Jun 282012

One of the cool spiffs of living in a small space is the small utility bills that come with it.  Take my  little hovel for example…

My apartment is 212 sq. ft. One room with a shared bath with the other denizens of the marina.  In the apartment I have the following that consume electricity:  4 overhead lights, an apartment size fridge, microwave, toaster oven, a 6 gallon water heater, and window mounted air conditioner.  In addition I’m always recharging up the iPhone, the laptop, and the camera.  The fridge stays on all the time.  I currently have the ac set at 78 which keeps the place nice and cool without freezing.  The water heater isn’t used much but it does run all the time.  My total electric bill for June…$26.64.

In the winter when the ac is off that bill was down to around $15 a month. Not too shabby considering in most conventional larger places down here the electric bills run into the hundreds of dollars every month.  At least I’m not cooling off any space that I’m not using like a spare room.  My apartment faces east so I get the morning sun blasting into the place.  I put up an extra towel over the window to keep it cooler and it seems to help.  By early noon the sun is well over head and the apartment is in the shade for the rest of the day.

Water is included in my rent.  A big plus since many people pay the same for water as they do for electric.  Not having my own bathroom saves a lot there.  All I have is the one sink so I don’t use that much in the apartment.

Since I sold my house I’ve made it a point to keep my utility bills as minimal as possible, at least when it comes to things like electricity, water, and in some cases, propane, (which I needed in the rv and on the boat).  Keeping my living spaces as small as possible has enabled me to not run up any big power bills over the years.  In fact, since I have moved to the Keys, I don’t believe I’ve had any electric bills over $50 a month that I can remember.

Another money saving aspect is that my electric is part of my rent payment.  Instead of having to go and drop a couple hundred dollar deposit with Florida Keys Electric Coop, and go through their bureaucratic nightmare of opening an account, all I do is hand the money over to the landlord and they can deal with it.  You’ll find this sort of set up quite frequently with rental units up and down the Keys.  It makes it easier all around considering the high turnover of renters.  FKEC doesn’t have to deal with opening and closing accounts all the time, you don’t have to fight to get deposit money back, it all works out.

But as low as my utility bills have been, I like to think I could do better.  Living in the situation I am now there is not much else I could do to lower my electric bill short of turning off the ac, like that will happen.  And let’s be real here…$26 a month electric bills are nothing.  It’s no more than a days worth of grocery shopping.  So there isn’t much incentive to go out and spend money on things like solar panels or on demand water heaters when you aren’t going to realize any savings for a very long time.  However, if I was back living on a boat again, or a rv, or my own place, things would be different.

When I first contemplated boat living one of the things I thought I would do was to cut my self off from the electric grid.  No more depending on some faceless cooperation to power my energy needs.  A boat seemed like the perfect platform to do so and it still does today.  A 27 ft. sailboat has a pretty small cabin area, about 100 sq ft or so.  Most boats use a 12 volt system, same as in your vehicle, so setting up an energy efficient system is pretty easy to do.

All you need are some batteries, usually marine batteries, and a charging system.  On a boat that means solar or wind generator, or both.  They are fairly simple to install and operate, and don’t cost an arm and a leg, just a few fingers and toes.  A typical boat system has a specific battery for running essential things like navigation lights, radios, and other equipment, a battery or two for starting an engine if so equipped, and then a house battery for things like interior lights and appliances.

Interior lighting can be had with the use of LED’s.  LED’s use very little energy, put out no heat, and provide enough light to function at night.  They last forever and can handle getting wet.

There are 12 volt appliances on the market specifically for boats like marine refrigerators and ac units, but they are expensive.  There are converters which will move electricity from 12 volt to house volt systems so you can operate standard appliances but again, they will burn up more energy than you may want.

As for hot water, while an on demand hot water heater is nice, if you don’t use a lot of hot water, and in the summer you won’t, try something like this…

Pretty much about as simple as you can get.  Fill it with water, lay it in the sun for a bit, instant hot water.  There are many variations of this but you get the idea.

As for the water itself, well, that’s a bit tougher.  Although there are things like water makers, which take ordinary seawater and convert it to fresh, they are extremely expensive.  Unless you are in a position to get fresh water from a well or local stream you are at the mercy of whatever water district is in charge in your area.  From a boat standpoint, most boats have a fresh water tank and they will hold quite a bit.  You can refill them using any hose but you may have to pay whoever owns the hose and what it’s connected to in order to have water on board.  Collecting rain water is a possibility, in the Keys cisterns were the big water suppliers before the pipes came in.  Some places still use them.  The problems with cisterns were obvious.  No rain, no water.  They needed to be kept clean and free of bugs.  And one interesting sidelight here in Key West.  Cisterns used to gather the run off from the roofs of the homes.  Tin roofs.  Which had lead in them.  The lead leached into the water and the results were lead poisoning and cancers.  A cistern is still a viable means to augment your water supply.  Just don’t have a tin roof.  But with the scarcity of rain over the winter months, it’s doubtful you would have enough water to get through a year.

If you are willing to brave the heat and go with out ac there are some pretty nifty alternatives, especially if you are on a boat.  Most boat cabins have a forward and rear hatch, and the wind is almost always blowing on the water.  Simply set up a piece of canvas that acts like a scoop to direct the wind into the forward cabin and out the rear.  While this won’t solve the humidity or bug issues, it will keep a reasonably nice breeze coming through your living space.  On land the same concept is used in older houses.  The front door and back door line up so the breeze flows through.  They are called shotgun houses as it was said you could fire a shotgun through the front door and all the shot would fly out the back door with out hitting anything.

All told though, there are many ways to keep your energy bills to a minimum.  The obvious one is to adjust your lifestyle so you use less of the utilities you pay for.  Live in a smaller space.  The smaller the space, the less energy you’ll need to maintain it.  If you have a three bedroom house and one bedroom is not being used, that is one extra bit of space you are paying to keep climate controlled and run electricity to.  Can you get by in a smaller place?

Get rid of the things that use energy and either do without or replace them with things that don’t use as much or any electricity.  Fancy appliances come to mind.  Electric mixers, blenders, coffee makers, electric knives, $2 waffle makers.  All that stuff adds to the bill at the end of the month.  How many lights do you have in your place?  What about other things?  Clocks, radios, tv’s, it all adds up and costs money to operate.

Take the same lessons you have learned in minimalizing your possessions and apply them to your energy consumption.  If you are moving, look for smaller spaces and ways to cut back on running up any big utility bills.  Look for alternative ways, like solar or wind, to augment or provide your energy needs.  $26 a month utility bills are pretty easy to deal with.  No utility bills would be even better.

Capt. Fritter

  6 Responses to “Tiny Houses = Tiny Utility Bills…”

  1. good post.
    except i don’t want to share a bathroom with anyone…
    much less some of the loud raucous neighbors you’ve mentioned fighting by the laundry, etc.
    i want a clean shower and toilet. my own!
    but… otherwise…
    could probably handle the 212 feet.
    i follow a blog of a lady who lives on a boat with her blind lab retriever.
    she recently posted a live-aboard boat for sale for $6500 in sausalito. it had a lot of clutter but it was
    really neat. tried to picture it all cleared out down to the bones. 6500 not bad! didn’t include
    the slip though of course.
    her blog is ‘a simple life afloat.’

    • Someone just sold a 30′ houseboat next door to me for $4500. Engine not running. Slip runs $15 a foot plus electric and pump out.

      C. F.

  2. Your electric rates must be lower there, too. Out here in AZ I’m paying 17 cents per KWH. OTOH, it is dry enough here to use evaporative cooling for all but a couple months, and that saves lots of money.

    While my photovoltaic system meets most of my needs – lights, electronics, small appliances – it would take an acre of solar panels to provide the power needed for air conditioning here in the summer.

    Today I saw 116 degrees on my thermometer – before noon!

    • 17 cents sounds about right. I think that is what we pay. It’s supposedly illegal for landlords to charge more if they are the middleman but few people bother to check.
      I believe our power mainly comes from the Turkey Point Nuclear Plant between the Keys and Miami.

      C. F.

  3. My new RV will have 4 solar panels. My theory is one for the frig, two for cooking/water heating, and the fourth for lights/computer, etc.

    For ventilation I have several large awning windows and a vent fan to draw the air through them. Since I will be living in the van in the south only during the winter, I hope to not need the A/C. If I do, I’ll probably have to move to a park with hookups during that hot spell.

    For water I’ll have a 40 gallon fresh tank and 20 gallons each black and gray. It will be interesting to learn how long that lasts for me.

    I can hardly wait until October when I finally get to see how this theory works in practice.

    • “My new RV will have 4 solar panels. My theory is one for the frig, two for cooking/water heating, and the fourth for lights/computer, etc.”

      How do they work?
      Are they operated by individual 12 volt batteries, and the solar panels recharge the batteries?