Going off grid and getting back to basics has been growing in popularity here in New Zealand, with tiny homes becoming especially popular as place to live.
They tie in really well with some common goals of moving off grid: saving money, simplifying your life, and self-sufficiency.
If you’ve chosen to go tiny in your off-grid journey, we’ve got a couple tips and suggestions to help with the planning!
Plan for the Architectural Constraints
Tiny homes are typically 35sqm or less – this is usually down to the constraints of fitting them on a trailer and/or trying to create a dwelling that doesn’t need consent.
Having a THOW (tiny house on wheels) comes with a few constraints if you want it street legal as a light trailer – like a caravan. Those constraints are 4.3m in height from the ground, 12.5m in length (including the drawbar), 2.55m in width including the wheels, and 3500kg in weight including the trailer. Many THOWs end up needing to be transported on a truck, even though they have wheels, because they are overweight or over height - so the wheels are only useful for moving it around on private property.
Keep this in mind when designing your tiny house if being street legal is an important factor for you – some councils will also consider a THOW a dwelling and NOT a vehicle if it does not meet these criteria, meaning you now need building/resource consents. It can also increase the costs of relocation, which can sting you if you ever sell on the tiny house. Taking the time to research the restrictions of your local council will save you headaches down the road!
Choose Your Electricity Source
Most people in tiny homes choose to go off-grid with their power, because it gives them the freedom to settle into a location where there isn’t mains power available, the ability to move around without worrying about power, and protection from any mains power outages. Of course, it also allows you to be self-sufficient, knowing exactly where your power is coming from and how it’s being used!
There are a few different power generation options for off grid tiny homes, namely solar, wind, and hydro. Solar is by far the most popular, as it is the least complex and lowest maintenance.
Going tiny will already mean cutting back on the excesses and clutter, so you probably won’t have a huge amount of power use to account for. There are some areas where you may need to change plans – electrical heating, such as hot water cylinders, ovens, and space heaters, use A LOT of power, and aren’t very efficient on solar. Consider alternatives ways of cooking and heating water/rooms, such as gas stoves, califonts, woodburners, or evacuated tube solar water heating, as having these on electricity may require a much larger kit than you can afford.
When it comes to installing solar, a DIY-friendly solar power kit like ours strikes the best balance of cost and effort – by getting a kitset you don’t have to spend time trying to understand which components go together, and by doing most of the install yourself you cut down on costs significantly. All you need is sparky to do the 240V AC wiring- you’ll probably already have one to do the household wiring and CoC! With GridFree, you also get ongoing support from experts for the life of your kit.
You’ll also want to put some thought into where the batteries and electrical components will live, as well as roof space if you need to account for chimneys or solar hot water. Keeping the electrical components somewhere insulated is ideal to prevent corrosion from condensation, but ideally not where you will be annoyed by the fan noise. All the dimensions for our kits are available on the website to help with planning.
Prepare Your Water Collection, Storage, and Treatment
Even if you do have access to electricity in the chosen location for your tiny home, it’s usually less common to have water access, so you’ll have to look at other options for a water source. The most common is rainwater, as it’s universally available. If you have a spring, stream, or other natural water source on your property, you can also use these to increase your supply.
You then need to give some thought to storage and treatment. This article has a section that delves into it more, but for storage the general recommendation is enough to get you through 2 weeks - considering that the average person (on-grid) uses about 200 litres a day for cooking, drinking, and hygiene. There are plenty of treatment options available such as UV filtration, and the right choice will depend on your water source and volume.
Reducing electrical needs by opting for gravity fed water is quite common – it involves having water holding tanks above your tiny home, such as up a hill, so that gravity provides the necessary pressure to move water around your home instead of a pump. You probably can’t collect your water on top of that hill, so a great way to move water from either a stream or your rainwater collection tank up into that holding tank is a solar water pump. This is a simple system using solar panels, a controller, and a pump, and it simply pumps when the sun is out, and stops when either the sun goes away, the holding tank is full, or the collection tank is empty.
Make the Most of Your Waste
Many people who go tiny are keen to reduce their environmental footprint, as well as being completely independent, and waste is an important area where you can be more self-sufficient. Everything from food scraps to blackwater can be handled in a closed loop with the right setup, just keep in mind that different councils have different regulations that you may need to familiarise yourself with.
Homemade biogas has been gaining popularity in recent years, as it uses your household food scraps, animal manure, and human waste to create both gas that you can cook with and liquid fertiliser. There are instructions available online to create your own, or you can purchase a kitset from a company like HomeBiogas.
Many off-gridders opt for a composting toilet whether they intend to create biogas or not, as it simplifies plumbing and creates a source of compost, with a urine diverter to create a nitrogen rich fertiliser.
For those that want a regular flushing toilet instead, you can install a septic system such as Natural Flow or a vermiculture (worm) system that treats blackwater and greywater, and disperses it into the ground.
Many off-gridders also set up separate grey water treatment to divert their water back into the gardens, maximising the utility of all collected water. There are DIY instructions, kits, and companies who will install all of these, to suit any level of ability.
Maximise Your Living Space
If you’ve looked into tiny homes in any detail, you’ll be very familiar with the space constraints that come with them. A lot of people will opt to move the bed up onto a loft, giving them more space for the living area and kitchen, while some will make the couch into a convertible bed. It all comes down to how many people are living in the space and what feels comfortable.
Creative storage solutions are also a popular element in tiny homes, as their owners try to make use of every single bit of space available. Most commonly the space under the stairs and under the seating are used for storage, but we’ve also seen shallow drawers installed underneath cabinets (where the toe kicks would normally go). Hanging items like pots and pans is also a great way to make use of the vertical space. Closed cabinets rather than open shelves can help cut down on visual clutter, making even a very full home feel tidier.
You can also make full use of your outdoor space by adding a covered deck with patio blinds – this gives you a great space to store muddy boots, dry laundry in winter, or just expand your living space. Many people will add a bar leaner under the kitchen window to make an outdoor breakfast bar.
In addition to making the space work for you, making sure you fill it with items that complement is will make life easier. Choosing compact appliances can make a big difference – anyone who has ever had a small kitchen knows the importance of having compact or multitasking appliances. Too-big appliances and uni-tasking items just create clutter, making your space feel more chaotic and harder to work in. Ditching the TV in lieu of a projector and pulldown projector screen is a popular option when wall space is at a premium.