Propane Heaters and Electric Chainsaws

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Winter Greenery

December 27, 2016

Sheila and just I spent a pretty enjoyable two days and one night at the tiny house yesterday and today. It wasn’t quite as magical as our visits to the tiny house over the summer, but that’s partly because it was cold and partly because there was a lot of work to be done. However, it was still nice to be there. It is always nice to be there.

When we arrived, we once again found our self challenged to get our little Prius up the muddy, slippery lane to our tiny house. We tried going forward slowly. We tried going forward quickly. We tried going in reverse. None of those attempts worked. We were about ready to give up, park the car and walk the quarter-mile to the tiny house with all our gear when I decided to give it one last attempt. I backed the car up the main road beyond our lane and then came down the hill, turned right and gunned it up our lane. That finally did the trick, but just barely.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worked so hard to get the car up the lane because I still wasn’t able to get it all the way to the tiny house. Three quarters of the way in, my path was blocked by a large madrone tree that had fallen since our last visit.

 

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Madrone Tree Across the Lane

As it turns out, that wasn’t the only tree that had fallen since our last visit. Seems like winters are tough on the Santa Cruz mountains forest. After we had carried all of our gear to the tiny house, we took a walk and found three more trees fallen across the path on the road to our lower clearing.

 

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More Fallen Trees

It looked like we had our work cut out for us for the next couple of days. We had already been planning to spend several hours pulling up all the scotch broom that had grown since last year. Scotch broom is an insidious weed that seems to grow everywhere on our property and will grow to the size of a small tree if you let it. It has become an annual tradition for us to make a visit to the property over the holidays to pull scotch broom because that’s when the ground is wet and the broom comes up relatively easily (although as I write this, my back is telling me that perhaps it did not come up relatively easy enough this year). Now, in addition to  pulling all the scotch broom, it looked like I was going to have to get out the chainsaw out as well.

Before arriving, both of us had been trying to guess what the temperature would be inside the tiny house. I was thinking somewhere in the low 50s which is about the temperature our big house settles to in the winter when we are not in it. At the worst, I thought maybe it might be 45°. Boy, I wasn’t even close. Before I opened the door to the tiny house, I took a look at the outdoor thermometer which read about 47°. When I opened the door to the tiny house and felt cold air pouring out, I began to worry. I ventured in anyway and took a look at the indoor thermometer which read 36°. In response, I opened all the windows to let some of the balmy 47° outdoor weather into the house.

After that, we set off to work. We pulled scotch broom in the upper clearing until my hands and my back couldn’t take it anymore. That’s when I decided it was finally time to have some fun with my electric chainsaw.

At least I thought I was going to have fun. I probably should have started with the smaller trees that had fallen across the road to the lower clearing. Instead, I decided to take on the big madrone across our main lane. Even this might have been OK if I had any experience operating a chainsaw. Unfortunately, I didn’t. I will tell you that I was smart enough not to try to cut this 20 inch diameter tree while standing down hill of it. However, I was not smart enough to cut all the way through it without having it wedge together and trap my chainsaw inside the tree like a vice in the process. 45 minutes of chiseling later, Sheila and I managed to finally break the chainsaw free. By that point, we had only made one cut through the tree, the tree had not moved an inch (turns out only a few millimeters of movement are required to trap a chainsaw) and it was getting dark, So we decided to call it quits (actually, Sheila decided to call it quits by taking my chainsaw away, otherwise I would have been out there long after dark trying my best to get my chainsaw stuck in the tree again).

Although leaving the windows open for the afternoon had gotten the inside of the tiny house up to about 42° F, we knew that staying in the house at that temperature overnight was not going to be pleasant. That’s when we decided to try out a new toy we had ordered from Amazon: a Mr. Heater portable, small area propane heater. The heater screws onto the top of a regular camping propane cylinder and is supposed to be safe for indoor use. I’m happy to report that it actually worked pretty well. We let we let it run for about four hours and in that time, it was able to lift the temperature in the tiny house from 40° F all the way to 63° F, which, when you are wearing lots of layers, warm slippers and a hat, is actually quite comfortable. Heating up some chili for dinner and making some tea made us feel downright toasty.

While the heater was able to get the downstairs of the tiny house up to only 63° F, it was able to get the loft up to 68° F. Once we realized that, we decided it might be time to retire to bed. Sheila was smart enough to bring up some flannel sheets and an extra blanket which kept us plenty warm over the night. When we woke in the morning, it was about 55° F in the loft, which was still just fine for sleeping.

Unfortunately, it was only 47° F downstairs, which seemed a little bit chilly, so we decided to do some more work outside to warm up and to work up an appetite before eating breakfast. Over the next couple of hours, we were able to clear all of the rest of the scotch broom in the lower clearing and the waterfall clearing of our property which was pretty much everywhere it grows. Getting rid of all of that scotch broom really felt like an accomplishment. It also did a great job of warming us up.

Warmed up and hungry, we came back to the tiny house and made pancakes for breakfast. That may have been my favorite part of the whole visit. I have always loved pancakes, ever since my dad used to make them for me every Saturday morning. Being able to make them in our tiny house in the woods whenever I want is always a wonderful treat.

 

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Berry Pancakes! (warm mug is heating syrup)

Over breakfast, I decided to pull out the instruction manual for my chainsaw, something I probably should have done the day before prior to trying to cut up that giant tree. In the instruction manual, I found some great tips for ways to cut trees without your chainsaw becoming a permanent part of the tree in the process. I decided to try out some of those techniques on the smaller trees that had fallen across the road to the lower clearing. As it turns out, following the instructions actually worked pretty well and I was able to clear all three of the smaller trees pretty quickly. My favorite moment was when I finished cutting a rather long section of tree free and watched as it rolled all the way down the road and into the forest on the other side with no effort on my part. In case you’re wondering, that is the reason you don’t stand downhill of a tree when you cut it with a chainsaw. It’s kind of amazing how many things in life can be delightfully entertaining or absolutely tragic all depending on where you are standing, a fact that is certainly no less true when wielding a chainsaw.

Feeling rather bold from my experience removing the three smaller trees, Sheila and I decided to take another crack at the big madrone across the main lane. I was very happy to discover that the techniques I used on the smaller tree worked on the larger tree as well. I was able to make two cuts through the tree without either running out of battery, trapping my chainsaw or getting rolled over in the process. When I was done with that, we had two pretty large chunks of tree left in the middle of the lane, but at least they were no longer connected to anything else. We were then able to use a couple of large posts as levers, gravity and a generous amount of heaving to roll those large chunks off the road and at least partway down the side of the hill (now that I think about it, maybe that’s why my back is bothering me as I write this). Being able to clear a 20 inch diameter tree off of our road by ourselves with an electric chainsaw after having failed so miserably at it 24 hours earlier gave us an immense feeling of satisfaction.

 

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Madrone Partially Removed

We considered spending a second night at the tiny house, but decided it might be nicer to come back to our regular house where I was a little bit warmer (of course, it would be even warmer here if I wasn’t too cheap to turn on the heat). We love the tiny house, but without an effective heating source, Winter might not be the best season to spend extended periods of time there. One of the things I love the most about my tiny house is being able to just rest and relax. However, resting and relaxing is a little bit more difficult when your core temperature starts to drop anytime you stop moving.

Of course, we could have continued to use the small propane space heater to warm the tiny house so we could stay longer. It definitely does work. The only problem is that a generates a lot of moisture. That is always a problem with using propane in a small space. Burning propane generates water and with all the windows closed except one window cracked for a bit of ventilation, water starts to condense everywhere. It condenses on the windows, on the inside of the shower, on the walls, on the mirror, on the silverware and probably inside the walls as well. Done for just one night, using propane for heat is probably fine. However, it’s not something I would want to do long term since generating that much moisture inside a tiny space would almost certainly eventually lead to mold.

At this point, some of you might be wondering why I didn’t install one of those nifty little propane boat heaters into my tiny house that so many other tiny house residents seem to use. I have to admit now that having one of those probably would be kind of nice. However, when I was building my tiny house, installing even a very short gas line to my propane stove seemed intimidating enough. Trying to split that line and continue it through the walls to a place where I could hook up a propane heater and then trying to run a vent from that heater through the ceiling seemed overwhelming. So, I decided not to try to solve the heating problem in my tiny house immediately, thinking that because I would be parking it in California, I might not even need heat. This past visit to the tiny house has made it clear that not needing heat was a poor assumption. However, it’s not like I live full time in my tiny house. If it gets too cold, I can always go home and that’s fine with me. If I had it to do over again I might install a propane boat heater. However, as I thought about it while I was at the tiny house, I also thought that radiant floor heating might have been a good idea. If I had simply run some water pipes through the floor, then I could have hooked up a propane heater outside my tiny house to heat the water to run through the floor to heat the house. That would not have involved anymore gas lines inside the house and it would have kept the propane heater outside where it could be easily ventilated. Of course, I’m saying all of this without really knowing anything about radiant floor heating. I will have to do some research to figure out if that would actually be a good idea for a tiny house and if so, whether I could retrofit my tiny house to use such a thing.

All in all, despite not having a propane boat heater, radiant floor heating or even any chainsaw experience, I feel like our winter visit to the tiny house was still a success. With all the rain, everything around the tiny house is green which is beautiful. We didn’t freeze during the night. I didn’t get myself run over by a large log. We cleared all of the scotch broom on the property. I even got pancakes. If it was always winter time, I would still keep visiting my tiny house. However, I have to admit I’m looking forward to summer.

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Road Cleared!

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