Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Leap To Solar

While I was preparing to move, PG & E was subjecting the state of California to mandatory blackouts to relieve themselves of liability during fire season. My new mountain town suffered the bulk of these and it inspired me to think of going solar. And being 250 feet away from my landlord's house would mean daisy chaining three extension cords together to get power as it was. I didn't fancy this at all. The hillside I was on faced south so was perfect for solar. My landlord had himself wanted to try solar and readily approved my idea. With the help of a Kilowatt, I added up my power usage from my freezer (1Kw/day) and my toaster oven, electric kettle, stockpot, computer and lights. It came to a total of 4250 watts if I didn't count the stockpot which I only used to cook beans once a month. As it happened there was a man on craigslist selling a complete set-up that was just about the right size for a tiny house with four panels for a total of 1040 watts of power generation and a 235 amp hour battery pack. All for $1400 with a Flexmax 60 charge controller and 24 volt pure sinewave inverter. And it all fit into my Prius.

I delivered the panels to the site, hid them in the bushes for a few days, then screwed the sides to pieces of lumber using ordinary angle brackets that I had bolted to the holes in the solar panels. Two panels screwed to three lengths of wood. Three 8ft lengths of pressure treated 2 x 4's cut in half. I used my stash of conduit pipe legs from another project to shore up one side. It was a little wobbly but would suffice. Later I would add an 8ft piece to the top of the frame to stabilize the structure and keep it from sagging in the middle.

 I just needed a battery box so I dragged an old metal bathtub up to the site. It had been left over from a remodel and was just big enough to hold all four of the golf cart batteries. 

I got rid of enough books from my offsite storage to liberate a shelf so I could build a bench for the charger and inverter. 

Several you-tube tutorials later I was confident I could put the system together. I just followed how the wires were used by the previous owner. His battery pack must have been quite a distance from the charger so I cut the wire down to size. The wires from the panels were just long enough to reach once I angled the tub closer and pulled the panels up a bit.

And the hole where the stopper control was installed was perfect for the extension cords and the cable wires from the panels to enter into my ad hoc battery shed. I put it all together and had power. Such a quantum leap in off-grid living yet so simple. I needed 177 amp hours, 252 if I cooked the beans, but I could do that with my solar oven. I also purchased a mini coffee maker to heat water that used 600 watts as opposed to the electric kettle which used 1500 watts. Once hooked up the 235 amp hour battery pack just barely met my needs, but the owner assured me that the panels could handle another set of batteries in this size. So this project will be ongoing. I am also in the process of fabricating a cover for my battery box that would allow me to view the read-outs on the equipment. 

Prep For A New Location

Over the summer I learned I would have to move and spent 6 weeks searching high and low for another location. The drama of which I blogged for my friends. Thankfully I did find a mountain town to move to. It added some to my commute, but it gave back in a community full of DIY spirit and live and let live sensibilities.

My new parking spot was in an open field 250 feet from the home of my new landlord. It was beautiful, but would require the creation of a firm parking pad from scratch for the hillside was so full of gophers they would soon bury my wheels in the soft dry soil. I set to work right away and spent $100 renting a van to pick up free concrete from across the bay where a homeowner had been busy liberating his yard by jack hammering up the poured concrete. This concrete not being as thick as what would be poured today. It was the thickness of pavers, was not nearly as heavy and made nice pieces to work with.

My landlord gave me a roll of weed block landscaping cloth to lay down to create a barrier for both weeds and gophers.

I hired my handyman Tim to help me level the parking pad which required diligence and some spadework. Then he packed it down by driving his truck over it repeatedly. It took us three days and two truck loads (using his truck) of gravel and another run for concrete rubble and concrete driveway pieces I had scavenged for a project at my previous location. Tim used those to create a retaining wall on the downhill side. We then lay concrete rubble (picked up from the same guy) and a half ton of recycled concrete road fill from Lyngso a landscaping supply yard.

I love the rough mosaic of the pieces. It reminded me of what a Roman road might look like. We had enough pieces for the bulk of it and what holes were left in the middle we filled with the much thicker driveway pieces.

Once I swept the gravel into the cracks the surface was stabilized. It was ready for landing the tiny.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

My TV Appearance On The 11 O'clock News

In conjunction with my being a speaker at the Tiny Living Festival John Kernohan asked me if I was willing to be interviewed by KPIX as an example of a tiny house dweller in the Bay Area. Of course I said yes. I love to give tours on camera. So I got a call from Susie Steimle the housing advocate on the program “Project Home” which airs every Monday and Wednesday on the 11 o’clock news. A commendable program of investigative reporting with a social justice component. My appearance appears in this segment for those who want to see it right away.

She brought with her Brian Yuen her cameraman with the largest camera I have ever seen. I’m glad I cleared off my dining table so he could set it down. I cleaned out a lot of accumulated clutter while I was at it. Just in time for my upcoming move. It’s still too cluttered for most, but Brian made it look good by avoiding my cluttered desk and such. His camera showed a lot of detail, but he also wasn’t invasive steering clear of personal stuff. And he had an eye for visual symbolism i.e. a doorknob as a symbol of home and security. He also made sure to get footage of everything I mentioned.

When she arrived Susie told me that her piece was going to be about tiny houses as a solution to homelessness because she was also going to interview a man who wanted to create a tiny house development for homeless vets. While Brian went to get his camera we had a chance to talk about my feelings about tiny houses for the homeless. 

“They should just build more low income housing,” I said and she agreed that was the crux of it. 

After my experience helping with a project in San Francisco involving tiny houses for a homeless woman I was left very conflicted at what was being offered as a solution. So I had a lot to say on camera about the whole homeless situation. Too much so Susie came back to the subject asking me to just talk about the tiny house solution and I was able to give her a more concise response.

I was trying to make the point that what is being offered with tiny houses as a solution is substandard housing for people who are priced out of the market. I think its condescending of a society to ask marginalized people to live in situations that they wouldn’t tolerate themselves. There are laws requiring landlords to have adequate bathrooms. When I said my line about asking your friends if they would give up the flush toilet both Brian and Susie held their reactions as though I’d just said something totally off the wall. But later I realized they were practiced enough to recognize a good soundbite when they heard one and give it air space. 

Meanwhile I was showing how I myself lived in substandard housing because I wanted to as my own personal experiment in reducing my consumption of resources. I’m glad Susie let me make this point about tiny house dwellers being innovators. The pair spent an hour and a half with me as I put the house through its paces. I even got Susie up in the loft so we could experience it as a living room and show off my closet which I claimed was the biggest tiny house closet I’ve seen. 

When Brian asked if she wanted to be in the shot when I got into my hammock she declined. “I like you,” she said, “but I don’t want to get intimate with you”. And she winked at me. Ha ha. I love it when a straight woman is not afraid to flirt with another woman.

I was nervous about how I would come across in the piece especially because I think tiny houses are a great solution if done right. What I left unsaid inspired me to really think about why I am conducting my tiny house experiment. The crux of it is that we who are fortunate enough not to end up homeless can be housing innovators and show that living simpler is a social justice choice. It is not fair to force the poor to live this experiment while the rest of society sets a cultural standard for a very high standard of living that is so expensive it is no longer a given that the poor will even have housing. It is this social justice component to the tiny house movement that inspires me as well as being able to live affordably myself. Tiny houses are the glamorization of simpler living much like the Tesla glamorized and elevated the electric car as a social status. Living simpler as a social good is the point I decided to make in my talk at the Tiny Living Festival the following Saturday.

I was very pleased with the piece and it was fun seeing myself on a news program. I liked that the report allowed people to decide for themselves if tiny houses were a viable solution. The footage of people in sleeping bags lying on the street making it obvious that anything would be better even the bunkhouses they showed. So many homeless people have mental illness and drug addiction issues that is compounded by lack of residential services for such people so the situation is more complex than just lack of housing, but housing is key to their recovery as Susie points out. But given the direction we’re going with the wealth gap more people will be made homeless who are not thus challenged. And our capitalistic society seems to be ok with this. Many people have suggested to me that tiny homes are a good solution to homelessness, but they don't usually want "those people" in their neighborhood. They don't even want tiny house homeowners in their neighborhood. Susie didn't talk about this in her piece as an issue and I wasn't quick enough with the soundbites to point it out, but then I decided it was better just to let people think that tiny houses are allowed in backyards. It will normalize them. And I liked how she pointed out that the housing crisis is so bad in the Bay Area you can now rent dirt for what an apartment would cost in more reasonable parts of the country.

Catherine’s favorite line is when I say I’m a housing rebel at the end. I don’t even remember saying this. But paired with the shot of me going in the door and shutting it with a thunk to punctuate my statement made a nice light hearted ending.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Tiny Living Festival Speaking Gig

Through my main blog I was discovered by John and Finn founders and operators of the United Tiny House Association. They were bringing their Tiny Living Festival to the Bay Area and were looking for local tiny house dwellers to speak at their two day event. I was happy to and wrote a speech on Friday which I then spent all night memorizing to deliver today at their location in Richmond (in the East Bay north of Berkeley). Three of my organizer pals came to root for me and quite a nice size group assembled to hear me. There was no AV so no powerpoint to show my notes and pictures. So I relied heavily on old fashion storytelling which I preferred. I achieved my goal of keeping the audiences attention and they asked some good questions. My pals said it was a very good talk. The following is the transcript of the talk I gave.

“I have been a professional organizer for 20 plus years here in the Bay Area. My work is all about stuff often in huge houses. At the height of my glamorous career I worked for a closet designer. Linda London would fly in from New York and design all the closets and cabinets, the pantry, liquor cabinets and broom closet. This being Silicon Valley the job was for a CEO of a tech company and his wife. It was a brand new house that was just being finished and it was our task to move all the clients clothes into the new closets and cabinets. 

On the first day on the job the construction captain came to us and told us that he had good news and bad news. “The bad news is that the elevator is out of service.” We all groaned thinking of all those armload of clothes. “But the good news is that we could use the elevator around the corner.” 

One of my colleagues called this the house where the closets had closets. There was the usual walk-in closet off the bedroom with his and hers dressing areas, but then there was the elevator in one wall that went down to the basement where there was a room the size of a California living room and it was lined with closets. Closets for ball gowns, fur coats, hunting gear, one just for suitcases, one for the massage table and the clothes steamer. And in the middle was an island covered with a suede surface. That was for laying out a suitcase to pack for when you went to visit the house in New York, L.A., Palm Springs and possibly Hawaii. 

The final irony of this brand new custom house was that it was a one bedroom house. This couple knew exactly what they wanted in a house. And what they didn’t want were house guests sharing their space. They had a guest house built 100 yards away by the pool.

I tell this story as a tiny house dweller because not only is it such a contrast to tiny living, but we too know what we want. Just like Linda’s clients we want the best use of our space. 

I thought a lot about Linda London as I designed the interior of my house. I borrowed her methods. She started by measuring everything the client owned, counted every shirt, every piece of jewelry, all the ties and shoes they had, what kind of bathroom products they used, what was in their pantry. And she built spaces to fit everything.

So I measured everything that was going to go in my house and I fit my shelves and my cabinets to the glass storage containers, my one pot and the wok. 

I have a pull out island between my cabinets on which I can put either a cutting board or a table top ironing board and have somewhere to store those. So one unit serves two purposes.

I didn’t want a fridge because they are not designed to be efficient. You open the door and all the cold air falls out. So I have an expedition grade cooler and I built a second bench that slides over it. Again I am using this space twice. I make ice for it in a medium size freezer I keep outside of the tiny house.

And yes I do have lots of books. I have 20 feet of books. And I built 16 feet of shelving for them plus installing floating wall shelves, which took a lot of tine and effort so motivated me to give up more books. But if you really love something you can make space for it. 

When you’re designing your tiny house it becomes obvious that you only have space for what you use and I mean everyday or at least every few weeks. One pot, one pan, a couple of mugs, just the dishes you use, smaller appliances, etc. A lot of what you owned you won’t be able to use in the tiny house. And there’s really no room for it might be useful one day.

Still the best tip I got from a tiny house owner was that you can fit quite a lot in so don’t be too drastic about throwing it all out. Unless you want to. 

I had it easy when I moved into my tiny house I just left everything I didn’t need at my ex’s house. And I’m still downsizing my hoard 3 years later. I just sold the Olivetti typewriter last week and my old 35 mm Nikon camera earlier this year. I started in 2008 selling off the family heirlooms

So if something is worth any money at all sell it and if you can’t take comfort in the fact that no one wants the heirloom china, the furniture (unless it’s mid-century modern), hardback coffee table books or the silver plated stuff, so there’s no need for you to hang onto it either. If you can’t sell it give it away. I have seen silver plated trays in the metal bin at the recycling center. It’s the copper underneath the plating that has value.

In the end it will all have to be given away. The only difference is if you are alive to do it or not. And it’s better if you’re alive because you know the most about these items and how best to give it away. 

People pay me good money (up to $100 an hour) to coach them through the process of letting go because this isn’t an easy process. Stuff brings up some very emotional feelings of loss and regret. It requires making many many decisions and decisions are tiring. 

To help with this process make rules like if it’s broken, doesn’t fit, hasn’t been used in two year toss it. Sort by category. Sort room by room, drawer by drawer. Weed out a third of any given collection. Then a third more. Once you take stuff out of its home and put it in the giveaway area you will find that you are already letting it go. 

You have probably heard of the Marie Kondo method. Her Netflix show and her book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I’ve heard of people being able to follow her method. One tiny house couple on youtube did their downsizing in four days with her method. But they were young and didn’t own a lifetime of stuff. Her method is very overwhelming and exhausting. What she asks you to do is pull out everything and touch all of it asking if each item brings you joy. 

It doesn’t work for the clients I work with because everything brings them joy; they get an emotional charge from everything they own. In fact we advise the opposite to the Konmari method to not touch an item, especially clothing. So have a friend hold up the item as you make your decision. Take advantage of this social component of organizing. Do it with your partner, a friend or several friends who’ll keep you on track.

Downsizing quickly will give you the advantage of momentum. If slowly you can take time to sell things, have more time to take things to the right person or place. And you can always keep moving stuff out. 

I didn’t grow up thinking that I would be living in a tiny house. I more had in mind that I’d live in a house like my great grandfather had in Bangkok. He lived in a three floor mansion with marble floors filled with dark furniture with mother-of-pearl inlay. He had rooms for each of his nine wives and all of his children. Off the kitchen were rooms for the staff. I loved the community of it. I liked the idea of the nine wives too. I grew up in Bangkok in an extended family compound that my grandmother had. She built herself the big house with two stories, but there was room for everyone.

We each had a room. Me and my parents were in our own smaller house. My three aunts, the maids, chauffeur and gardener all had their own rooms at my grandmother’s house. It was great fun for a child to be able to visit all these people and be in so many different spaces. We all had what we needed and we all lived quite simply. My grandmother had just a mattress that was rolled out every night under a mosquito net. 

Then my parents got jobs in the U.S and we came here to the Bay Area to live the nuclear family experience. It was very different for me. I saw a card once that said “one nuclear family can ruin your whole life”. That was my life at ten years old coming here. But I made the best of it.

And over the years I watched as the houses got bigger and bigger. And then I heard that teachers and fireman could no longer afford to live here. And my friends and I barely managed to stay sharing rooms in houses. And when I became an organizer and was working in these houses I saw that our lives had become mostly about things and not so much about people.  The contrast of it brought to mind a bumper sticker I remember from a few decades back  Live Simply So That Others May Simply Live. 

Tiny House living is not the anorexia of consumerism. It is an adjustment, a discipline of priorities. A way to be more mindful of how much consumerism has taken over our lives. But you don’t have to live in a tiny house to do it. And it’s never too early to start downsizing.

That’s my introduction. And now we can go onto questions.”

The following were questions that people asked that gave me a chance to offer more tips. 

Where do you sell things? Craigslist, e-bay, Nextdoor

What to do with old coins? I didn’t have much beyond 

Where do you give away things? Freecycle, Nextdoor, on the sidewalk, but only in San Francisco to discourage hoarding. Also Goodwill and other charities.

My mother left me her paintings. I don’t have room for them, but I want them to go where they’ll be appreciated. Do you have any suggestions? I didn’t.

What about garage sales? Yes go for it. Takes a lot of prep, but can get rid of all kinds of little things.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Video Interview Captures My Tiny House Story

Early on in my tiny house life I was interviewed by a pair of traveling tiny house dwellers who make documentary films about other tiny houses and their creators under the name Tiny House Expedition. So naturally they could relate to my tiny house life better than any previous interviewer and were better able to capture the nuances of my build and appreciate the innovations I had included. 

Christian and Alexis were such a pleasure to talk to that they brought out the best in me as I cracked jokes and showed off my house. They made me sound so charming and articulate I was immensely pleased. They also have high quality production values and photography plus they have a large audience. It took them a couple of years to edit and release it to their viewing public so I've built the table since and changed some things on the desk, but it's pretty accurate. My rent however is now $700 plus utilities which is more the going rate in this area. They also told me they would include me in a longer video they are making. In the context of their other tiny house interviews mine is one of the smallest and has an Asian sensibility regarding the bathroom.

Nearly 24,000 views since they posted it mid July. Lots of people left some lovely comments too.

They also posted a nice picture of me to their Instagram account.

Heating Options And Upgrades

The tiny house is so well insulated that it is 10° warmer inside in the winter and cooler in the summer. When outside temperatures hover near freezing I do need additional heating. I tried various electric heaters that were under 1500 watts. I only kept one tiny one for the loft that is only 200 watts. I find that the ones with fans feel too cool. And the large disk one took up too much space.

My favorite heater is the flower pot heater so popular on youtube. I started buying $100 worth of votive candles by the case. I would burn 4 or 5 in each flower pot heater in glass votive candle holders. This was better than the tea lights which leave you with a pile of aluminum shells.

There was still a lot of candle wax debris and some candles that wouldn't stay lit so I decided to use up the leftover wax by making my own candles in a solar oven or at low heat in my toaster oven. I used jars and cut up and assembled wicks for them. The jar candles were better than the votive candles so I kept them going through the winter. All the leftover candles and wax that came my way was used in the process.

The heater is made using three flower pots of graduating size nestled inside each other and bolted together using lots of washers to add to the heat sink. I set it over the candles on two bricks which are in turn set on a ceramic floor tile. There is a warning on youtube about these heaters because when the tea lights are too close together they can ignite the wax altogether. But when the candles are inside a glass with the wick below the top of the glass then it is safest. I more found that they were apt to go out rather than flame up. The radiant heat and the candlelight is very pleasant to keep the room warm, but not so good for heating up a very cold room.

That's when I fire up my Little Buddy propane heater. These heaters are very efficient at heating up such a tiny space so I only have to have it on for about 10 minutes at a time. Some worry about the air quality of using such a heater, but I have had no problem with this. The drain in the shower pan allows airflow into the house too. The heater uses a one gallon canister of propane. I didn't want to keep buying the disposable kind so I tried to refill them with a $10 device. I was able to refill them, but one of them leaked immediately and there was no way to stop it from leaking. No amount of tape or glue. The gas always found its way out until I took it to hazardous waste drop-off.

So then I upgraded to a Flame King refillable canister and refill kit for just under $50 plus an extra canister ($16). Both sold on e-bay. Once I learned to refill the canister and was confident that it would not leak I had a source of free heat from all the half empty 5 gallon propane bottles people want to get rid of when they are moving. A refillable canister lasts about 3 nights. A bit longer than the disposable store bought canisters. And a win win for me and my clients who would otherwise have to do a hazardous waste drop off. I also have a back up stove that uses the one gallon canisters which I did use once when I ran out of the canisters for my stove in a drawer. I also have a stove that uses the 5 gallon bottles, but I've not yet had occasion to fire up that puppy and keep it offsite at another house. Such a stove would be useful for a household with an electric range so I've kept it. Just in case.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Guest Accommodations

Over the Thanksgiving break my landlady's brother came to stay and as there was no room in her two bedroom house which she shares with her boyfriend, she planned on having him sleep in a tent in the backyard and asked me if he could use my toilet should the one in the house be occupied. I didn't want anyone I didn't know using my house let alone a man using my toilet (since it is strictly a sit down toilet) so I offered to set him  up with my guest accommodations in my Springbar cabana tent. It was never actually used.

And to sweeten the deal I offered to put up my largest tent and furnish it with my vintage cot and tent cot sans tent. One for sleeping on and one as a suitcase stand and bedside table. The best place to put the tent was under the arbor next to the tiny house. So it was very much like having a house guest since I could hear him snoring from my porch.

He turned out to be a very nice guy and I did invite him in for a tour of the tiny house and we ended up having quite a long chat while standing up in what was essentially my kitchen. He himself was thinking of downsizing to a tiny house back east where he lives in upstate New York.

Back dated to keep the timeline. Actually written 1/2/2019