Tiny House Systems for the EI

Tiny House Systems: Power, Water and Wastewater with a Focus on Reducing EMFs 

Type of Power

My tiny house is 100% electric. I could have gone with a propane on demand hot water heater and possibly with a propane powered fridge. Since these vent fully to the outside they should be safe. I decided not to because I would then have to deal with buying, transporting and hooking up propane. House insurance is also a little bit higher with propane hooked up. If you want to reduce the number of amps you are using then you will need some propane powered systems. I would not use a propane stove though as the fumes are very toxic. If you can afford solar it might be a good idea but it won't power much and then you have the added EMFs of the inverter.

Power Supply for a Tiny House

A regular house has 200 amps so what I did was take 100 amps off the house on this property with my own 100 amp panel. My tiny house is probably running on just over 60 amps so we went with 100 to be safe (we did not actually do the math on this one). Often rural properties in BC have 2 x 200 amps if they have a barn or small cottage on the land. Therefore it is not too hard to find someone that has the amps to spare. A lot of people here use wood heat and gas stoves so they can spare the electricity even on the main house.

The picture (right) is my submeter. I'm about 300 feet from the house that I hooked up to (I'm also losing some amps there from the distance but we did not measure how much) My submeter just measures how much power I am using. None of this was done through the power company nor were they informed of this. I am not on a separate bill - I just use the meter reading to know how much of the main house's electric bill I need to pay.

Between the submeter and my house the electric and internet cables are buried underground.

A mobile home park supplies either 60 or 100 amps and trailer parks provide 15 - 60 amps, depending. They would also supply fresh water and a hook up to sewage/septic.

Costs of using all Electic

In the winter when I crank the heat I was paying about $130 a month. Now it's about $50 per month (Spring).  It's better to take your electricity off a old cottage or barn that is not being used much because if you have a two-tier payment system for electricity you are paying double the rate - as you will push the usage over to the second tier every month. This is a pretty major consideration as it can cost you up to 60$ a month extra.

Tiny House Panels

Here are my panels in my utility closet. I have two panels -  one for essentials that is always on and one that can be turned off at night.  As you can see in the pic what goes off at night is the oven, lights, sockets and bathroom. What stays on is the heat/AC, hot water, fridge and mechanical room. The panel that can be turned off is controlled by a fob (a garage door opener that can be used from the comfort of my bed).

The same effect can be had from going out to the panel and turning off the unessential switches at night. But this involves going outside twice a day.

Two tips, if you have a composting toilet you are going to need that on all night (otherwise it smells) so make sure you put that on the right panel. One more tip is to have the default position as "on" for the subpanel. When my power goes off I need the fob to bring that panel back on.

There are also two sockets outside one that is connected to the permanent panel and one that can be switched off.  It's been very handy to have these two outlets in the shed for internet, heat tape (below) and for plugging in my travel trailer).


Reducing EMFs

The utility closet is separate from the house and on the opposite side from the bedroom in order to reduce EMFs. You can put foil or another EMF barrier in that wall and that will slightly shield you as well.

Having a sub panel you can switch off make more sense in a big house where you can get some distance from the kitchen, heating system etc. I don't currently turn off the non-essential subpanel at night, as it does not make a difference for me.

One thing you can try is switch off the individual breakers to your bedroom and other non essentials at night (and definitely switch off the wi-fi and put cell phone on airplane mode) and see if that helps you sleep better.

I also keep my modem out there in the utitlity room and it works perfectly fine in the humidity and in -10 C weather. This way it as far from the bedroom as possible. I keep the wi-fi off at all times. My house is wired with ethernet cables and there are three different outlets so that I can use the internet anywhere in my house. Wi-fi definitely affects my heart rate and sleep.  (Note this is not the usual way to wire internet  - you want the thick black cable to hook up to a modem outside and only have the ethernet cables running inside.)

The cable company was nice about running the cable 300 feet from the house out to my trailer where I am essentially squatting. The part where it had to be buried was up to me to do.

Water - Incoming

Here on the right is my 40 litre electric hot water tank. It's pretty small but works great for two people. It did not freeze in -10 C weather even though it is outside. If it does freeze it will crack and have to be replaced.

My water source is a hose that runs 100 ft above ground from an outdoor faucet. My hose has a heat tape on it which is that white cord coming off the pipes. Over the heat tape is insulation. This kept is from freezing in -10. The heat tape is plugged into one of the outlets in the utility shed only when it's below freezing out.



Wastewater

Here on the left is a not so great picture of where my greywater goes. (I have no blackwater because I have a composting toilet.) All the water from the shower and two sinks goes into a pit that is just outside my house. It is so overgrown with plants that it is very well disguised and impossible to take a picture of. In the winter though you can see it and if you are trying to avoid inspectors seeing it you will need to come up with another way to hide it in winter.

The red rectage shows how big it is. It is not very big at all, about 1 ft x 4 ft. I keep thinking it needs to be bigger but it has not caused me any problems as it is. I have had to go out and remove the sludge that builds up a couple times in the last 8 months. I don't have any filter on it that prevents oils/grease/food particles/hair conditioner from going straight into the pit.


Heating and Cooling

Lastly, my heating system is tucked in in the top part of my utility closet and is hard to take a picture of. It is a mini-split heat pump which provides heating, cooling and dehumidifying. Having a dehumidifier in a small space is absolutely essential to keeping humidity from building up in the walls and causing mould. Especially since I have cotton batt insulation. I also have two extractor fans, one above the stove and one above the shower to remove excess moisture and I use the dehumidifier every day.

It is 12000 BTUs which is more than the company recommended but I am glad I went with it anyway. In the winter I often had it on full blast with 2 space heaters going as well and on the hottest days (up to about 30 degrees C) the AC is needed on full force especially with cooking and showering all in this small space.

Short Tour of My Tiny House and Q&A

I made a short video-tour of my tiny house and will follow with some Q&As below!


 


What are the dimensions

The whole trailer is 20 x 8, the washroom is 30 inches x 8 feet and the kitchen is 7 feet long. Therefore the living room is around 10 x 8 feet.

What kind of wood is that and what are the walls made of

Poplar is the only wood used throughout. The walls are MgO board with clay plaster.

What would you have done differently

I would not have used poplar - I would have used maple because it's a hard wood. I would have used lime plaster and not clay throughout (and not used wheat paste under it as it is susceptible to mould).

I may not have have used house wrap as some people think those cause mould in the walls.

I also would have planned the washroom dimensions around ready-made shower enclosures and the size/requirements of the composting toilet. Having a custom shower made and the hook ups for the composting toilet installed after the fact raised the costs. I would have left out the grey and black water tanks as they are not necessary and used foam insulation, not cotton in the bathroom walls.

What aspects are you happy about

I'm really glad we put in a good built-in dehumidifier (mini split heat pump) as such a small space requires active dehumidification to prevent condensation in the walls.

I'm really happy with the design and layout - it definitely serves my needs. I am exceedingly happy with the window alongside the bed. Since I am disabled I spend a lot of time lying in bed but now I can watch the birds and look at the trees and mountains.

What do you do for laundry

That's something I would have done differently -put in a combo mini washer/dryer under the stairs instead of storage (I do it all by hand now).

Where is the rest of your stuff

I have a few things in plastic bins under my house and in my car. There is room for more storage in the house: there is space for shelving above the toilet, a deep closet at the back of the landing as well as hooks behind the front door. In the corner where I have my laundry hanging there could be a bookshelf instead. There could also be sleving on the back wall of the kitchen. I chose not to put in these additional storage spaces because I do not need them.

Building a Non-Toxic Tiny House: Some Considerations

Some preliminary considerations if building a tiny home with all natural materials:

1. Choosing Plans

my house
There are not a lot of companies selling technical drawings for non-toxic tiny homes. I only know of one: Tiny Green Cabins. Because I wanted a more modern style, I bought conventional plans from Leaf House. I wanted to change the layout to make the living room bigger, which entailed changing almost every other aspect of the design. In a tiny house, one change in the floor plans can change everything. This ends up costing a lot more not just in time spent redrawing plans, but in recalculating all the supplies: lumber, the electrical system, the plumbing system, (custom) window sizes etc. A lot of time (months) was spent calculating and ordering supplies. A week was probably spent on window placement and sizes alone. In order to reduce costs you might want to start with pre-fab window sizes (or salvaged windows) and design around that. But it's way more efficient cost-wise to buy plans that are almost exactly how you want things to look.

the floor plan for my house
Just the change over to non-toxic materials  demands the following: changes to the framing in the flooring, changes to the thickness of the walls, ceiling, and floors (since insulation will be thicker), and changes to the weight. Not to mention non-toxic material are generally twice the cost of conventional! You will also need to recalculate quantities of materials if using conventional plans, as you change from plywood to MgO board, and from foam (or SIPs), to cotton or wool insulation.

Here is my builder's photo blog where you find a lot of tips on chemical-free modifications such as sequestering pipes, building a floor without plywood etc.

2. A Builder who Understands Chemical Sensitivities

I can't even imagine building with someone who did not have experience with natural building as well as a complete buy in to the idea. The amount of time it would take a conventional builder to learn about non-toxic building would not make this a financally wise decision. It would also add a lot more work to your side and a lot more stress. Some tiny house builders I recommend are Ben Garrett, who built my house (BC, Canada), Jim from Tiny Green Cabins (MN, USA), Swanson Associates (TX, USA), Safeshelters (CA, USA).

3. Trailer Weight

the beginning of my house
A big SNAFU was that the plans we bought were designed for a trailer rated at 10,000 lbs, but when you switch from conventional to natural materials you add a lot of weight. MgO board is much heavier that drywall and plywood; MgO siding or HardiePlank is heavier than wood siding; cotton and wool are heavier than foam insulation; and tiles or hardwood are heavier than vinyl or laminate flooring. A composting toilet is also fairly heavy. Because of this we were not able to put the other side of the walls on.


4. Metal v. Wood

my poplar frame, should have used
cedar or maple
Metal versus wood framing is a really important consideration. To oversimplify the issue, metal framing involves using a thermal break of either foam or bubble wrap. It gets a bit more complicated than that, but this discussion by Tiny Green Cabins should help. Another possibility to to build the walls out of metal. For someone that cannot tolerate wood or MgO board this is an interesting new option. Check out this Facebook page and upcoming book to learn more about that. Consider that having metal walls, including foil inside your walls can aggravate EMF issues.

If you can afford it consider Timbersil for the framing, it is an excellent material that solves the usual problems of wood and metal.


5. Mobile Home v. Travel Trailer Registration

MgO walls going in
This was one of the most confusing aspects of the build. Regulations vary from Province to Province and I'm assuming from State to State as well. In BC to get your house registered as a mobile home you have to have it built by a certified mobile home builder. Now, how exactly you get certified is not something you can easily find out, and multiple calls to government offices only resulted in completely different accounts, most of it wrong information. I am assuming that it is only large companies that can afford this paperwork and fees which means you are not going to be able to build a non-toxic mobile home in BC which is ridiculous. If you can find the work around here please let me know, and this is something we all need to work to change. Not getting mobile home certification means not being able to park and live at a mobile home park which is unfortunate. I will write a full post on where you can park a tiny home in BC.

You can easily get certified as a travel trailer in BC (Ubuilt Travel Trailer is the specific designation) and this will also cause a lot of confusion at ICBC). You must find out the requirement before building, though there are not many requirements, i.e. one is the height, and another is a light on the back. There is an inspection sheet that is filled out at a mechanic that is certified to do this. Then you take that sheet to ICBC and hope that someone there figures it out (took me 5 trips to ICBC in total). You can then get house insurance as a mobile home or as a travel trailer.

The requirements for a mobile home are much more thorough (if you are a mobile home certified builder) and must be contemplated before building. For example, with travel trailer certification, there was no requirement about grey water and black water tanks (and it turned out we did not need those tanks at all). No rules about composting toilets, nor was there any kind of meaningful inspection of the electrical system. Please make sure you do get the checklist for travel trailer before you build. It does have to be able to be moved so there are requirements for having it on the road.

If you are having someone in the US build it get them the checklist for your province though it will likely be the same as the requirements in the US. You can import a travel trailer which is a bit of paperwork and might involve you going down to the border to do the paperwork.

6. Choosing Materials

Poplar wood on the interior too (should have used maple)
It's hard to overestimate the time it takes - not just to re-draw plans to accommodate chemical-free materials - but to source and order those materials. I think we spent two months sourcing just the basic materials. You will have to do the leg work here as it's not possible to generalize where to procure non-toxic materials in every area. (Here is the sourcing for many of my materials). Every area will have a different supplier for MgO board, lumber, natural insulation, and the list goes on.

Factor in another couple of months to order samples and test materials for your own sensitivities. If you get sick easily, this will be a long and protracted stage as you find out what you can't tolerate by getting sick over and over. There needs to be time for recovery between testing. Definitely err on the side of caution as your sensitivities will increase once in a clean environment. It was a happy mistake that the finishing was left to me after delivery. the testing of wood stains/sealers/paints/tiles/tile sealers/shower materials has been a very long process and it has been much easier to do this slowly over time. Materials that I didn't react to when testing but now do include: cotton batt insulation (if you react to new clothing you will react to that), MgO board (I am on the fence about it - a couple extremely sensitive people have said there is a slight reaction to it) and I have become much more sensitive to all paints and wood glues.

7. Time to Offgass
the view from my kitchen


Many materials and appliances will need to offgas before use. I didn't do that well in my house for the first couple months so I would say even with the best materials there is wiring, there is plumbing and plumbing glue, there is wood glue, there will be some silicone in the walls - these all need some time to offgas. We left the appliances running for a month before use.






Separate posts on: low EMF electrical system, materials list, where to park your tiny home, composting toilet and grey water, custom non-toxic shower...

More pics of my house here.

A Non-Toxic Shower (Mobile & Non-Mobile Homes)

It took four people, five months to design, make and install a totally toxin-free shower, that will:

-never get mouldy
-last a lifetime
-and hold up in a tiny mobile home (that flexes when it moves)!

But we did it! We were this close to giving up and building an outdoor shower. In the end the shower enclosure was made of aluminum and stainless steel with a zero VOC adhesive.

The details are below, but first, some plans that didn't work (but may work in a non mobile home).





What didn't work for me:

Tiles

My first plan was tiles, but grout without additives (plain Portland Cement) will not hold up in the long-run to mould or to cracks in a mobile house. Even with Kurdi barrier underneath, I still felt like the area around the drain would be susceptible to cracks when the house moved. And I could not find a zero-VOC grout sealer to waterproof it.

Tadelakt

A non-toxic waterproof finish, tadelakt was also considered. However, all the plaster in my house has cracked. Some ideas to give it a little flex include - adding glue to the plaster and maybe a mesh underneath on the wall, but no one has tried this yet in a mobile home so it was a fairly big risk.  In a regular house (not on a trailer) this would be my first choice. (For the base/floor you still need tiles, fibreglass or metal).

Fibreglass

Will last a lifetime without getitng mouldy but companies need to use their own adhesive, which is hugely toxic. I have not found any studies on if and what fibreglass offgasses, but I have heard from other sensitive people that it gives off something. If you found a used one or let one offgas and then installed it yourself with your own non-toxic adhesive this could work.

Other Options 

In a regular house, polished concrete might work really well, if you can find someone who can do that finish on walls and tight spaces. Glass walls are something to consider. An outdoor shower could be made of cedar, glass or concrete. More discussion on these materials in my post on bathrooms

My Chemical-Free, Mould-Free Shower! 

A basin with 2 inch sides is made of stainless steel and the pipe in the center is welded in so will never leak around the drain (Stainless is going to hold up better than alum in the basin).

I would have done more of a grade and a higher lip on the basin if I did it again. Underneath we used pieces of arylic and Butyl Sealant Tape to support the grade.

There are two sheets of thin aluminum panels that wrap around the three wall shower enclosure. The first piece of aluminum wraps around the three walls (no seams in the corners) and overlaps with the basin at the bottom (will never leak at that point).

The second piece of aluminum overlaps over the first piece and goes up to the ceiling. A vent is right in the middle of the shower on the ceiling to reduce moisture. I am wondering if I should have had a piece of aluminum made for the ceiling as well.


The shower curtain is this EVA non-toxic one (had a slight plastic smell but was fine for me) (other curtain options to try are polyester or polyethylene - or, even better make a glass door). My curtain has magnetic pieces that stick to the walls - to prevent water from splashing out onto the tiles which are not 100% waterproof (magnetic strips from Bed Bath.......and Beyond!)

After testing many adhesives with no luck I finally found Almighty Adhesive by AFM and had no reaction at all to it even when wet! The problem of finding an adhesive was holding up the project for months and I was so excited to finally find this. It is also the only adhesive (including silicones) I have ever smelled that really is non toxic. Even a regular non-toxic white glue smells more than this stuff.





Around the edge of the aluminum will be sealed with AFM silicone which does take about a week to offgas. That is the only part with any toxins. I don't think it is entirely necessary......but I really want all the edges to be sealed. Strangely (happily) I no longer find this caulking to be problematic.



So there you have it! A shower that will never leak or become mouldy and with no toxins! 
TA DA

my bathroom
I have to thank the guys at BathMaster because they spent weeks problem solving this, designing the shower, and getting it custom made. They were willing to do whatever needed to be done to get me a shower I could tolerate.

Notes:

Once thing I would have done differently is not use any batting insulation in the bathroom walls. If moisture gets into the walls then it's over in terms of mould. I would have used only hard foam.

Another thing to consider is to weld all the parts together. See Tiny Green Cabins stainless steel showers if you are interested in that route.

The custom aluminum and stainless cost 800 CAD + installation which took 2 people all day. (We had to re-do some plumbing though which took longer than expected)

Natural Plasters: Some Chellenges & Tips

Plaster is a great finish for someone who is chemically sensitive. I used clay plaster throughout my house but there are a few things I would have done differently:

Clay v. Lime

Wheat paste applied to walls
Plaster over wallboard requires a textured substrate - a wheat paste primer was used under my clay plaster, which may become problematic (mould-wise) if the humidity level is not kept low. The plaster was custom mixed, but American Clay Plaster is very similar (and comes in a variety of colours). (Note: the natural colour of my plaster turned out to be quite grey although I wanted it to be white).

A fiber needs to be used in the plaster which you must test before using. Alex used cattails found by the side of the road.

In hindsight I would have used lime plaster throughout the living space and kitchen so that I could have done tadelakt in the kitchen (more on tadelakt below), while keeping the colour consistent throughout.  Lime is naturally very mold-resistant though still requires a textured substrate (wheat paste or mesh?) (Lime plaster would have also been a lot whiter.)

Problems with Plaster over MgO Board

Crack above stove where we re-taped and re-Murcoed
The MgO board and plaster in my tiny house cracked at every seam. We used joint tape and Murco joint compound at the seams but this did not stop it from cracking. (Murco was the only non-toxic joint compound I could find.) Even where we waited for the boards to settle and crack - re-taped and re-murcoed the seams, the boards and plaster still cracked along those lines. I am not sure what the solution to this problem is. I am also not yet sure how the plaster as a whole will hold up when the house is moved!




Clay Paint over MgO Board

Clay paint does not adhere to MgO board at all! We tried various times with various primers and in different thicknesses and it cracked and flaked off each time.

Lime paint/lime wash also does not adhere to MgO board. It has flaked off in every consistency. Whether there is a trick to getting clay paint or lime paint to adhere to the wall I don't know what it is.

Problems with Wood Next to Plaster

Another challenge was that the hemp oil on the wood window/door frames seeped into the plaster slightly even though the wood had been oiled months before, was oiled before it was nailed to the wall, and seemed totally dry at the time we plastered. It is not a huge deal but I imagine if we had not waited so long for the oil to dry it would have been a much bigger problem.

Burnishing and Tadelakt Finishes

my finished kitchen
Tadelakt is an amazing waterproof finish for lime plaster. It is a non-toxic finish which involves burnishing with an olive oil soap for many hours.

I wanted to tadelakt the backspash of my kitchen, but since we used clay in the living space and could not match the lime plaster to the clay plaster colour, I ended up using clay plaster in the kitchen.

Alex plastered my kitchen (pictured on left) and burnished the plaster, which smoothed it a little, but did not make a huge difference.









Sealing Clay Plaster: My Results from Testing VOC-Free Sealers

I tested three different sealers for the clay plaster in my kitchen, which needed to hold up as a backsplash around the stove and sink. From left to right I tested: beeswax, AMF Watershield (2g VOC/Litre) and AMF Penetrating Waterstop (Zero VOC) (one and two coats),  on burnished clay plaster. I splashed Worcestershire sauce on the samples, waited a few seconds and then wiped it off with a sponge. The Petetrating Waterstop was the only one that fully protected the plaster from the sauce. Two coats however, turned white and blotchy. Note, the beeswax also changed the colour of the plaster a little yellow but it's not possible to see that in the picture. So, it was an easy decision since the AMF P.W. had no discernable chemical smell to me at all.

It's not ideal around the sink area where the plaster and the countertop meet, as I have to be excessively careful to not have any water pool up there. I might do a line of silicone but I am not sure that silicone caulking sticks to plaster, and, I react poorly to it. Another reason why tadelakt would have been a much better choice for the kitchen walls!

Composting Toilets & Greywater Recycling for the Chemically Sensitive

I want to talk about composting toilets and greywater systems from the standpoint of the chemicals (and smells) involved, the feasibility for a disabled person, the costs, and the benefits for someone with MCS to being semi (or totally) off the grid.

Self-Contained Composting Toilets

I have the SunMar Spacesaver in my tiny house because it's the smallest indoor self-contained composting toilet I could find in Canada, and the only one that will fit in my tiny bathroom. It was also the best priced unit. A few notes on it I think are important:

Toxic Additives?

my bathroom
I had a bad chemical reaction to the additives.  I didn't know that the toilet requires a significant amount of input in terms of additives (and money). There are three things you need to add regularly: 1) an enzyme spray which smelled fine to me, like a very light non-toxic soap might smell, 2) a bulking material of hemp, peat moss.... and maybe sawdust? This material will certainly be problematic for those extremely sensitive to mould. I can't detect any, but I don't see how it could be consistently mould-free. (You could definitely make/source your own bulking material. All the indoor self-contained composting toilets that I know of require some.) And 3) the microbes that you add to speed up the compost and keep it "odourless".

I had such an acute reaction to the microbe mix. It smells somewhat like a urinal cake. Everything online said it was non-toxic and natural... hmm. I called them to ask what is in it and they said, citronella.

Citronella contains methyl eugenol which repels bugs and is considered toxic by Canadian governmental standards. There are a few essential oils I consider to be harmful for MCSers and citronella is definitely one of them.  I had to figure out what kinds of microbes were needed for the toilet and I found out that EM Bokashi will work just as well and doesn't have fragrance added.

After using the toilet for a few months I can say that the enzyme spray is not necessary. You could just use the Bokashi or Bokashi and a bulking material. However I am not happy with this model at all. The upkeep is very smelly work and it often overflows with only one person using it. Dealing with the overflow is horrible and even before it overflows the system is that liquid accumulates below the tray for the fan to evaporate it but before it evaporates it gets very smelly, mouldy and just does not seem like a good system at all.


Offgassing the Unit

Another chemical issue is with the unit itself. It needed some offgassing outside to get rid of the plastic and glue smells. I left it outside for a week. A month would have been ideal.

Necessary Hook-Ups

There is some installation necessary that ideally would be contemplated before building the bathroom of a new house! A vent has to go through the wall, outside, and above the roof line. A emergency overflow valve needs to go through the floor and out to.... somewhere (a bucket)... or to the septic or sewage drain if you are on the grid. You do not need to have water as an input for this type of unit or bolt it down in any way. There are electric and non-electric self-contained units. The Spacesaver is electric. There is no need for a special outdoor compost for self-contained indoor composting toilets; the humus the toilets produce is totally benign.

Benefits to Having a Composting Toilet

There is a huge benefit to being off the septic system and that is the freedom to put your tiny house/yurt/dome on any piece of land with some extra amps to spare & a fresh water hose (and of course you could get totally off the grid with solar panels and rainwater collection). I'm going to be writing a separate post about zoning and where to put your portable home, the electrical requirements as well as the feasibility of being off the grid for an EI.

Challenges

If you are comparing the initial cost and cost of (ongoing) inputs to just hooking up to a city sewage line, than the self-contained composting toilets are going to seem expensive. If you are comparing the cost to installing a rural septic tank and the maintenance of that septic tank, than it starts to seem like a really good deal.

If you are extremely sensitive you're going to want to make sure you can source some tolerable bulking material before you start. A lot of the maintenance also includes some very strong smells of excrement so you have to be able to tolerate that. I have seen some mould growing in the finishing drawer.

Another challenge for people who are disabled is that there is some work - there is the buying of the additives and maintenance. Maintenance involves turning a crank every second day for a minute. Unclogging the mesh screen if that ever clogs up, checking to see if the system has overloaded via the emergency drain and other troubleshooting if anything goes wrong. There is a fair amount of troubleshooting so far for me. The fan will have to be replaced or fixed if and when it stops working. You also empty out the bottom drawer of benign humus every few weeks.

I'm having trouble with the Spacesaver as I don't think it has enough capacity for one person let alone two. The tray is filling up too fast, which can be a major problem if you don't have somewhere safe to dump it. 

If you are building a new house (that's not on a trailer bed) on a site without sewage or septic already in place you are probably going to be subjected to building codes that require more conventional systems. Look into that.

Other Types of Composting Toilets

Envirolet is another company that sells self-contained composting toilets in Canada. Their toilets do not require microbes. They are slightly larger units.

This post deals with indoor self-contained units but other types of composting toilets include: an outdoor bucket system, an outdoor dug out (outhouse), indoor central flush, central dry, and indoor bucket systems.



Greywater Recycling

Being off the septic system means you also need to safely recycle your greywater - which is the water that comes out of the kitchen sink, bathroom sink and shower. These contain more bacteria than you think via raw meat and the bacteria on your body etc.

Eco-Sense has a really good free overview and guide including using a worm bin system to remove food scraps from the water. Here are the instructions for the worn bin filter system. There are a lot of different types of systems and for more detailed instruction this book is super user-friendly and outlines the simplest options depending on the number of people you have on the system.

You need both some kind of filer and water dispersion. We tried just burying the pipe so that the water would simply drain into the ground but the water could not absorb fast enough and it backed up through the house. Gross, yes. We dug a small pit and it still backed up. Right now I have a larger pit but it still has no filter on it, so food remains and oil will build up in it and start to get gross eventually. So I still need to devise a filtration system to take out particles and grease. (NB it's not safe to have the water drain above ground).

Chemical Load

One more point that needs to be made about greywater and blackwater systems is that any chemical or medication that goes down your sink or toilet will go directly into your backyard. Keep in mind that urban sewage treatment plants do not treat or remove chemicals including those from hormonal birth control and medication, so those are already going directly into our water systems. Here are my complete guides to non-toxic, biodegradable personal care products and cleaning products.

Pat Hennebery's Teardrop Trailer

While I wait patiently for my own tiny home to be ready, I thought I would check out natural builder, Pat Hennebery's teardrop trailer.

Pat, of Cobworks (B.C., Canada) has built over 25 cob houses. You can take a virtual tour of some of his natural homes here. If you have CFS or MCS, I can't recommend cob houses enough.

Lately Pat has become interested in healthy homes on trailers so we sat down to discuss his lovely teardrop trailer.

The trailer is 16 ft long and weighs in at about 4500 lbs. It is wired with one 15 amp outlet and was originally set up to use solar panels. 15 amps is not a lot, but it is enough to run a space heater or AC unit, making it a seasonal trailer in colder climates. In warmer climates you could live in it year-round! This trailer was made for Canadian summers and Mexican winters, and has made the round trip twice already.


The trailer is made mostly out of wood with no insulation. The ceiling is tongue & groove wood, the floors are solid wood, and the exterior siding is cedar which has been painted. Cedar, while it may have too strong a scent for people with severe MCS, does really well in wet climates; it's naturally quite mould proof.

Some plywood was used in the flooring and walls but Pat mentions it could be replaced with hard wood. This trailer could be made for a chemically sensitive person by using unscented woods, VOC-free glues, and natural finishes and paints.


The roof is stainless steel but Pat suggests that next time he would use aluminium to keep it as light as possible.

It doesn't have plumbing so this kind of trailer is best used when you have an outhouse and outdoor shower. You could use a Solar Camp Shower in a pinch if it's warm enough!

The back pop-out is designed for an outdoor kitchen. For those very sensitive to propane this would not work very well, but since it is outdoors it could be tolerable. It's perfect at the village where Pat lives in the summer which has a communal kitchen.

The materials alone for this trailer came to 10K - though Pat was not on a tight budget and did spurge a bit on the wood for the ceiling, a new trailer and stainless roof. Still, it's good to keep in mind that even a medium sized trailer, with no plumbing and no kitchen, just isn't cheap.

The labour costs would add an additional 10K or so. The only way to do it on the cheap would be to spend a lot of time salvaging materials and building it yourself.... problem is, salvage materials can be very problematic for the chemically sensitive.


I think this simple chemical-free trailer would work well as a permeant dwelling somewhere warm, or, as a way to test out the locations effect and start trying chemical and mould avoidance. If you can build it yourself, it's probably the least expensive chemical-free trailer option. Compare it to your other  options: an aluminum trailer, 27K,  a chemical-free tiny home, 50-65K, or, a refurbished Airstream 40K+. The only cheaper option is if you can figure out how to hack a cargo trailer and reno it without chemicals.

If you are interested in attending Pat's cob building courses or having him build your own cob house or chemical-free trailer, you can contact him via his website Cobworks.

A full post on the build of my tiny house is coming soon! You can follow my builder's photo blog here. The house will be ready in Oct 2013 and I have a lot to share on sourcing and testing chemical-free materials including a full material list with costs.

Glues and Silicone Caulks - Chemical-Free Versions

Something I learnt very quickly is that VOC-free and 100% silicone are relative terms. I tested all the wood glues that claimed to be chemical-free and all the silicones that claimed to be 100% silicone, additive-free.

Testing glues and silicones has been so far the worst part of building my tiny house. Many days were spent sick to my stomach, not sleeping, and having heart palpitations. Since it was so painful AND there was no one clear answer to this material-sourcing dilemma I thought that it deserved its own post.

OK, let's get to it.

Wood Glues

We are limiting the use of glue in my tiny house, and it might be possible to avoid it completely but that's not ideal.

I smelled them wet and they were all bad wet. I only tested a few dry. When wet, the worst reactions were heady and dizzy, when dry they were hard to get a read from - it's difficult to extrapolate a small jar of dry glue to a house filled with it. (In retrospect I would have tested a much larger dry sample.) I smelled them wet because I got a clearer sign of their relative effects on me. Since I have not figured out a better way to test materials that's all I'm working with.

So here are the contenders:

Gorilla Glue - Got pretty dizzy, not good, but not terrible. Seems OK when dry. (Easy to find at hardware stores.)

Elmer's Wood Glue - Not good. Didn't test dry. (Carried at hardware stores.)

The best of the wood glues
Roo Glue - White and wood glue - Not great when wet, but not terrible. Seemed totally fine when dry. This is my top pick and what I ended up using. (Very fast delivery from online store to Canada.)

RONA brand ECO white glue - Not good wet, didn't test dry. (Carried at RONA.)

Titebond - This is a brand that is recommended for MCSers. I had already picked Roo Glue before I got a chance to test it. I do know people that build for the chemically sensitive who use this brand. (Online or at speciality building stores like Greenworks, Vancouver.)

ECOS Wood glue - Check this out if you are in the UK or Australia. I didn't test it. (Not available in North America.)

I've caught wind of totally natural glues made from hide (not waterproof) and something being developed from sea creatures, that one sounds great....but until then....good luck.

Silicone Caulk

While silicone is not toxic, something is clearly added to keep caulking in liquid form. All the ones I tested were labelled 100% Silicone. Silicones were harder to test than glues because they offgassed at different rates. They were all horrible when wet, and I tested them at 24 hours, 48 hours and one week or so. I would recommend getting a non-sensitive person to put them in jars and only testing them after they have dried because you could get very sick like I did.

The worst of the Silicones
AFM Safecoat Caulking - Not the best when wet, not the best at 24 hours, but by far the best at one week. For anything indoor I will use this for kitchen and bathroom and ideally leave the house for a week. (Available online and at speciality building stores.)

GE Silicone I - The best when wet, and the best at 24 hours, but not the best after one week. We used this on the underbelly of my house. (Easy to find at hardware stores, but GE has SO many different kinds of silicone, it's confusing, and I'm not sure what the differences are!)

Aquarium Caulk - I have read that aquarium caulk is the least toxic because fish are exposed to it and they can't handle chemicals in regular caulking. I tested two brands, Aquarium Silicone Caulker and one called Marina from a local pet food store, they were much more expensive than brands for home use (for no apparent reason), and they were both the worst of the worst. So bad I would not recommend smelling them when wet AT ALL.

Adhesives

The best adhesive I have ever tested is AFM Safecoat Almighty Adhesive. I had absolutely no problem and no reaction to smelling it while it was wet. This was a pleasant surprise after all the other glues and silicones. I will use this to install my shower. A whole post will be devoted to the custom chemical-free shower. 

A Non-Toxic Trailer: For Sale

I spent weeks and weeks searching for a chemical-free trailer suitable for people with MCS. I finally came across a trailer made almost entirely of aluminum. I had it made based on the suggestions in this EI Wellspring article.  This post is an update on that article and I will add some suggestions for improvements.

The 11ft trailer is light & can be towed with my Ford Ranger
The 2014 Camplite travel trailer comes with no wood, no steel, and can be made without any vinyl or toxic upholstery. 

The walls, (inside and out), and the cabinets and benches are aluminium with a baked-on finish. The insulation is foam but is totally sealed off by the aluminum (aluminum is a VOC barrier). 



Custom table and natural latex cushions
I chose the 11FDB (11 x 7 foot interior) which still feels very spacious to me and has a washroom (toilet and shower), a kitchen (sink, fridge, room for hotplate) and is wired for 30 amps.

After a 6 months of offgassing it feels good inside!



 





Here are the specifications that I had it made to:
  • NO Azdel cabinetry: Opt for aluminum cabinetry  (an extra 279 USD).
Electric stove, fridge, aluminum cabinets
  • NO insulation under the floors - for a chemical spray-on insulation that is very thin, 1000 USD did not seem like a good deal for this option. I was planning to tile the floors and add rugs. 
  • NO Azdel interior or decorative wallpaper - Replace with aluminum walls (for 1000 USD).
  • NO propane furnace/AC. Concerns with glue and with propane. I use an electric heater and portable AC/dehumidifier. The white exterior keeps it pretty cool inside, even in the summer sun.
  • NO propane range. I put in my own hotplate (electric).
  • NO Formica (laminate): The only countertop option they have (for the 2014 model) is Formica with styrofoam on the inside. You'll have to make your own countertops or pay top dollar for them to custom make aluminum ones for you. Make sure they don't glue the formica one down. The dinette is also Formica - again you can pay to have a aluminum one made, or like me have a custom table made
Custom countertop
  • NO blinds, valances or screens on the windows or doors. No awning. No fold out tent.
  • NO cushions - mine are custom natural latex (non-toxic)
  • NO caulking. I asked for no caulking but they did use it anyway. In the end this was better as all caulking has a smell but offgasses quickly. If you have a preferred caulk you can send it to them to use. Better to have them do it than you!
  • YES to the propane/electric fridge which vents to the outside.
  • YES to the propane water heater, like the fridge it is totally vented to the outside from what they tell me and from what the EI article suggests. Running short on amps here so if you want hot water.... 


Further modifications made by me to remove toxins:

Non-toxic EVA foam over aluminum floor
  • Wash the whole thing down to remove factory residues.
    • I removed the laminate countertops and replaced with wooden one that I had made. 
    • Remove the plastic (or vinyl?) lining of the cabinets. I removed the cabinets and they offgassed outside for 6 months. They don't seem to smell when sniffed outside. (They could be removed again if necessary)

    Cushions made of natural latex
    • I replaced laminate/styrofoam table with a custom made wooden one 
    • I placed EVA foam down as flooring over the aluminum tounge and groove floors. EVA foam is nontoxic.
    • I had cushions made of natural latex. 
    More pics of my trailer here.




     


    Table folds down into queen bed

    The caulking, bits of platic and rubber have lost their smell (to me).


    This trailer was not cheap....coming in at around 27K with all the modifications (+ taxes). It took 13 weeks from the time I ordered it to the time it was delivered; I was told it would be 6-8 weeks, so give yourself a lot of time for the order.... and some time for offgassing.

    All trailers are going to contain some amount of caulking and glue in the pipes and wiring. This trailer is the least toxic option that I know of. Older trailers with insulation tend to have problems with mould over time... Camplites are very good in this regard, have a sandwich type of insulation so condensation does not cause mould. They are built to last.


    How to Test Materials (MCS)

    1. Sniff Test

    The most obvious way to test for whether you are sensitive to something is by smelling it. This is probably how you came to find out you were sensitive in the first place. The plus side is that people with MCS often have a very good sense of smell, being able to spot a toxin from a considerable distance, and this can help you avoid offending particles. The drawback is that not all toxins have a scent, and not all scents are toxic. This method is obviously skewed towards those things with more of a smell, i.e. essential oils may register as worse than flame retardants because they are more noticeable, but they are not more toxic.

    2. Sleep-Next-To-It Test

    This test is recommend by experts in MCS. You can put something you are testing next to your bed at night and see how you sleep and how it affects you in general. This is probably the most widely used test for MCS sufferers. I find this test difficult because the item you are testing is likely quite small and it can be hard to tell if a large quantity would affect you. Since the effects of toxins are also cumulative, this is a fairly big drawback. I'm not sure how much sleeping pills affect this test. Another challenge with this test is you need a fairly "clean" toxic-free environment in which you are sleeping and it can  be difficult to keep other factors stable. Remember that changes in the weather, stress, emotions, medications, foods, chemicals sprayed outside or other exposures could affect your sleep or overall health.

    3. The Erik Johnson Test

    Erik Johnson's test for toxins involves first decontaminating and getting out into a very clean tent or trailer, somewhere where the air is really good and where you have not brought any of your former belongings. You can then lie outside, placing an item for testing on a tarp and see how you feel. Reactions can be delayed for up to four hours. The best indicators are anxiety, depression and insomnia. Remember that the effects of toxins are cumulative - the last item in a series of testing might not be the only offender. After you have tested it outside you can bring things into your dwelling one item at a time to test them. If you are testing a house/new location you will have to sleep there for a few days to find out if it is affecting you.

    4. Naturopathic Test

    There are various forms of muscle testing done by naturopaths and osteopaths that are quite good. Here is a how-to video. If you doubt the rationale behind it I would say suspend your disbelief for a while and give it a try. Use items you know to be tolerable as a base. If you are very in tune with your intuition and your energy and are very aware of how items, people, places, and sounds affect your energy, this could be a good method for you. I like to close my eyes during this test and try to avoid having what your brain knows about the object affect your body's intuition.

    ...And Go by What you Know

    It is good to try all of these methods as none of them are a definitive way of testing every substance. I  am also a big advocate for learning about what toxins are in everyday items and materials so we can avoid them.

    You need the knowledge to know which factors to isolate and test for, and you need the physical testing to find out which of those is actually a problem for your body. You might also find things you are physically sensitive to that you didn't intellectually know were toxic.

    But I think if you know something contains a toxin and you can avoid a toxin in your food, personal care products, furniture, clothing, building materials, air, then do that!

    Personal Care Products: Natural, Simple (and Cheap!)

    I have been trying and testing the simplest and cheapest non-toxic, biodegradable personal care products.
    Many of the most affordable natural products ended up being DIY projects, but I still opted for the simplest recipe that would get the job done. I did not want to compromise quality at all.


    SOAP

    Pure Castile or Glycerine soap for hands and body are the simplest option. Glycerine soap is only $1-$2 per bar, and probably cheaper if you can find a bulk supplier. I don't always feel like those get the cleanest clean though, so I prefer charcoal or shea butter soap.





    FACEWASH

    I wash my face using the oil cleansing method (for acne prone skin) but you could use one of the above soaps if you are not fussy.
    For cleaning up between showers you could wipe your face with a Microfiber Face Cloth.



    MOISTURISER

    For my face and body I use Sweet Almond Oil (coconut oil works too). Argan oil is also nice for the face (pricier than almond oil). Here's a sample pack of face and hair oils.



    SHAMPOO

    I use Desert Essence - Fragrance Free or a shampoo.  Or, try the no shampoo method





        CONDITIONER

        I use Desert Essence Conditioner - Fragrance Free For a detangler try 
       these two recipes.

        For black hair, coconut oil can be added to conditioner, argan oil can be 
        used after shampooing, and Jamaican Black Castor Oil can be used as a 
        sealant. 

       


    BODY SCRUB & SHAVING CREAM

    Mix olive oil with brown sugar to make a simple exfoliating face or body scrub. Rinse the sugar off with water and then use the oil as a shaving "cream."

    If you prefer a lathering shaving cream try this all-natural recipe or just use soap.



    LIP BALM

    A simple, cheap and very effective lip balm can be made with two ingredients: beeswax and almond oil. Here are the instructions. I have been really happy with this recipe which works well as a mousterising lip balm as well as a cuticle cream. For more luxurious options try these three tasty lip balm recipes.


    TOOTHPASTE

    Tom's of Maine used to be the go-to natural toothpaste before it was bought by Colgate-Palmolive. Now their toothpastes contain sodium laurel sulfate or fluoride. Instead, try Jason brand All Natural Whitening toothpaste, which is still pretty easy to find. If you do need mouthwash (and you don't), use a natural one like Jason All Natural Mouthwash.

    these bamboo brushes are gorgeous.


                         DEODORANT

                         Tom's of Maine brand deodorants work fairly well but the effective ones
                         contain Zinc Ricinoleate orAluminum. The point of a "natural" brand
                         was to get away from those toxins. The Healthy Deodorant (pictured)
                         comes highly recommended.

                         Many people have recommended just using baking soda. Wiping down the
                         vinegar first (and letting it dry can help kill bacteria that are making you
                         smelly). 


    LAUNDRY

    My favourites are Seventh Generation (unscented)Nature Clean (unscented) or ECOs brand Eco Nuts Soap might be an option if you can tolerate their natural scent.
                                              
    There are some non-toxic options for Fabric Softener, Dryer Sheets and Chlorine-Free Bleach. Or try these cool chemical-free, reusable Dryer Balls to reduce energy bills and soften fabric.


    NATURAL SUNSCREEN

    Conventional sunscreen is made of chemical ingredients that are harmful... and carcinogenic, ironically. Get a recipe for homemade natural sunscreen here. Be sure to get your Vitamin D! 

    If you don't get a lot of sun, you can ask your doctor to have your Vit D tested.



    STYLING PRODUCTS

    Specialty products from small companies can be found online or in your health food store, but good luck finding totally scent-free styling products in store.

    For black hair, try Shea Moisture or Naani's Naturals. For various hair types Moroccan Method uses simple, pure ingredients and offers free shipping across Canada.
                                            
    For homemade recipes try this natural orange juice hairspray; this grapeseed/jojoba, essential oil & vit E hair serum, and this jojoba & aloe hair gloss. Glycerin de-frizes (see detangler above).


    MAKEUP

    For chemical-free makeup try One Lucky Duck, Canadian company 100% Pure, or the makeup counter at your local health food store. 

    Marcelle Brand can be found at most drugstores - it is scent-free, hypoallergenic but not non-toxic.





       MENSTRUAL PRODUCTS & BIRTH CONTROL

       While many companies will be willing to sell you pesticide-free and  
       clorine-free Tampons and Pads, those item are so wasteful and expensive
       compared to menstrual cups. Menstrual Cups are convenient and save you
       tonnes of money.

    Hormonal birth control can be harmful to to our bodies and very harmful to the fish in the rivers. Safer options included non-hormonal IUDs, and latex-
    free and spermacide-free polyurethane condoms (scent-free).