Tiny House Electrical – You Conduit!

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The bathroom wall with its electrical and plumbing mostly done.

Electrical was a bit more complicated than plumbing. For one, we had to determine ALL the fixtures we’d be using, where exactly they would be going, how much power they would draw, etc. Lighting the great room turned out to be the most difficult. Like we’ve mentioned in earlier posts, we are looking for low impact, and off-grid ready appliances, so we shopped around for LED lights. Drew’s parents had a large collection of left-over light fixtures from their kitchen and bath business that we were free to choose from. These came in handy on several occasions.

We thought about having recessed can lights like traditional homes, but decided against it once we realized that the recessed part of the light almost always required a 6” deep ceiling stud, which we simply did not have room for in our 2×4 roof. We found a large box of task lights in Drew’s parents’ shop that we initially thought would be perfect for the great room. Drew rigged up a few lights and hung them up on the ceiling. For 12v lights, they lit the room up like they were 60 watts bulbs! They looked great in the space, but they seemed to heat up rather quickly, which we thought was odd for LED lights until we realized they were xenon lights. Oh well…

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Our attempt with can lights.

Then we saw a design online where a tiny home used LED strips along the tops of the walls on either side of the great room. It lit the room up with the beautiful looking glow of reflected indirect light. Perfect! We definitely want to use LED because it uses less energy and produces less heat.

We chose a  very small ceiling fan (that hopefully won’t hit our walls when it spins), two wall sconces for the dormer walls, one sconce for over the half circle window, a set of decorative track lights for the nook, two kitchen lights, and a sconce for the bathroom. Plus, we bought an outdoor light for the front door as well. We lucked out with the track lights because a builder Drew ran into had some extra lighting he didn’t need, so he gave it to us. (Thanks again!)

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Our new porch light! Note, the white paint line on the half circle window above is from when Sierra attempted to paint the shakes surrounding the window, and the bees living in the eaves decided that wasn’t the best idea.

We decided to run our house on 120 volts AC because this was the most common, most easily managed type of electrical setup we could create for ourselves. Simply put, more, better, and cheaper appliances are available when you use a traditional electrical load. This means you have more choices for energy saving appliances once you start looking for them. Since we had a tight space for our kitchen, we decided to splurge on an under-counter refrigerator that was much larger than your usual dorm fridge.

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Electric setup for the nook. The wire will be hidden by a trim piece we’ll be installing later.

It should be mentioned that there are some great and ingenious food cooling solutions for totally off-the grid homes. We’ve seen propane powered fridges, flexible power fridges that can take 110v AC and 12v DC. There was even a time we were convinced we were going to convert an old chest freezer into a super-efficient refrigerator that used less than $12 worth of power in an entire year. (Thank you Internet.) However, in the end, we decided we could afford a larger, foodie-friendly fridge at the cost of an extra solar battery or two once we made the switch.

Speaking of solar, we are looking into using a portable all-in-one solar station called the SolMan. It is a box that contains all of the batteries, solar panels, and related equipment needed to charge a few computers and run a few small appliances off the grid. It can be upgraded with more battery storage or solar panels and all you need to hook your house up to it is an extension cord! There is absolutely no need to install those puppies on your roof and clench your stomach (and your wallet) every time you drive your house under an exceptionally low-looking overpass.

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Lightswitch for the nook light. Since we have so many boxes we took to labeling the wires for clarity.

Because we were mentally exhausted from all the plumbing research, and we were both busy with jobs and life, we decided to play it safe and hire an electrician for this part. Because Drew’s parents work in the construction business, they knew a contractor that could help. And that’s how we met Tom.

Actually, that’s a bit misleading. I (Sierra) have never actually met Tom. For all I know, Tom doesn’t exist and never has existed. Due to busy work scheduling on my end, Drew is the only one who ever actually interacted with him. Ever. Drew also tends have uncanny knack for understanding technical stuff, so as far as I know Drew made Tom up and did all the electrical himself. It’s become a running joke with us.

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Drew’s electrical design

So Drew met with Tom and showed him a diagram he’d mapped out of our electrical system. Tom then gave us some wire to get started (thanks Tom!) and taught Drew how to install it.

Then he left Drew and I to install our electrical boxes and the wires leading to them. It was actually pretty easy. It also made everything overall easier for us since we knew the plan backwards and forwards and we didn’t have to explain our incredibly complicated and amateur electrical plan to a professional who had other things to worry about.

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The red and black wires are for the LED strip lighting. The white wire leads to the loft. The silver metal pieces are the wire guards.

Then we (meaning Drew) called up Tom and met with him to look over our work. From there, Tom installed our electrical box and “did all the complicated stuff” of building a circuit box, installing all of the breakers, wiring the supply line to the box and explaining 3-way switches to Drew.  Then Drew and I finished up the rough wiring by installing some junction boxes. We also went through the house and installed these metal wiring plates that get installed directly over a wire or a pipe so it will be impossible for us to drill into a live wire. Ouch!

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We set it up so we can turn on/off the loft lights from downstairs, as well as from upstairs, for convenience.

And that was it! Working with Tom (I guess indirectly on my part, haha) was fantastic! It was nice for something to go smoothly for once. Honestly, this was way easier than either of us had expected for having hired a professional. We were thinking we would have to explain the whole project to Tom and then watch over his shoulder to make sure he was installing it the way we needed it. Nope! No such troubles. Tom, just as calm as you please, explained how to wire an outlet, how to wire a switch, and how to put together an electrical system in the simplest way he could, and then left us to install our plan the way we wanted. It was a great arrangement for everyone.

Now we’re working on the walls. We’ll dedicate a whole post to that coming up. Stay tuned..

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Rain screen, Siding, and Catching Up.

P1010634Long time no post! Sorry about that. We’ve been out of town for a couple of months (to put it lightly), but we’ll be back to working on the house shortly! (And hopefully providing more updates regularly.. assuming we’re not completely exhausted like we were last time around.) So here are some updates on what we accomplished before we left.

We (almost) got the house completely in the dry! We managed to get the majority of the roof, rain-screen, and siding installed.

Let’s start with the rain screen.

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Completed rain screen on one side of the house.

Rain screens are used to keep your siding elevated above your tar paper and create a drainage plane/ventilation for standing water – which could otherwise create rot. This centuries old method of construction has been used on Norwegian stave churches and Japanese buildings which are still standing today.

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The rain screen extends all the way to the under edge of the roof.

Creating a rain screen is quite simple – it basically involves installing ribs of plywood on top of the existing tar-paper surface. First we had to determine where the studs were inside the house so that we made sure we were nailing the rain screen into a solid beam. This took a lot of working with measurements inside the house and using them to determine where those same points were outside. Then we drew lines with chalk to determine where to adhere the plywood.

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Using the finish nailer. So much easier!
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I had so much time left over after nailing that I even had time to pose for a cheesy picture.

Once we completed that step, we used the tablesaw to cut long 3″ strips of plywood. From there we used a 2.5″ finish nailer to attach the plywood to the outside of the tar paper. I first started this process by attempting to use the dinky palm nailer. It immediately cracked the first piece of plywood. I tried again, this time more slowly and carefully. Same result. I even tried hammer and nail. Nope. The nails were too thick and the nailer was too strong. The finish nailer, while not petite in the slightest, is the smoothest tool I’ve used yet. And fast. (And luckily has two safety’s.) It can only fire when both the tip AND the trigger are compressed. So this made the process go much quicker!

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Notice we left room at the base of the wall so we could later add trim.

After attaching all the strips of plywood to the studs, I then cut long strips of tar paper (about 8″ in width) and attached the pieces around the plywood (so it essentially makes a ‘ridge’ in the wall) with capped roofing nails. I tried to cover the tops of the plywood so that the water couldn’t get through there either. Even if it did, we left the bottom open so it could drain out and receive air circulation.

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We later tucked the tar paper in behind the trim board.

If you would like to learn how to make your own rain screen, this PDF is an invaluable resource we found incredibly helpful during our process.  

Meanwhile, Drew added the bottom trim, but with a twist. He and his dad drilled holes through the wood and attached a screen over the holes to keep out debris and bugs. (A big thank you to the secret donor who donated the two screen doors he’d previously walked through and broken.) This made it so any water that got under the siding could drain out through the bottom.

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The base board with holes drilled all the way through for drainage.
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The window screen is wrapped around the board and then stapled.

Drew also worked on adding in the inputs for our water and electrical systems. He framed out a small utilities panel using cedar 2×4’s so they would match our window framing and cut out a pair of holes for the water and electrical inputs. Amazingly, they’re designed to be adaptable with nothing more than a garden hose and a standard 120 volt extension cord. That way we can have water and power just about anywhere we park.

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Drilling holes for the inputs.
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Inputs installed.

Now the majority of our walls were ready for siding! We still need to build a bike holder against the end wall over the hitch and figure out a front porch, so we haven’t put siding on those sections yet. We’ll hopefully be getting to that soon.

Next was prepping the siding for installation. We bought ~650 linear ft of cedar lap siding. As was mentioned in a previous post, we coated our cedar boards with 100% linseed oil. Pure linseed oil provides a protective coating that preserves the wood naturally and protects it from water damage, mold, insects, and UV damage. It also helps the wood retain its color. Unfinished cedar (over time) turns grey, because the outer cells of the wood dry up, turn grey, and flake off. So we needed to stain all 650 ft. of the boards on one side only. On the other we used a milk paint primer, the reason being if rain accumulated behind the siding, it would have less of a chance to soak into the wood.

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Adding a layer of milk paint to one side of the boards.
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After the milk paint dried, we stained the other sides of the boards with linseed oil.

This turned into a long process of paint, move, dry, wait, move, paint, move, dry, move, move-again-because-we-need-the-room, move-again-because-it’s-supposed-to-rain, fine-it-can-go-there-but-not-really-because-we’re-out-of-room–sigh-okay-fine-it’s-there-now.

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Finding a storage spot for these boards was difficult. A few of the boards wouldn’t even fit inside our house. Needless to say our house smelled like milk for a while.
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We set up sawhorses outside to dry the cedar boards.
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The finished boards stored away in the house.

Luckily a lot of people helped us with the painting process. Sam even helped install a lot of the siding! Thanks Sam, Kas, Z, and Diane. You all made the process a lot smoother!

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Mixing milk paint, which initially comes in powder form.

So while I was working with the boards, Drew was back on the roof trying to finagle the last few tricky bits – one being the ridge cap.

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The house with a lot of the siding already in place. Drew’s working on installing the ridge cap.

This part wasn’t easy. There are numerous steps that must be done and pieces to be attached before adhering the ridge cap to the roofing. First, the eave flashing had to be installed, and then we had to slip on pieces of metal called transition flashing, and after that we had to install the small rails of metal that the triangular ridge cap would slide onto. It was a lot of checking the sizing, then mark it, pull it back off, cut it, check it again, find that you forgot something, take it back inside, etc.

And with that, we had most of the outside of our house done. We had to leave town, so we bought a second expensive gray tarp, covered the whole house with it (I hope I never have to do that again-it’s the worst), and were on our way.

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I’ll be glad when we’re past the tarp stage – our roof has sharp edges, which unfortunately leads to tearing…

And now we’re (almost) back and ready to get working. We’re ready to stop worrying about rain and finish our house! We’re both so excited to live in it. While we’ve been away I went to a workshop on how to build your own rain barrel. When the instructor mentioned using a jigsaw I got really excited. Jigsaw! Rivets! Plywood! It felt like I’d been away from building for so long that it was an ancient language slowly coming back to me. Oddly I’ve missed it. As insane as it was, I’ve missed it. Or maybe I’m just romanticizing it and have forgotten how hard and sleep-depriving an adventure it was.

But hey, at least it was an adventure.

Oh, and should I mention that our tiny house is currently parked in a flood plain next to a river where it’s been threatening to pour 10+ inches of rain (and they’ve released extra water from the reservoir, making the river even higher), and we’re hundreds of miles away where we can’t really do anything about it? Eight years ago the entire area was about six feet under water due to a flood.

Yeah. An adventure all right.