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Understanding Tiny House Systems: Toilets, Tanks, Power, and Water

How Do Utilities Work in Tiny Houses on Wheels?

You’ve seen beautiful tiny houses on wheels on TV, in magazines, and on the internet.  You could see yourself buying a tiny house one day.  You could use it for vacations, put it in your backyard to use as a studio or guest house, or you could live in your tiny house full-time.

Hoosic Tiny House Exterior

In this photo: The Hoosic Tiny House

But you may have asked yourself: if it’s on wheels, how does it really work?  How do you get power to a tiny house?  How do you get fresh water in and waste water out?  How are tiny houses climate controlled?  What expenses are you forgetting to include in your overall budget?  

There’s a lot more to buying a tiny house than just buying the tiny house.  You’ll need to have a good understanding of how it all works, and how you’ll deal with fresh water, waste water, power, and parking.  There are many options for different types of tiny house setups.  Before building, your builder will need to know how you plan to use your house so he or she can help you choose the best appliances and systems for your specific situation.  Read about tiny house design sessions.

Setting Up Your Tiny House

Because they’re on wheels, tiny houses can travel.  However, life on the road isn’t for everyone: most tiny house dwellers live in one place with permanent utility connections.

new tiny house constructionIf you’re traveling with your tiny house:

  • Buy a truck powerful enough to pull your tiny house.  Here’s an article on truck capacity for different tiny houses.
  • Make sure to let your builder know they’ll need to insulate for all climates.  When traditional houses are built, they are insulated according to what zone they’re in.  Houses in colder climates need a lot more insulation.  But when a movable house is built, it needs to withstand all kinds of weather.
  • Tiny houses that travel go through a lot of wear and tear.  The amount of wind and vibration a tiny house experiences when driving on the highway is the same as if the house were sitting still in a hurricane.  Secure your items well inside your tiny house, and prepare to perform more maintenance on your tiny house since it will be traveling often.
  • Make sure you know where you’ll be traveling to (RV parks? Friends’ houses?) and where you’ll store your tiny house when you’re not staying in it. It’s not always easy finding places to put your tiny house, so it pays to be prepared!
  • In the same vein, research the cost of renting space, what utility hookups are required, and include your transportation costs, like fuel and road food, in your budget.  Check out this article on the all-in cost of living in a tiny house.
  • If you plan to sell your tiny house when you’re done traveling, make your resale easier by buying a tiny house with a layout that’s as universally appealing as possible.

If your tiny house will stay in one place:

Most people place their tiny house on a gravel or concrete pad.  This keeps utility lines in place and systems working properly (for example, some mini splits can leak if they’re not level).

Anchors are a great idea: they’ll keep your house from shaking even in the worst weather.

Skirting, while not necessary, also reduces shaking in high winds, and, if insulated, helps keep your pipes from freezing.  Skirting creates a more permanent look to your tiny house.

If you don’t have a location for your tiny house yet, here are some things to consider when looking:

If you’ll be placing your tiny house in a backyard, here are some tips:

  • Tiny houses on wheels are generally legally considered RVs, so if you can park an RV in your yard, you can park a tiny house in your yard.  Whether it can legally be lived in full time is a different question.  You’ll have to find out from your town’s zoning board.  Here’s how.
  • Choose a spot in your yard for your tiny house wisely.  In addition to the space the tiny house will take up, you’ll need to ensure the delivery truck will have enough space to maneuver the house into place and then drive away.

Photos in this section: The Arcadia Tiny House and the Spectacle Tiny House (a custom-built park model that’s not in our catalogue).


Tiny House Water Systems

When people envision life on the road, they picture a life of freedom.  But if you’re a human, you’ll still need water for life’s basics: drinking, cooking, and bathing.

RV Hookups for Water

For water, RV hookups come standard on B&B Tiny Houses.  RV hookups have an inlet for a fresh water hose and an outlet for waste water.  You can connect the hoses to a hookup pedestal at an RV park or, if your tiny house is in a backyard, to the main house.

Tiny houses on wheels have four potential spaces where water is used: kitchen sink, bathroom sink, shower or bath, and toilet.  Depending on whether you’ll be traveling or staying put, and what systems are available at your location, we’ll help you decide on the best type of toilet for your lifestyle.

If you’re traveling, here’s how to hook up your tiny house at a campground:

Some tiny houses have water tanks and some don’t. If you’ll always be hooked up to a water system when you’re using water, you won’t need water tanks.

If your tiny house has water tanks, the tanks can store fresh and waste water until your house gets to a pumping station.

If you have water tanks, here’s a video on how to empty waste water (black water) tanks at a dumping station.

Permanent Tiny House Hookups

If your tiny house is staying in one place, you’ll want a more maintenance-free water system.  Tiny houses on wheels can be hooked up permanently to the same systems traditional houses use: a well or city water for fresh water, and septic or sewer for waste water.

If your tiny house is in the back yard of a traditional house, you can hook your tiny house up to the existing water system, as long as it has the capacity to add another “bedroom”, which is code for “the water usage equivalent of one or two people being added to a house”. Generally, when houses are built, the water system permits the house to add at least one extra bathroom, in case the house gets an addition in the future.

  • If the main house is on city water, you’ll need to check town records to see if the house is permitted to add another hookup to the water system.  Check with town records to see if this is true in your situation.  Most often (but not always) when houses are on city water, waste water will go to a city sewer.
  • If the main house is on a well, check to see if the well will need to expand its capacity to provide enough water for the tiny house.  Most often (but not always) when houses are on a well, waste water will go to a septic system.

Generally, we advise our customers not to DIY sewer connections, as there’s too much that can go wrong.  However, we want you to have an understanding of how it’s done, so please watch the following video of how one DIYer connected his RV to the sewer.

  • Contrary to what this DIYer did, we advise having a trench dug by site work professionals to bury your water lines.  This is for aesthetic reasons as well as to prevent freezing.  If your water lines are above ground and you’re using your tiny house year-round in a climate that freezes, wrap your hoses in heat tape from an RV supply store.

Tiny House Power Sources

Power is the second most important utility your tiny house will require.  If it’s good weather outside, you can survive without using power, as if you’re going camping.  But if you want to take a hot shower, operate lights and other electronics, and generally live like a modern human, you’ll need a constant source of power going to your tiny house.

  • Tiny House RV Hookups- Power and WaterMost tiny houses on wheels come with RV hookups where you plug an extension cord with an adapter into the side of your house.
    • These connections work best for those who plan to use electric appliances like ovens or washer/dryers in their tiny house.
    • If you’ll permanently anchor your tiny house, however, you can have your builder put a permanent power receptacle in.  It’ll go either underneath your house so the wires can be buried, or near the roof of your house so you can run overhead wires.
  • Solar power systems are another option.  Installing solar systems is much more expensive up front, but they can pay for themselves after 10 or so years.
    • If you want an off-grid solar system that powers your whole house, you’ll need to set aside outdoor space for solar panels and indoor space like a closet for batteries and the control center.  You’ll need to choose your appliances to work well with solar energy (for example, choose a gas fireplace instead of an electric heater) and use energy conservatively.
    • Most people use grid-tied solar, which supplements power from the power lines and sells energy back to the grid when you’re not using it all (your meter will run backwards!)  Another advantage to grid-tied solar is you won’t run out of energy on a cloudy day, because when your batteries are depleted your system will automatically switch to grid power.

Talk To Us About Designing The Best Power & Water System For Your Lifestyle

We hope this explanation of the many ways to set up your tiny house was helpful.  In your design session, we’ll ask you to describe what your living situation will be and we’ll go over the best options for your specific situation.

Here’s an article that walks you through the 8 steps of buying a tiny house.  When you’re ready to buy your tiny house, contact us to get started!


Thank you to YouTubersSean and Kristie Michael of Long Long Honeymoon, Mark Rowles, and BuckWSR for their instructional videos.

Where In Massachusetts Are Tiny Houses Legal?

Where Can You Put A Tiny House in Massachusetts?

With your help, we’re compiling a list of every city and town in Massachusetts and its attitude toward tiny houses on wheels and on foundations.  This is part of a larger initiative by the American Tiny House Association to gather tiny house information for every state in the US.  (Katie at B&B Tiny Houses is also ATHA’s northeast regional director.)

As you’ll see in the chart, most cities and towns don’t already have a policy on tiny houses, whether on foundations or on wheels, so their stance on tiny houses is currently unknown.  Municipalities probably won’t consider whether to allow tiny houses unless someone brings it up with them!  As we’ve seen in Nantucket and Auburn, all it takes is one person to ask.

What Does Tiny House Appendix Q Mean For Tiny Houses On Foundations?

Tiny House Appendix Q has been adopted in Massachusetts, effective January 1, 2020. Appendix Q: Tiny Houses provides building safety standards for houses on foundations that are 400 sq. ft. and under.  However, the appendix doesn’t mean you can build a tiny house on a foundation wherever you want in Massachusetts: you’ll still have to adhere to your municipality’s zoning code.  Here’s more info on the Tiny House Appendix.

Please add to the list:

If you have spoken with your municipality’s government (zoning board, building inspector, or someone else) about tiny houses on wheels or on foundations, we would love to add your info to the list.  There’s even a column for rumors, if you’ve heard a town might be amenable to tiny house living but haven’t spoken with them directly yourself. 

How to find out if your city or town allows tiny houses:

Zoning codes for many municipalities can be found on your town’s website or on ecode360.com. 

If you haven’t spoken with anyone in your city or town government yet but would like to know whether a tiny house on wheels or on a foundation would be legal, send a quick email to your town’s zoning board (you can find their contact info on your town’s website).  

Be sure to include the following information:

  • What kind of tiny house you’re inquiring about (on a foundation or on wheels?)
  • What code the house would be built to (if it’s on a foundation, does it comply with Massachusetts residential building code? If it’s a tiny house on wheels, is it certified by the RVIA or another third-party inspector?)
  • A description of where you’d like to put it (in a backyard, on its own lot, or in a community) and the address so your zone can be confirmed.  If you don’t have an address in the town but would like to move there, let them know that as well.

Someone on the zoning board be able to tell you right away whether tiny houses are already approved.  If tiny houses are not currently mentioned in the zoning bylaws, they’ll be able to advise you whether it’s worth pursuing a change.  

If you have info on a specific municipality, please email info@bbtinyhouses.com and we’ll get your info added to the list.

Here are some tips to use the spreadsheet effectively:

  • The spreadsheet retains its formatting if you’re on a computer rather than on a mobile . If you’re on a mobile you won’t be able to sort columns.
  • To sort a column, right-click the letter at the top of the column and select “Sort A-Z”. For example, if you want to see all the towns in Hampden County, right-click “B” at the top of the second column (or click the small triangle next to “B”) and select “Sort A-Z”. Then scroll down to where the Hampden County section starts. If you only want to see towns with information added about tiny houses on foundations, you may select that column, which is “D”, and sort. Scroll to where the info starts.
  • To see all the information in a cell, click the cell.  The full text will show up in the bar above the sheet.

 

How Dominique Kerins of Auburn, MA Convinced Her Town’s Zoning & Building Inspector To Approve Tiny Houses

Dominique Kerins and her husband wanted to put an accessible tiny house in the yard of their regular-sized home in Auburn, MA for her aging grandmother, so she inquired whether that would be possible at her Town Hall.

Fast forward a couple months, and Auburn’s Annual Town Meeting was last night.  Tiny Houses were the last item on the warrant to discussed, and it passed!

So how did she do it?  Dominique was gracious enough to get a sitter for her kids in order to grant us an interview.

Auburn’s Town Meeting Warrant can be read here.  The tiny house articles are #33 and #34; you’ll read more about the distinction between the two articles in the interview.  The approval process isn’t over yet: next, it’ll be sent to the Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (who visited the B&B Tiny Houses workshop last year) to be signed into law for the town of Auburn.

We are so grateful to Dominique for pitching the idea of tiny houses to her town, and in doing so, paving the way for others to do the same in their own municipalities.


First, what’s the background story?  What originally led you to ask your town for permission to put a tiny house in your yard?

  • My husband and I were looking to make changes to the Auburn zoning bylaws so that our family could build a Tiny Home on our property for our aging Grandmother, who currently pays 9K/month for senior housing in Medfield. Our intention was to keep down costs for her, and for us, and to prioritize multigenerational living. We opted for a THOW [Tiny House On Wheels] in our side yard, not only because they’re awesome but because they offer many strengths in creating a solution specific to our unique situation. THOWs offer strengths like affordability, accessibility and adaptability. All other alternatives considered or tried (like senior housing, and building on to our current single-family home) are unaffordable, and are not ideal for the long-term!) THOWs on the other hand can be easily re-purposed, sold or simply relocated. It happens to be a BONUS that THOWs promote healthier living and green initiatives.

Did you originally intend to get permission solely for tiny houses meant for caregiving, or was that restriction suggested by the planning board or another entity?

  • We certainly wanted to keep as many options open to the public as humanly possible, maintaining that people should be able to do what they see fit on their own parcels of land. Unfortunately, after a lot of planning board meetings and emails, we were forced to accept the negotiated terms if we were to gain any traction with the town. Nevertheless, we came to realize that the narrowed (senior and disabled) audience had most to gain, especially given that Auburn has the HIGHEST population of elders in their 60’s and 70’s across the state. All other audiences (college students, for instance), or persons looking to save money, may have a bit more time than the elders for the bylaws to be altered and tweaked down the road!

What was the process?  How long has this process taken so far?  What are the next steps for Article 33 to come to fruition?

  • We went to the Town Hall, in February of this year, thinking that the Zoning Enforcement (Building Inspector) would have most insight on the feasibility of building tiny in Auburn. He did provide insight, and some healthy skepticism that led us to be more prepared for questions presented by the Planning Board, roughly 1 month later.
  • The Building Inspector directed us to speak with the Town Planner, who had more information about the collaborative efforts of the Planning Board and the creators of the town’s Master Plan (which I read prior, and understood to give priority to the seniors in Auburn).
  • The Town Planner encouraged us to do 2 things:
    • Create a citizen’s petition, requiring signatures from the town’s (voting-age) residents in support of our idea.
    • Solicit recommendation and support from the town’s Planning Board and Selectmen in order to compose more detailed language to present to the Town Hall.
  • The first item was easy. The second required attending many Planning Board meetings, and a bit of bickering and emailing.
  • Realizing that the Town backed their own detailed bylaw (and not our original language), we felt it best to work with them; I made phone calls to voters in our precinct to ask for their support, and mailed a letter to all voters to do the same, instructing them to support Article #33 at Town Hall.
  • At Town Hall, we sat as members of the audience, quietly, biting our fingernails, as we watched the Town Planner present the Bylaw proposal. After time (and confusion at the Town Meeting), the Bylaw was approved by a 2/3 vote.
  • Next, the bylaw gets sent to Atty. General for approval! In the meantime, I have written Representative Frost (who is an Auburn resident) to ask for his support in expediting the approval process.

I understand you and your husband are builders and plan to build your own tiny house.  Did the town of Auburn ask you to build it (or prove that it has been built) to a particular set of standards or code?

  • …We have done a lot of building in the past. My husband is a concrete mason and is gifted as a handy man.  We have completed a lot of renovation projects, mainly in basements, (in our particular home, the renovated basement wouldn’t suffice for our elderly grandmother, for obvious reasons). The town… asked that we ensure that it is built to the town’s standards as well as those specified by the state and the federal government (and HUD). IRC – the international residential building code, will inform the building standards. Thankfully, my husband is well versed in the language of building codes!
  • I should also shout out to the awesome Design & Build school, Yestermorrow, in Vermont, for having providing so much valuable insight on the ins and outs of Tiny Home construction!!!! The class was invaluable to preparing us for the questions presented by the Town.

Before now, have you ever been involved in a political or government process?  Did you reach out to others for help or guidance along the way?  Are there any other Auburn residents you know of who are interested in having their own tiny houses?

  • Besides my exposure to college-level or professional procedural hearings, I had not been involved in politics. Reaching out to neighbors was very helpful, as was the opportunity to read Katie Jackson’s updates [Ed. Note: hey, thanks for the shoutout!] and other bloggers on tiny living. Just knowing that others are going through similar situations has been extremely insightful and comforting.

What advice would you have for others looking to ask for permission to have a tiny house in their own municipality?

  • Look at the town’s bylaws. Pay attention to the wording, formalities and procedural recommendations.
  • Network – not only at Town Hall (knowing your Selectmen, Town Planner, Zoning enforcement officials, Planning Board and Clerks) but also the Fire Chief, Police, and regular folk too!
  • Have details READY (blueprints, preexisting example images, placement plans, building plans etc.) The town asks A LOT OF QUESTIONS!!!
  • Consider taking a class (as above mentioned, Yestermorrow was really helpful for DIY building advice!)
  • Be prepared for lots of questioning, answering and follow-up, and try your best to stay positive

Finally, do you have images you’d like to share?  

  • This is our own mock-up, that I’ve created using a program, Home Designer Pro. The wheel wells are “hidden” by a “skirt” in the picture. SketchUp was also helpful in rendering templates with trailers. They have a 30 day free trial, which is nice.

Dominique’s Self-Designed Tiny House For Her Grandmother


Rendering: Dominique’s Self-Designed Tiny House Next To Her Home

 

 

Things to Know Before Buying Land For Your Tiny House (Or, Where Can You Put A Tiny House?)

So you’re ready to buy some land to put your tiny house on!  What are some financial and legal factors to consider when searching for tiny house property?


You’ve found beautiful land, but can you put a tiny house on it?

Although many people dream of a completely off-grid tiny house in the middle of nowhere, you’ll still need to find a way to get water and power to your house.  The less distance from the road, the less expensive it’ll be to have power and water lines installed.

For electricity, the cheapest and easiest option is to plug into an existing power source.  Others choose to power their homes with solar power.  Click here to learn more about solar power for tiny houses.

For fresh water and waste water, city water and sewer are one option; pieces of property in less dense locations that don’t have city water and sewer will need to use a well and septic systems.

If the land already has electricity and water hookups, you won’t need to worry about having those put in.  Generally, although not always, it’s less expensive in the end to buy land that already has utilities than buying land without and then paying to have them installed.  Be sure to factor in these costs when looking for land.

Become familiar with the town’s laws for the type of tiny house you want.

Every zone of every town has different laws regarding where you can put different types of tiny houses, so unfortunately there aren’t any exhaustive lists of “where to legally put a tiny house”.

The first place you should look for answers is in the town’s zoning bylaws and building codes.  If the town’s website doesn’t have them, you may have some luck with searching for your town on ecode360.com.  Otherwise, call your town hall to ask about your tiny house project.  Note that there may be different rules in different zones of each town, so find out what zone your property is in (there will often be a zoning map alongside the zoning code on your town’s website) before moving forward.

For permanently-affixed houses, meaning houses on foundations, find out if there is a minimum square footage for residences.

Even if there’s not a minimum square footage,  other factors may affect the size of your house, like the road frontage on the property.  In the zoning and building codes, use the search terms “minimum”, “frontage”, and “square feet” or “sq ft”.  Water and electricity would be connected permanently to a tiny house on a foundation, just like a regular-sized house.

Interested in a tiny house on wheels?

Not all tiny houses are certified, but the turnkey tiny houses on wheels B&B builds are certified by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, or the RVIA, meaning they are built to high safety standards that the government can understand, they can be financed as RVs, and they can be parked anywhere RVs can go, using RV hookups to get water and electricity to the house and wastewater from the house (Click here to read more about RV hookups on tiny houses).  Use the search terms “RV”, “Recreation Vehicle”, “Recreational Vehicle” in your town’s zoning code to see if RVs are allowed in your property’s zone.  Building codes won’t apply to RVs since they are legally considered vehicles rather than buildings.

Here’s more info on how to find out if your town allows tiny houses.


Arcadia Tiny House at Night with pond

After you’ve looked over the zoning and, if applicable, building codes for your specific zone of your town, you may need to ask the town permission to have a tiny house on your property.

Although people have been traditionally living in very small living spaces since the beginning of humanity, in more recent history, tiny houses are a relatively new phenomenon in our modern western world.  Therefore, most towns don’t already have tiny houses written into their zoning or building codes.  If this is the case, don’t be discouraged: it doesn’t mean you can’t do it, it just means you’ll have to introduce the concept to the zoning board.  In this blogger’s experience, zoning boards are made up of passionate people who want to find housing solutions for their towns.  With tiny house TV shows and news stories all but taking over television networks, no doubt at least a couple of the folks on your town’s zoning board will already have an idea of what tiny houses are.  They’ll let you know whether you need a special permit to have a tiny house on your property, and if so, guide you through the process.

Pictured: The Arcadia Tiny House, photographed in its permanent home at Woodlife Ranch by Kyle Finn Dempsey