Four years on…

And Casa Chica is still my permanent residence! Mostly. I was working full-time in Minneapolis for a spell in 2019 and signed a year lease on an apartment, so I decided to shut down the little house for the winter. It’s too hard (on my nerves) to make sure it stays warm enough if I’m not there mostly full time. So last fall I drained all the water (hopefully, we’ll find out in spring), added some anti-freeze, removed any consumables that shouldn’t freeze and shut the door. I check on it from time to time, and all is well. I miss it, but it is awfully nice living in a place where the water comes out of the tap without any more effort from me than a flip of the faucet handle and I don’t have to clean toilet buckets in below zero weather. I’m getting soft as I approach 50. But the hardest thing about living in Casa Chica is living in it in the winter. I haven’t had condensation problems that I’ve heard horror stories about, but I designed with that in mind (like with the passive air inlet) and have employed other solutions like running a dehumidifier on really cold nights to minimize the ice buildup on the inside of the windows.

I’m also happy to report that Casa Chica successfully moved over the road to her current  location! It was only a couple of miles, but we had to go up a very steep hill and I’ve no idea how much she weighs so we borrowed the biggest truck we could find (a full ton, I think, and it was struggling up the hill). I was nervous, but she did great!

Technically it’s still not finished. This fall I finally got the shower completed, minus hanging the shower curtain, although I’ve yet to try it out (but yes, I have showered in the past 4 years. Gyms and friends, or a garden hose in the summer). It’s still waiting on some interior trim, there still aren’t doors for the storage attics, and I never did give all of the interior wood walls a clear coat. That’s all coming. But as an update to my last post in September 2015:

  • The exterior is stained! See photos. I used Bioshield Resin and Oil Stain Finish #3. My friend Andrea had to talk me into the two-tone, but now I love it. I had it professionally done and the painter had never used it before so he sprayed it on. This summer was particularly harsh to the stain on the southwest facing side so I put on another coat of blue and will probably have to do some work on the orange/red side next year. I think it needs to be applied thicker than the spray was able to achieve. I also had all the mis-matched window frames painted a dark brown to match the color that came on the front door.
  • All water features work, and over the first few months of living in the house I developed a system for filling the fresh water tank and emptying the gray water tank (hint: do it at the same time, or run the risk of the gray water tank backing up into the shower). For the first two summers I kept the water hose connected to the house for on-demand water without having to fill a tank, but the hoses were out in the sun and got GROSS. And cleaning them was a pain. So for the past couple of years I’ve filled the water tank year-round, about once a week (without a shower). Not that big of a deal, but tricky in the winter. I’ve found it has to be above about 20F (and I have to move fast) to be able to keep the hoses from freezing so quickly they block the flow. I’m not super impressed with my PrecisionTemp RV-550 tankless water heater – it’s not exactly instantaneous so I try to collect the cold water while I wait for the hot – but I’m not sure what I would replace it with. And I did end up getting a small Flojet diaphragm pump that works great. It’s a bit noisy, but I’m used to it.
  • I found that the cheapo (relatively) LED bulbs that came with my Home Depot can lights worked without buzzing, so that’s what I put in my track lights as well. I also learned that you can’t have dimmers on two switches on the same circuit. I got a seizure-inducing (not really) light show.
  • All of the shelves and built-ins have been in since not too long after I moved in. That’s truly what makes the house 100% livable even though it’s 90% finished. Also in a long time ago is the 2-burner Ramblewood GC2-43P propane stove (love it, no complaints). I have a Broan Allure stove hood (I don’t think it’s made anymore) that doesn’t work as well as I’d like it to, but I think it’s a function of being too high above the stove than an equipment malfunction. There’s a window behind the stove so I didn’t have much choice on putting the hood lower. And I’ve learned that I can’t have the hood on high at the same time I have a fire going in the wood stove or I’ll fill the house up with smoke lickety split.
  • Also in is the gorgeous cork flooring. I think everyone who has been on the house has commented on it first. I bought it through a green home designer/supplier in the Twin Cities that has since been bought out so I’ve no idea where to get it anymore. I haven’t washed the whole floor in the four years it’s been there (I take my shoes off at the door and spot wipe spills/water), and you can’t tell by looking. And it adds such character to the look of the place.
  • I’ve been using my Kimberly wood stove every winter since I moved in, and I’ll be honest in saying it hasn’t been an easy road to loving it as I do now. A very large part of the problem (maybe all of it) was that I bought any-old-pellet-stove-pipe locally rather than the brand that Unforgettable Fire recommended, and it turns out that it’s not sealed as well as it needs to be for the stove to burn super efficiently. The dealer from whom I bought the stove, Vanessa at Eagle Rise Trading Company, has gone over the top in helping me troubleshoot via detailed emails, phone calls, and even a trip to Wisconsin to spend a long afternoon doing everything she could to “upgrade” the seals on the stove itself (mine was an earlier iteration) and check my installation (with live phone advice from Roger, the stove’s inventor and CEO of Unforgettable Fire). She also convinced me that I needed to replace the chimney pipe, which I did in 2018, and the stove worked like a champ last winter. I’ve also learned to use compressed sawdust logs when I want a long overnight burn, and with that I can wake up to coals 8 hours after I fed the stove before bed. Plus, it’s still so damn charming, especially with my custom metal hearth pad…

And what would I do differently? Not much, but:

  • #1 for sure – I’d install a secondary source of heat that would keep the place warm when I’m not there, probably propane, like a Williams High Efficiency Direct Vent Furnace. Right now my backup heat is a plug-in electric heater, which is not very efficient or reliable. If the power goes out, so does my heater, and it doesn’t come back on (hence my reluctance to try to heat the house with it if I’m not there most of the time). I’ve tried an oil-filled electric radiator too, but the one I bought doesn’t have a thermostat so it’s really hard to know where to set it (again, hence my reluctance…) and it doesn’t heat the whole space as well without a blower (yes, I could use a fan, but geez). I could put in cheap baseboard electric, but I still want to leave the off-grid solar option open. So propane. I can still install a direct-vent furnace and may next summer, but it would have been a lot easier if we’d done it while the house was being built.
  • I also may have given more consideration to installing a mini split system. It would be an efficient source of backup heat as well as a welcome splash of air conditioning on the few days a year it would be nice to have. It’s still not sufficient to get me through the coldest days of winter – the lowest temperature rating for any I’ve seen is -5F, and we can go into the -20s or even -30s – so I’d still need another backup heater.
  • I’d put another outlet on the wall opposite my bed.

Onward and upward! And I’m looking forward to filling the tank and throwing open the windows this spring, and spending more of my nights sleeping in my tiny house.