It was the perfect end to 2017 and beginning to 2018. We spent a few nights at a friends cabin by the Tieton river and spent our days snowboarding in the mountains.
But when we returned home and stepped into the tiny house we knew something was wrong immediately, evidenced by the ability to see our breath as we exhaled. The thermometer read 40 degrees INSIDE our house. The LCD screen on the interior air handling unit of our Pioneer ductless minisplit system remained set at 72 but it seemed to be stuck in the ‘defrost’ mode.
I stepped outside to inspect the exterior unit and noticed a layer of ice had formed on the bottom tray. I was really surprised to see this for the first time ever during a rather temperate winter. The unit had performed flawlessly the previous winter with long spells of much colder weather.
I hoped the ice was just triggering a sensor incorrectly and once removed the unit would be back to normal. I spent nearly two hours delicately disassembling the protective surround to gain access and then melting and removing ice while Samantha entertained Aubrin in the warm car. The above photos are from after the ice was removed and you can see the layer of crumpled fins that denote the height of the ice level.
During this process I heard what sounded like a very faint pressurized leak in the coil. Once sprayed with a soapy solution there was a pin hole leak that began creating bubbles. This was not good news. It appears as though the single drain hole became plugged and ice began to build up in the bottom tray over the course of days or weeks. Once the ice became thick enough to reach the bottom fins and copper coil it applied enough horizontal force from both sides to begin ‘crushing’ the copper tube from a circle to an oval while creating a small hole in the process. In an attempt to use this as a learning experience, (we now know) this result can be mitigated by drilling more holes through the bottom pan and installing heat tape if your unit doesn’t already come with a heating element in the bottom tray.
After heading to the store to pick up an emergency heater for the space I began planning the next steps. My initial hope was to repair the unit. This would ideally save money and be a more sustainable approach rather than replacing it. I made a pretty quick decision that trying to d.i.y fix a piece of equipment that has complex sensors to determine the direction of pressurized refrigerant was not a good idea and I contacted a local company that specialized in just that.
I was disappointed when they showed little interest in trying to braze over the hole or cut out and replace the whole coil and fin set, but looking for someone willing to do one of those options was proving to be a time consuming rabbit hole as the winter days passed with us relying on a space heater.
I was simultaneously speaking with the manufacturer via e-mail and an equally frustrating dialogue was unfolding. It is worth mentioning that we did not expect the warranty to cover this issue and never brought it up during our conversation with Pinoneer. This is because we knew that with many pieces of equipment, installation in/on a mobile structure voids the warranty. Also, we take the blame for this problem as it was probably dust/dirt/leaves that caused the blockage; a result of our lack of attention to the unit. Sure it could have been designed with more holes and a heating coil at the bottom but we ‘got what we paid for’ and Pioneer was one of the cheapest units on the market.
When speaking with Pioneer it was difficult to get straight information in a timely manner. They offered a replacement at a fair price right away But I did not want to replace the interior unit if there was nothing wrong with it. Not only would that be another item to discard but it had been an extemely detailed and complicated install to the exact measurements of the existing interior air handeling unit and the dimensions of the new unit were different.
After some back and forth as they ‘checked with their engineers’ they explained that they had discontinued the older model that we owned and it was not advisable to only replace the exterior unit because they could not guarantee 100% compatibility between a new exterior unit and old interior unit. This was a pretty big disappointment but we proceeded with what seemed like our only option as the days continued to tick away. We accepted Pioneers original offer which provided the interior AND exterior unit for the cost of just the exterior unit (without the line set which we already had installed in our walls and could be reused). The cost was $398.00 plus $168.00 for shipping from Florida. The new unit has increased efficiency (22.5 SEER) and has been designed with many drain holes and a heating element installed into the exterior units bottom tray (which makes me think this isn’t the first time this issue has occurred).
As the new units slowly made their way acrossed the country we began to prepare for the replacement. I scheduled an appointment with our local company to install it and began the delicate process of removing trim and wall panels to expose the backside of the interior air handling unit and the connections we would need access to including the wiring, condensation drainage tube and the two copper refrigerant lines.
While nearly all of SHED’s interior paneling is glued and nailed 1/4 plywood, the bathroom side of our one interior wall is 1/2″ plywood, fixed in place using screws so that if anything ever happened to the mini split or the pocket door we could gain access to it.
The unit arrived and wdid as much of the leg work as possible in an attempt to minimize the experts time spent on site as the install would be billed based on how long it took. Because the refridgerent lines were not pressurized any more (due to the external leak) I was able to disconnected and remove the old interior air handeling unit and install the new mounting bracket and unit whose width was substabtially shorter, leaving a gaping hole in the wall adjacent to the unit that we have yet to conceal. We even went as far as to rig up a tarp over the exterior unit to sheild the worker from the rain and snow that was forecast for installation day.
The professionals came, completed the job and left with-in two hours. For them it was just another day. For us it was the end of the most substantial hiccup of our tiny house journey to date; one that had us living by space heater for three January weeks. Over the next couple of hours I slowly put the wall panels back up, reinstalled the box-out that hides the refrigerant lines and put all of the steel angle trim back up. An unfamiliar looking interior unit and a gaping hole currently remind us of the three week debacle as we try to find positive tidbits in the outcome, like the even quieter operation from both the indoor and outdoor units.
It is worth noting that the space heater we bought in a hurry with out research worked extreamly well! It is a PELONIS oil filled electric radiator heater and it kept the entire house toasty on the 1/2 to 3/4 power setting. While it does take up some floor space and isn’t ideal if you have children walking or crawling around (hot to the touch) it is an economical and efficient way to heat a tiny house.
We are still waiting for the installation bill but anticipate the cost to be between $200.00-$350.00 which brings the total cost of this incident, including the frantically acquired space heater, around $1,000.00; more than the original unit cost in the first place.
Many of you may have decided to go with a mini-split unit for your tiny house, maybe even a Pioneer based on our initial feedback and probably now wonder if you made a mistake.
My response would be no. There were many reasons why we still think that a ductless minisplit is the best option for a tiny house (as long as you are connected to the grid) evidenced by our decision to spend even more money the second time around to reinstall a mini split.
1. It is efficient. Even with our heating and cooling as part of the electric load we run our house off of a standard 20 amp outlet without issue.
2. One unit, two functions. We live in an area where heating and cooling are required almost equally depending on the season so having a single unit capable of doing both is a huge benefit in a tiny space.
3. Cleanliness a ductless mini split simlpy passes air over a set of fins that are either heated or cooled depending on the refrigerant cycle. Other popular alternatives are propane and a wood stove, which can be great options for off-grid homes but come with downsides such as increases moisture and smoke/particulate matter respectively. Plus the floor space lost, having to store wood and keep kids away from the stove are added reasons we did not go that route. (And of course you would then need to find a separate way to cool the space).
As for a follow up evaluation of Pioneer…The original unit worked amazing for two years. It heated our house sufficiently when it was 5-7 degrees outside last winter which was a pleasent surprise and cools our home with ease into our triple digit summer months. While their unit didn’t have multiple drain holes and a heating element we don’t really consider the incident their fault. Combined with the fact that the new model which replaced our older one now has those features to prevent this from happening again I would give their product an 8.5 out of 10. There customer service on the other hand is closer to a 6 out of 10 as we received a bit of a run around and some conflicting information. All things considered they did end up offering a replacement at a pretty fair price (had it not been for the expensive shipping cost).
We hope this information prevents a similar occurance from happening to anyone else. Now we’ve got to dive back into our E-BOOK if we stand any chance of still releasing the second edition by February 1st!