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The Ultimate Guide to Heating and Cooling Tiny Homes

In recent years, tiny homes have taken the housing market by storm. While the limited space prompts creative storage solutions, heating and cooling tiny homes often requires the assistance of an HVAC expert.

August 3, 2023

An average tiny home costs around $50,000, while the average price of a new home in the U.S. skyrocketed to a staggering $543,600 in 2022. Downsizing is a practical and affordable path to homeownership for many. At the same time, the rise in remote work has also prompted traditional homeowners to seek out these micro-homes for use as private office spaces. Although much more affordable than a large home or home addition, tiny homes present challenges. Surprisingly, one of the biggest obstacles isn’t related to the minimal square footage but finding solutions for heating and cooling tiny homes efficiently. Heating and cooling tiny homes may seem simple to an HVAC novice; however, a deeper look presents some difficulties. 

The use of tiny homes

Many tiny homes are used exclusively as primary residences. Some of these are kept in a single location and may be built on a foundation like a traditional home. Others are intended to be mobile and are built on wheels for easy transport. When it comes to HVAC, this makes a big difference. A tiny home that remains in one place makes a permanent outdoor HVAC unit a good option, while this isn’t a wise choice for one frequently on the move. In either case, when used as a full-time home, a reliable heating and cooling system with ventilation is essential for comfort and humidity control. 

In other scenarios, tiny homes are used in lieu of expensive home remodels or additions. Many homeowners place a tiny home in their backyards as a hobby space, play house, in-law suite or den. While the possibilities are endless when used for these purposes, homeowners may opt for more inexpensive heating and cooling methods in these cases. This is because the space may only be used when visitors are in town, for a few hours during the day, or otherwise irregularly. Likewise, they often have adequate storage space in their garages or traditional homes, which makes window unit ACs or electric space heaters less of an inconvenience during the off-season than for those who live solely in a tiny home. 

Despite this, many homeowners who work remotely also opt to use tiny homes as private office spaces in their own backyards. This pairs the convenience of working from home with the quiet atmosphere of a more traditional office. For those who are spending 40 hours a week or more in their tiny homes all year long, a dual solution for heating and cooling the space is likely more convenient and effective than alternative options. 

Be sure to take the use and purpose of your tiny home throughout the year into consideration when exploring HVAC options.

The challenges of heating and cooling tiny homes

Tiny homes are located all over the globe, where temperatures can be extremely high or low and can vary from one to the other depending on the season. Despite this, there is often little room for insulation to hold in heat or cool air, making a practical, adaptable heating or cooling source imperative. While much needed, however, tiny homes simply aren’t able to house traditional HVAC systems or outdoor air conditioner units for many reasons.

Limited space

First and foremost, the limited amount of space inside a tiny home must be maximized. Tiny homeowners make the downsized space work with creative organization solutions. For example, a person who lives inside their tiny home full-time may have a bed that lifts to reveal immense clothing storage space. Or, a remote worker may have a desk with a small refrigerator inside. Essentially, every inch counts inside—and often outside—of a tiny home, and there simply isn’t room for bulky HVAC units, furnaces, boilers, or ductwork. Because of this, many opt for simpler solutions like ductless mini split systems, window ACs, or portable heaters when it comes to heating and cooling tiny homes. 

Ventilation and air circulation

One of the biggest complaints regarding heating and cooling tiny homes is a general lack of ventilation and circulation of air. In traditional homes, ductwork allows hot or cool air to be spread from the HVAC unit to all spaces within the home. It is tough to circulate or ventilate the space without this ductwork, unless a system like a ductless mini split is in place. Without it, tiny homes often experience stuffiness, excessive humidity, or moisture problems. 

When exploring any option for heating and cooling tiny homes, it is essential to ensure that the chosen HVAC systems can aid in reducing these ventilation and circulation difficulties. 

Temperature regulation

Often tiny homeowners turn to traditional portable methods of heating and cooling their space. This includes portable space heaters or window unit air conditioners. While this can provide relief when it is especially hot or cold, regulating the temperature throughout the space is tough. Hot or cold spots tend to develop where one portion of the tiny home will be excessively hot as it contains the space heater, while others may be freezing or vice versa. Because these methods do not effectively circulate the air, tiny homeowners struggle to achieve and maintain a comfortable temperature.

Minimal insulation and efficiency concerns

The small size of a tiny home means that most of the space is reserved for critical systems like electricity or water. Because of this, there is less space for insulation which helps with temperature regulation and holding in the natural heat or coolness of the space. Even when effectively heating and cooling tiny homes, it is tough to keep the hot or cool air inside because of this. Over time, this can result in a highly inefficient heating and cooling system that causes excessive energy consumption and hefty energy bills. 

Seasonal capabilities

While some areas experience moderate weather all year, many tiny homeowners reside in regions with seasonal weather fluctuations. With limited space, homeowners want to maximize every inch of storage available. Housing a space heater and a window AC unit takes up much of this valuable real estate. Likewise, the AC unit will likely block limited sunlight and must be installed and removed each season. In regions where the climate may go from warm for a few weeks to cool and back again, this presents difficulties in maintaining an ideal temperature. Many want a singular solution offering seasonal capabilities rather than only heating or cooling. 

Levels of tiny home use

Ductless mini split systems for tiny homes

A ductless mini-split HVAC system is the best option for heating and cooling tiny homes efficiently. A mini-split system is much smaller than traditional HVAC units and does not require space-consuming ductwork. Instead, it consists of one or more indoor units and a singular outdoor unit. The units are then connected through refrigerant lines and electrical wires, allowing the air to move from the outdoor unit to the unit indoors. They generate hot and cold air making them an optimal, space-saving choice for tiny homeowners in climates that fluctuate throughout the year. 

Single and Multi-Zones

One of the greatest features of a ductless mini split system is its ability to create single or multi-zones for heating and cooling. When installed in traditional homes, multiple indoor units or “zones” are created with ductless mini split systems. This offers immense flexibility as the temperature in each space can be controlled individually. Tiny homeowners can opt to use a single indoor unit, or they may wish to have several installed, depending on the size and layout of the tiny home. Because the indoor units can be floor, ceiling, or wall mounted, tiny homeowners also have the flexibility to maximize their existing indoor space without sacrificing comfort. This is particularly important as many tiny homes feature loft bedrooms which may experience a much warmer or cooler temperature than the space downstairs. 

Other heating and cooling options for tiny homes

Although ductless mini split systems have gained notoriety for their efficient, space-saving designs in heating and cooling tiny homes, they aren’t the only available option. In some situations or environments, tiny homeowners may instead opt for:

Portable AC units

Portable AC units are a practical option for cooling a tiny home during warm periods. They work by extracting and removing warm air through an exhaust hose. This hose is then vented out of a window or other opening. While they are often shaped like a box and take up more interior space than standard window ac units or ductless mini split systems, they are available in many different makes, models, and styles. Because of this and the fact that ventilation can occur through small openings, they offer much more flexibility than a ductless mini split or a window AC unit. This is a good option for those who do not like the appearance of a window AC unit or for those who frequently relocate their tiny home from one area to another. Likewise, it is a simple solution for tiny homes that do not meet the requirements for permanent HVAC installation options.

Window AC units

Window AC units are another option for cooling tiny homes. Many people are familiar with these systems because they are an affordable option in homes without an HVAC system for cooling. They are available in various sizes and only require electricity and a window for installation. This means they are a quick solution for cooling tiny homes in warm climates or seasons. Despite this, they are bulky and take up a lot of storage space in the tiny home during the off-season.

Ceiling fans

In milder climates, a ceiling fan may be all that is needed for cooling tiny homes. They can easily be installed within a tiny home and help create a breeze that changes temperature perception. Because they are mounted on the ceiling, they often don’t take away from any of the limited living space inside of a tiny home. As a bonus, the direction of the ceiling fan can be reversed to aid in circulating warm air during the cooler fall or winter seasons. 

Radiant floor heat

Radiant floor heat is a space-saving method for heating tiny homes. The process simply involves installing heating elements underneath the floor. These heating elements are typically powered by electricity or hydronic systems, and once generated, the heat radiates upwards to warm the space. This option eliminates the need for bulky ductwork, space heaters, or other heating devices. Because pricing is often based on square footage, it is a reasonably affordable option for tiny homeowners. 

Electric space heaters

Electric space heaters are affordable and come in many styles and sizes, such as oil-filled, ceramic, or infrared. They are portable and can be moved from one area of a tiny home to another as the owner relocates to reduce the need to store multiple units. While they are effective and provide adequate heat for a tiny home, users must carefully review and follow all safety guidelines, as indicated in their system’s owner's manual. 

Pellet stoves

Tiny homeowners may find a pellet stove a worthwhile investment in cooler climates. Unlike other options for heating and cooling tiny homes, this one requires a chimney or exhaust system for venting. While this may demand a higher cost upfront, the stove burns compressed wood or biomass pellets. 

Tiny home HVAC FAQ

How can I cool my tiny home without blocking natural light or window access?

The best method for retaining natural light and window access when heating and cooling a tiny home is installing a ductless mini split system. This requires a compact outdoor unit that connects to one or more indoor units through refrigerant and electrical lines. 

Are window air conditioners suitable for cooling a tiny home?

Yes- window AC units are compatible with tiny homes. Despite this, many owners opt for alternative methods of cooling as they are bulky and take up precious storage space while also blocking natural light and window access when in use. 

Are ductless mini splits the best option for heating and cooling tiny homes?

Ductless mini splits are preferable because they offer heating and cooling capabilities without ductwork and take up minimal space indoors and outdoors. These systems may only be feasible in some tiny homes due to the layout or other factors. To determine the best option for your tiny home, consider climate, cost, level of use, and the pros and cons of alternative methods. 

For example, a ceiling fan may be efficient enough to cool a tiny home used as an office in a mild climate. In contrast, a tiny home in a tropical climate may not need the heating capabilities offered by a ductless mini split system so a window AC unit may be more cost-effective. 

Are electric heaters dangerous in tiny homes?

Electric heaters, like all heating sources, require extreme caution during operation to ensure the safety of occupants. Because tiny homes have less space, they must ensure adequate space between the heater and surrounding items or surfaces before use. Likewise, all other safety guidelines should be followed as outlined in the heater’s operational manual. 

How do I keep moisture out of my tiny house?

Tiny homes are notorious for moisture buildup, which can lead to high humidity levels, mold/mildew, moisture build-up inside of walls or insulation, and damage to electronics inside the home. While many steps can be taken to keep moisture out, proper ventilation is key. This can be achieved with a humidifier, a ductless mini split system, or dry heat systems. If the weather permits, opening windows is also helpful. 

How do I decide which heating and cooling option is best for my tiny home?

Because there are various factors to consider, including local climate and the layout of the tiny home, it is best to connect with a local HVAC dealer. They can perform a thorough assessment of the property to make informed, expert recommendations.

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