Tiny Home Heating Options Part 1

Choosing the best heat source for a tiny home can be challenging.  Space is at a premium, and weight can be a concern for homes that move.  If your home is off-grid, available power will always be a limiting factor.  Indoor air quality can deteriorate much faster in a smaller space, and heaters can help or hurt air quality. 

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Your heat source should serve the needs of your space and climate as well as your personal preferences and lifestyle.  A wood stove might be a romantic focal point to one person, or a high maintenance smoke machine to another.  A forced air furnace might be a great hands-off solution to one person and a noisy, drafty nuisance to another.  A single heating method might work for mild climates, but if you overwinter somewhere cold, you may want two or three heating options in case one fails or isn't enough.

In this three-part series, we'll explore some of the best strategies available for heating a tiny space.

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Part 1: Electric Heating Systems

Electric heating systems are usually only practical on-grid or with the continuous use of a generator.  While you can buy a big enough inverter to start and briefly run most of these solutions off your house battery, the continuous current draw will flatten your battery much faster than you can replenish it with solar.  Unless you have a serious solar array (bigger than your house), you'll need a generator or a grid hookup to run electric heat long-term.

Rooftop RV Air Conditioner

RV air conditioners are loud and inefficient, but they're compact package units that are easy to install, and available in both ducted and non-ducted models.  Some models offer heating options.  To use an RV air conditioner on something other than an RV, you need a flat or gently sloping roof and a 120 volt AC power supply.  Because RV air conditioners use a gasket to create a watertight seal, your roof needs to be made of a smooth material like rubber or sheet metal to allow the gasket to seal.  If you have a standing seam roof, the seams need to be far enough apart for the base of the AC unit to fit entirely between seams.

Heat pumps like the Dometic Penguin HP models and the Coleman Mach HP models use the air conditioner compressor to run the cooling cycle backward.  Instead of cooling the inside of the living space and dumping the heat outside, in heat pump mode, they cool the outside of the space and dump the heat inside.  This process works well down to about 40 degrees F, at which point you'll need to use a different heat source.

Alternatively, some AC only models like the Coleman Mach 8 Cub have an add-on heat strip accessory, which is just an electric heating coil placed in the return air.  The AC unit's fan moves the air over the heating coil, and blows the air into the living space.

An RV air conditioner is the one of the loudest options available.  In addition to fan noise, vibration from the compressor can carry through the roof into the living space.  While RV air conditioners may be the most practical for RV-type tiny houses, high noise levels and vibration can make this option unpleasant for long-term use.

RV Basement Heat Pump

As an alternative to an RV rooftop unit, an RV basement heat pump or park model heat pump installs on the floor, similar to a miniature household central air system.  Basement heat pumps are generally ducted, and are frequently quieter than rooftop models, but can still be relatively loud due to the compressor being located inside the living space.  Same as traditional RV heat pumps, basement heat pumps generally only work down to around 40 degrees F.

Mini Split Heat Pump

Split AC systems tend to be far more efficient and quieter than RV air conditioners, and they're often cheaper.  The outside unit does all the heating and cooling work, sending coolant through a tube to a wall-mounted air handler inside the living space.

You'll need to find a place to mount the outdoor unit, which can be difficult (but not impossible) if you have an RV-type tiny house.  For stick built tiny houses, purpose-built brackets can be a good option for attaching the outside unit to the side of the house. 

If you're looking for efficient residential style combination heating and cooling system for a grid-tied tiny house, a split system heat pump is an excellent option.  Many household heat pump systems include an electric heating coil to take over when the outside temperature drops below 40 degrees F.  Make sure your heat pump system includes this feature if you're depending on it as your sole heat source in sub-freezing weather.

In-Floor Electric Heat

There are few surfaces more pleasing than a heated floor on a cold morning.  Regardless of the temperature of the room, standing barefoot on 85 degree stone has a way of warming your body to the core. 

While traditional in-floor electric heat mats were designed be embedded in thinset under tile floors, some newer systems allow installation of electric heat under a floating wood or laminate floors, or even carpet.  Warm wood floors can be very pleasant, but carpet over a heating mat is a bit too good of an insulator to efficiently heat a room from below.  The most efficient heat-transfer flooring choices for warming a room with in-floor heat are still tile and stone.

My favorite in-floor electric heat system for tile is the DITRA Heat Kit.  DITRA is one of the best underlayment materials available—it's an ingenious decoupling membrane that helps prevent tile and grout from cracking from minor shifts and settling of the subfloor material.  If you're using floor tile in a space that moves, using small tiles and a decoupling membrane like DITRA is a good idea.  The DITRA Heat Kit is specially designed so that the heating coil snaps right into the underlayment, providing a nice level surface for the tiles to connect to.  It's a relatively spendy system, but if you want the best available underlayment and electric heat kit, DITRA is what you want.

Even if in-floor heat isn't going to be your primary heat source for your entire home, it's an addition worth considering for smaller zones.  Heat the small section of your kitchen floor in front of the sink to make washing the dishes more enjoyable.  Or add heat to the bathroom tile to feel like you're doing your morning routine in a spa.

Electric Space Heaters

The simplest option for electric heat may be a "plug and play" electric space heater.  Electric space heaters use convection, fans, infra-red radiation, or a combination of those methods to heat an area. 

Consider whether you'd like to have electronic or mechanical controls on your space heater.  Would you like a model with a remote control?  If you lose power, do you want your space heater to kick back on as soon as power is restored or do you want to press a button to turn it on?

Look for a space heater with a built-in thermostat and safety features like overheat and tip-over protection.  If you like a particular heater but it doesn't have a thermostat, you can use it along with a programmable outlet thermostat provided the heater uses mechanical switches that will allow it to turn on as soon as power is supplied to it.

Convection Space Heaters

Natural convection heaters tend to be silent or nearly silent.  They're usually most effective if placed at the base of a large window, since the air cooling against a window will naturally fall on the radiator, which will in turn produce rising heat to mix into the living space.

Oil filled radiator heaters are typically floor-standing models that use natural convection to distribute heat into your space.  While they do get hot, they don't normally get hot enough to start fires, so they can be safer than other models around combustible materials.  Since they're filled with oil, they'll often give off an oil smell, at least initially, and there's a small chance the oil could leak out of the unit.  A floor standing unit might get in the way in a small space, so consider placement before purchasing a floor standing radiator.

Electric baseboard heaters tend to be easier to keep out of the way than oil filled radiator type heaters, but the heating element can get very hot, so it's important to keep combustibles clear.  Since the best place to mount a baseboard heater is usually under a large window, watch out that curtains don't violate the manufacturer's clearance requirements.

Resembling a flat-screen TV, panel convection heaters can either be freestanding or wall-mounted.  Smaller panels are available for spot-heating, like this model designed to be mounted under a desk. The modern design of panel heaters can work well with certain styles of decor.  But since a panel convection heater needs to be displayed prominently in your living space, you'll want to be sure it's something you want to look at all the time.

Ceramic Heaters

Heaters using a ceramic heating element and a fan are a popular and inexpensive choice for home space heaters.  Various tabletop models are available in designs ranging from classy to quirky to industrialWall-mounted options are available, as well as super premium options like the Dyson combination fan, heater, and HEPA air purifier.

Infra-Red Heaters

IR heaters use a metal coil to produce heat.  The coil creates visible red light, but also generates invisible infra-red heat.  IR heats the surface of anything it lands on the same way the surface of your skin warms while sunbathing.  If you face an IR heater toward a surface, it'll warm the surface itself, not just the air around it.  If that surface is your body, you'll feel your skin bathed in heat.  IR heaters are especially popular in bathrooms to warm your body as you step out of the shower—that red bulb with the timer is an infrared heater.

IR space heaters come in wall mount, tabletop, and freestanding options.  Hardwired heat lamps are a nice, if power intensive, addition to a small bathroom.

Next - Part 2: Non-Electric Options