A friend recently contacted Tammy and I to ask about our rationale regarding our choice of fuels for heating and cooking in the tiny house. I wanted to give a thorough reply to him and then post my reply here just in case others in the Tiny House Community are considering similar questions. Feel free to leave a comment below to share your ideas or questions.
Fuel type choices for cooking and heating were a problem that we struggled a bit to decide on, because after considering propane, wood, electric and alcohol we realized they all had potential advantages and disadvantages. Especially considering our circumstances of a no-car, urban living situation. The notes below were our conclusions on the four fuel types that we considered.
Propane gas is the most popular choice for tiny homes. Its cheap (~$3/gallon), its ubiquitous, has small storage space, there is minimal cleaning involved, and its easy to fire up. However, for our situation on the bikes, propane was problematic due to the size and weight of the cylindrical tanks. Also we had qualms about the environmental damage that results from fracking and the potential future volatility in that market (peak oil). Further, these systems require powered ventilation systems due to the relatively large amount of oxygen consumption along with carbon dioxide and moisture production.
We were very interested in wood stoves since the fuel source is the most sustainable and most resilient. However, we were concerned about size and weight on the bikes again, its messy to clean up, relatively difficult to ignite and install (chimney with guy-wire supports) and puts out smoke that neighbors may complain about in a urban/suburban area.
Electric ovens and heaters are miraculous. They are relatively cheap to purchase, they are clean, and have the greatest ease of use. The biggest drawbacks to these appliances is that they can be expensive in their cost to operate and as cheap appliances, they can break easily. Electric heat in anyform is also a dealbreaker when it comes to off-grid power sources. Solar and wind powered batteries can’t be used for the prodigious electricity requirements of these tools. This being said, small electric space heaters have been a wonderful asset to us. Although not all space heaters are created equal (see this review) ours runs at a minimum of 700 Watts and only costs about $17/month to use. Even this would likely tax a solar system but Dee Williams uses a 400 Watt model that she claims is sufficient heat and runs off her solar array. Also Lina Menard has used a different 475 Watt system that she really enjoyed.
When we heard about alcohol stoves from Kai and Sheila at 2cycle2gether.com we realized that alcohol fuel offered a good compromise compared to the above options. Although the fuel source was relatively expensive compared to natural gas ($15/gallon vs $3/gallon) it was easy to carry home by bicycle from the hardware store. Further, alcohol fuel is clean, easy to ignite, ventilation was very simple (crack a window), and it has the potential to be renewable like wood. Cooking with ethanol was the best option for us however heating a home with ethanol, although possible, is not ideal mainly because of the cost/benefit ratio of its relatively low efficiency in heating a room.