for a couple hours.
Now, in terms of mess, here is what I have found about a tiny house: Yes, things can get messy fast, but it also is so quick to clean! Maybe about once a week I shake out my little Oaxacan rug, take my broom, and sweep the floor, which is really only maybe 60 square feet of floor space, so it takes maybe all of 5 minutes! Then I take my little dustpan and brush, sweep off the fire area and sweep up the pile on the floor and I am done! Sometime I also sweet the stairs, another minutes worth of work, and maybe wipe down the counter top. And I suppose about once a season I will take things off shelves and wipe those down of dust. But really, it is so quick and easy to clean! Now when I see other people’s large houses, or even my boyfriend’s apartment, I just think, what a pain to clean! Sure, you can get away not cleaning for longer, putting your dirty laundry under the bed, moving your pile of junk mail from one surface to another, but then when you do have to clean its a whole day event! No thank you. I’d rather not.
And how about a little wood stove taking up too much space? This potential issue is all about design: How do you design it into your little space in a way that it adds to the whole rather than feeling like a hazard or erroneous item? For me, I wanted the stove to be located somewhat centrally, so as to be able to be enjoyed from all parts of the house. I also knew there was a good chance I would use it to cook on so I wanted to also locate it in a place that would allow for that. With my galley way style kitchen, the wall that the wood stove sits on doesn’t feel like it impedes the flow or dominates the space at all. It sits right next to my little RV propane camper stove, so the two can easily be interchanged for cooking, both forming a nice work flow triangle with my fridge and sink which sit across from them. One reason why I chose the Little Cod stove was because of its low clearances. And when I spoke to the owner on the phone he said he has his with just 3″ of clearance with a heat shield and has never had a problem. Mine has about 6″ of clearance to the heat shield behind it and the stove pipe in places is quite a bit closer, but I also feel quite comfortable with it. What is nice about a real cast iron stove is it can burn quite hot, which mine often does, but the mass of the cast iron still creates a pretty nice, even, radiating warmth. It’s never felt uncomfortable hot in front of it and I feel like its effect in terms of warming the space is like a much larger cast iron stove in a larger space- nice warm heat radiating throughout. Also, the simple design for air flow on this stove is impressively effective! Open the intake fully and the fire quickly gets roaring. If I want a slower, cooler burning fire I either close the intake and/or add bigger logs that tend to burn slower. I have also been quite impressed that this little stove seems to burn quite clean! I have had no issues with creosote, and tapping on the stove pipe when its cool indicates no build of creosote. And I rarely even see smoke coming from the chimney- a sure sign of a clean burning fire.
A note on the Kimberly stove, one of the main competitors for the Little Cod in the tiny house application: When I went to the Mother Earth News Fair the owner and inventor of Kimberly Stoves was there. There is a lot of hype about this little stove that costs almost $5,000 when all is said and done, and the inventor is, in my humble opinion, a bit of a sneaky salesperson, saying how it is really the only wood stove that will work in a tiny house. When I went to the Mother Earth news fair I already had money down on my Little Cod, which has a loong wait list of many many months, but I started to doubt my decision talking to the inventor of the Kimberly. Was the Kimberly really the only stove that would work in such a small space? He would sell it to me right there, for the discounted price of only $4000… I was close to going for it, despite preferring the more traditional look of the Little Cod to the sleek, modern look of the Kimberly, and having already agonized about the decision after many hours of internet research. But I didn’t bite, and I am glad I didn’t. The Kimberly may indeed be a great stove, but a few things to note: It is definitely NOT the only stove that will work in a tiny house. My Little Cod works beautifully, and I have since met friends that have had much success with other kinds of stoves in their tiny houses. And, one of those friends had a frustrating experience with the Kimberly, eventually taking it out and replacing it with a Two Dog Stove. She is much happier with this stove, which has kept her warm for over 3 winters now with no modifications to the chimney. Her experience with Kimberly stoves was that she could not get a good draft or get the stove to produce enough heat for the Vermont winters where she lived. And she said she spent hours on the phone with the the company and Roger himself, the inventor, trouble shooting, trying different things, and then eventually asking if she could return it or get a refund, both of which they refused to do. And so eventually she just swallowed the price tag and moved on to a different stove, which she says is so much better- simpler, heats up her place faster, and much much cheaper (only $250)! So I guess I would say be cautious with the Kimberly. If you like the look and have the money, and your house is well sealed and perhaps you live in a warmer climate, then it may be an option for you. But it is not the only stove out there that will work, and it may not even work, despite all the big claims.
And my last concern- would I cook myself out? Well, I like it nice and warm. I will say my loft is generally a good bit warmer than the rest of the house, due to heat rising. So if you don’t like sleeping in the heat you could have a bit of a problem. I generally like to get the downstairs to a good 70 degrees which means the loft is a bit above 80, which means I can sleep naked if I want to, sometimes starting on top of my covers and moving under them at some point in the night as it cools down a bit. I love it, especially on the cold winter days when my body is craving being warm. And the few times it has felt just a little too hot up there, I’ll open a window for a bit to cool it down and that does the trick pretty quick. Also, I’d like to note that although it is toasty up there with the fire going, in the summer months, with windows open on three sides of the loft, I have a wonderful cross breeze and was never too hot, despite not having a ceiling fan or anything.
So there you have it! My adventures with wood stove heating have been a success! And I would give the Little Cod a five star rating. Did I mentioned that I Love love Love that it has a glass pane allowing me to see the fire!
One other thing I have yet to really calculate is how much wood I need to go through a whole winter. Like I mentioned, I was traveling for good chunks of this winter, but when I was around I would say I went through one apple crate’s worth of wood a day, probably about the equivalent of 4 or 5 pieces of regular sized firewood. And thats if I am home most of the day and keeping a slow fire going. The amount of wood you go through will vary depending on what size wood you use, and that is something I recommend you experiment with. But anyway, I haven’t done a conversion as to how many cords of wood that would be, as I am not buying cordwood but instead getting scraps from a local hardwood sawmill. But it is definitely pretty efficient I would say compared to heating a larger space or having to heat a not very well insulated or air sealed space!
So if you are considering heating your little home with wood I would say go for it. And think about how much care and money you are willing to put into insulating and air sealing and plan your stove size accordingly. And look forwards to cozy winter evenings playing cards and Bananagrams in front of your fire, drinking coconut milk hot chocolate warmed by your wood stove.