“I’ll see you sometime next summer” I told my brother, Brad, in August of 2015 as we dropped him off at SeaTac airport after a long weekend trekking the cost of the Olympic Peninsula in the upper Northwest corner of the United States. He was heading back to the North East, where all of our family resides, and we were heading back to our current home in central Washington to focus on finishing our THOW.
Brad has an impressive list of west coast accomplishments for someone who calls Buffalo, NY home. In 2013 he flew out and accompanied us and a few other friends on a daunting yet successful 3 day Mt Rainier summit climb. In 2014 we picked him up at the Portland Airport on our way to another thrilling Mt Shasta Summit climb on the often overlooked, and unexpectedly out of season east side. This year (2015) Brad met us in Los Angeles in April and we embarked on an unforgettable Sierra Neveda Epic that found us sleeping in a fire lookout tower, relaxing in natural hot springs, exploring Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks and ultimately working our way up the steep couloir route on the east face of Mt Whitney to stand utop the highest point in the continental United States of America. 2015 also brought an unfortunate death to our family and brought my brother west for his second time in three months to spend some time with Samantha and I. We worked on the tiny house together during the day and then built a floating BBQ prototype out of left over scraps that evening. The next day we took that floating BBQ on its inaugural voyage with outstanding results. It was on this trip that we put the bug in his ear about an upcoming adventure to the Olympic Coast and wouldn’t you know, come August we picked Brad up at the Airport once again and he spent 4 days and 3 nights traversing the thin boundary between land and sea, on his third and presumably last trip to the west coast this year.
After saying our goodbyes to Brad and entering the fall season, Samantha and I had been making amazing progress and SHED was looking really great, but an eventual re-evaluation of what still had to be done led to the greatest sense of urgency to date. The holidays and end of the year were approaching and we had a short 5 weeks before SHED had to be livable, yet we did not have plumbing, propane, electricity or heating and cooling. This realization was enough to prompt a half joking offer in which I asked Brad if he was “interested in coming and installing the tiny house systems with us.” Brad possesses the exact skills needed to complete these increasingly urgent tasks and was looking into plane tickets before I even knew he was taking my inquiry seriously. As Samantha and I put a long day of work in on Christmas eve, Brad notified us that his plane would be landing in Yakima on the day after Christmas.
My employers generously gave me the time off between Christmas and new years to focus on SHED and the stage was set for what would be the most important week of progress of our entire build. Brad arrived at midnight on Saturday, and by 9 am the next morning we were filling a shopping cart with miscellaneous parts from Home depot. A roll of PEX, PEX brackets, PEX fittings, crimp rings, a length of PVC and some more schedule 40 fittings, PVC primer, PVC Glue, thread sealant, electrical knock-out clamps, eight feet of 6 gauge-4 wire cable, and a bunch of other things Brad named off in rapid fire succession. No matter how well we took inventory at the site and compiled long purchase lists to try and minimize our trips to the store, this Home Depot ritual was repeated at least once every single day we worked on SHED. Over the next 4 ½ days we logged over 57 hours at SHED in what has been the most demanding stretch of time I have experienced since architecture graduate school.
There is one gas station on the way to SHED and we temporarily became their best and most frequent customers, surviving on a diet of gas station coffee, Red Bull and whatever foods they had available each time we stopped on our way to and from getting more tools and parts in town. The break from our regular routine, copious amounts of caffeine and less than stellar diet combined with long hours of physical work and mental processing meant we awoke tired and sore each morning, lethargically making our way to the site until the caffeine kicked in and the progress sped up.
Before we started, I tried to explain all of the ways that this project was different from the regular houses he works on and that these installations would take a bit more problem solving than usual. Instead of the expected eye roll he was receptive and interested in the challenge. I quickly went from project manager to little more than a helping hand and was blown away by my brothers expertise in all things [tiny]house systems. My goal was now to do whatever was needed to keep him working at the blistering pace he had set.
And so the task of installing our plumbing began with us both laying on the ground on opposite sides of the shower enclosure, trying to thread a piece of PEX from one small hole to another through a pitch black and very tight gap between the back of the shower stall and the wall. We accomplished the task with unexpected precision and quickly had our main hot and cold PEX water lines going from the water inlet and water heater location in the gear room all the way to the other end of SHED where the kitchen sink is. Brad went to work putting on the 90 degree elbows to get the PEX lines right where they needed to be under the sink and then hammered out the piece of artwork that is our hot and cold line manifolds that distribute our water to three different locations; the shower, the bathroom sink and the kitchen sink all fed from the newly installed through-floor water inlet right below the water heater. Because we have 2×3 stud walls (no holes drilled through studs) and because we want to eliminate the chance of the pipes freezing, we have installed the PEX on the interior of our house hidden in a (soon-t0-be) boxed in chase way that is covered by built-ins for a majority of its length. We drilled holes in the floor for both sinks and set up the drainage pipe and traps from the sinks.
The next task was installing propane to the house including a main line that would follow the PEX along the long side of our house to the stove. We picked up a regulator, 4’ length of black pipe and a roll of a product called “Pro-flex” that my brother introduced us too. We drilled a 1” hole to allow the threaded black pipe to protrude to the exterior of the house where the propane tank will sit. The other end of the black pipe has a “T” installed where the flexible propane lines tie into the supply source and distribute the propane a short distance to our water heater and a longer distance to our oven and range. After leak testing the fittings we saw our new propane stove fire up immediately and hold a beautifully consistent blue flame.
Brad took one look at our empty breaker box mounted to the wall near the termination of 8 or 10 wires and knew what he would be working on next. I worked on drilling the hole in the floor to mount the marine grade power inlet and he began pealing back the numerous protective jackets on the large 4 wire 6 gauge main power cable that connects the 50 amp marine grade RV plug-in to the breaker box.
As Brad began to “slam wires into the box” I took on the more delicate task of installing our cable light system which will provide the main source of light in our main living space. This cable light system spans the entire 10′ length of our main space, terminating into a d.i.y. walnut bracket on the ceiling near the edge of the loft and into the wall above the TV on the opposite side through a slick “power-through” turnbuckle that allows the cable to pass through the anchor and the wall and connect into the DC power source in the wall cavity, accessed from the other side. The cables are then powered with not-dangerous-to-touch low voltage direct current and carry that electricity to the four dimmable LED heads upon contact. Our worries about not having enough light were squashed the moment we hooked up the cable lights and turned them on. Every time I enter the space I can’t stop looking at those well designed and crafted machined aluminum hollow centered lights.
My next task was the “light-bar” in the loft where we used the strategy of illuminating a surface, in this case the ceiling plane, in an attempt to make the loft feel more spacious. We took a 1 ½” x 2” x 8’ length of oak that we cut in a way to accept an aluminum 1” x 1” angle that is first mounted to the wall and then becomes hidden upon installation. The result is thin line of oak hiding a dimmable 120 LED per meter tape light that emanates light up onto the loft ceiling plane, indirectly lighting the loft space. This strategy also reduces the large thermal bridge holes that need to be cut into the ceiling insulation for can lights and allows for a more evenly lit ceiling surface instead of the hot (bright) spots caused by visible fixtures in turn causing the surrounding surface to appear darker due to the natural contrast of our vision.
When I returned to the gear room a little later to check on Brad’s progress I was confronted with a neatly organized work of art; a masterpiece of electrical distribution to be proud of, even if we are the only people to see it before installing the panel cover.
It was the installation of our Mini-Split heating and cooling system that caught my brothers attention because of his extensive work with refrigerant systems back east. After our plan to move the trailer the day before fell through due to weather and road conditions in the area, we had to find a time sensitive solution to mounting the exterior condenser unit on the tongue with out a welder. To complicate things, our current tongue jack location (which is pushed back towards the trailer a little more than we would like) and gear room door swing eliminate the option of putting the Mini-Split condenser unit centered on the tongue, requiring a cantilevered mounting set up of some sort. After talking over options about mounting locations and methods, Dave, our build site host and overall generously helpful person took us down to the farm shop and we cut up two 5 foot lengths of 1/4″ x 2″ x 2″steel angles to use. We then went to an automotive shop and purchased 4 flat bottom U-bolts which wrap around the trailers tongue structural frame and bolt through the angle steel which then cantilevers off to the passenger side to support the condenser unit which is bolted to the steel angle as well. While this solution will cut down on our right turn radius a bit, it is a sturdy and effective result that is non-permanent and non-invasive (no holes or welds) to the actual trailer yet can easily be tack welded in place and an additional support extended from the front of the trailer to support the cantilevered ends of the steel angles in the future if we feel the need.
Now that the unit was mounted we could better understand refrigerant line length, location of the route and the access hole in the wall to connect the power and supply lines from the exterior condenser unit to the interior air handling unit. Using a flair tool, Brad set the fittings in place and connected the two units before setting up his gauges and pump onto the lines to pull a vacuum and test for any leaks in the system. After leaving the vacuum and gauges on the lines over night with no negative pressure loss he knew that the system was secure and he then began letting in the refrigerant from the pre-charged exterior condenser unit into the lines while carefully monitoring the gauges through out this process and into the test runs of heating and cooling. While I still don’t 100% understand the process, it was an amazing milestone to point the remote at our interior air handling unit, push a button, and have our mini-split silently begin to pump heat into our space!
So, in simpler terms, in less than 5 days, my Brother turned our house into a truly livable space, with plumbing, electricity, gas (propane) and heat (and cooling come summer!). He saved our (tiny house) asses and we are so appreciative and indebted.
Some other interesting notes about our tiny house systems:
- We decided to install our water and electric “plug-ins” through the floor to eliminate the site of water and electric umbilical chords coming into the walls of our house.
- All three of our grey water drains pierce the floor perpendicularly and lead to a threaded quick release piece right below the floor undercarriage. Our horizontal drainage will happen below the trailer to a single drainage point into a grey water tank or soak away pit and the quick disconnects will allow us to remove these drain pipes during transportation.
- We have been running all of our lights, bathroom fan, the mini-split heating and the refrigerator regularly. Right now we have our 50 amp plug-in adapted down (using “dog bones”) to a standard extension chord plugged into a 20 amp breaker. That means that we can presumably function as a normal house on an extension chord hooked into a standard 20 amp outlet, and of course a 30 or 50 amp service if we have access to that.
- We used all Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter circuit breakers (AFCI), which unfortunately cost $37.00 instead of $4.00. AFCI breakers will break the circuit when it detects even the most subtle electrical arc, in order to prevent electrical fires. I guess you can’t skimp on safety.
- All of our inlets and exhausts are (or will be) on the short ends of our house (or underneath) in order to eliminate projections over 8’-6” on the long sides of SHED.
- Our pioneer mini-split is high efficiency (at 21.5 SEER) and has the ability to heat and cool the space, which is important in our climate where the temperature regularly exceeds 100 degrees throughout the summer and can reach single digit temperature in the winter. During a cooling cycle, Like any air conditioner, the unit takes the heat from the house and transfers it to the outside, much the same way your refrigerator does when it operates to keep your food cold. The evaporator (inside the house) and condenser (outside) work together to transfer and dissipate heat via the refrigerant pumped between the two units. When used in heating mode, this process is simply reversed and we are now pumping heat from outside to the inside. It is important to note that our unit will automatically shut off at 5 degrees because it becomes too difficult to extract heat from the air at that point. We will have to pay attention to the weather sometimes and keep a small heater tucked away in case of this occurrence.
…and as if that wasn’t enough, come Thursday Decemeber 31 at 4 pm we swapped our work clothes for our snowboarding gear and drove four hours South to Bend, Oregon where we celebrated new years eve with some amazing friends followed by 3 straight days of snowboarding the white paradise of the local volcano, Mt Bachelor.
There was also one other really amazing thing that happened while my brother was here. We will cover that “other” accomplishment in a more specific and soon-to-be post, but you should be able to guess what it is about based on the very first photo in this post.:)