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Tiny Houses are Cool, But an RV Lifestyle May Be Greener

Posted by Matt Power, Editor-In-Chief

Apr 4, 2015, 12:31:12 PM

Tiny houses have an aura of eco-superiority, but if you use them as a way to free up money for travel, they result in more greenhouse gas pollution than gas-guzzling RVs.


I TOURED A FRIEND'S RV RECENTLY, and began to think about what makes an RV different from a tiny house. A well-designed modern RV is designed to be lightweight, with almost no maintenance. Inside, it has ample space, especially with the additon of side,popouts. Many models have attached awning you can roll out when decamp. They have built in storage for water, sewage, propane tanks, spare tires etc.

Sure, Small is Greener. Before you accuse me of being too hard on tiny homes, let me give them the credit they are due: Living in a 240-sq.-ft. space instead of a 3,000-sq.-ft. home is an automatic eco-win. As a general rule of thumb, every time you double a home's floorspace, you triple the amount of energy requred to heat and operate it.

However, most of the tiny houses I've seen (watch Tiny House Nation for a sampling)—especially when occupied by couples or small families, require a lot of sacrifice from their occupants. So there must be some moral high ground that makes it all worth it, right? Otherwise, what makes them preferable to a more comfortable, flexible off-the-shelf RV camper? 

Let's be honest. Tiny houses are tough for anybody but a devoted bachelor to live in. It's hard to cook, tough to socialize, slightly traumatic to use the composting toilet and ard to find a private space. Sure, they look prettier inside than most RVs, but is that enough? How about some green cred?

Let's say you're truly committed to the doing the right thing and minimizing your eco-footprint. You're willing to endure the discomfort indefinitely. You adapt and adjust, store your kids toys in the bathtub at night, clean them out every morning so you can shower, then put them back in. You manage your toilet compost perfectly, avoiding pharmaceuticals (and asking your guests to abstain too), so you can dump the resulting compost on your gardens. You're living the green dream, right? Greener than that eccentric couple in the RV park next door with the Harley in their yard.

Or are you?

Let's put aside the comfort issue for the time being, and look at some of the environmental pros and cons for RVs and tiny houses.

Initial Eco-Footprint

For a typical site-built home, the construction of the building accounts for somewhere around 11 percent of the lifetime greenhouse gas emissions, although that figure is important, because those pollutants stay in the air up to 60 years (see my article on the topic HERE).

Most tiny homes I've seen are built with traditional wood frame, often insulated with expanding spray foam. This makes them super tight and road worthy. The wood is renewable, so has a small eco footprint. The foam has a much larger eco-impact, although if the home is occupied for many years, it may be the best choice, because of the greenhouse gas emissions it will allow the owners to AVOID later on. Complicated stuff. You can see why it's not easy to understand "green" sometimes.


Another factor is paint. Latex exterior paint has a huge environmental cost. Most tiny houses have some kind of painted or stained wood siding that will need regular re-coating every few years for its lifespan. Then at some point the siding will need to be replaced completely. A typical RV has an aluminum exterior that never needs painting. But aluminum comes at a very high cost to the environment, especially virgin aluminum. On the other hand, it last virtually forever, with almost no maintenance.

The bottom line is that building materials matter, but the eco-pedigree difference between an RV and tiny house is not black and white. I'd guess that when you factor in all the plastics and synthetics of an RV, it probably tips the scale in terms of ghg emissions over tiny houses, but not by a huge margin.

Water Management

An RV has some features that most tiny houses don't--notably a holding tank for fresh water, along with a tank for black water (sewage).  Most tiny homes have no sewage tank, so they rely on a form of composting toilet and a well or city water supply.

On the plus side thismeans is that an RV has most of the infrastructure in place for a rainwater collection system. It's also less finicky about how you use the "facilities."

The sewage tank has to be pumped out every couple weeks, an inconvenient chore and financial cost. But possibly a green choice. That sewage will go through a sophisticated treatment process before the relatively harmless effluent is discharged into a waterway.

A composting toilet can be a good environmental choice, but if you've ever owned one, you know they can be finicky. They need to be managed carefully if you want to avoid odors, cleaned out at regular intervals, and they take up a lot of room. And you have to have someplace to put the processed poo that's ok with your composted humanure. That's not always easy to find.

Travel: The Shadow Side of Tiny

Here's where tiny houses start to fall behind. A tiny house is portable, yes, but not VERY portable. As you can see from the charts below, tiny homes weigh two to three times as much as an equivalent sized RV trailer. Do you really want to tow a 10,000 lb. box back and forth to Florida each year?

Ah, but I'm jumping ahead. Most tiny homes I've seen are intended to stay put, often for years at a time, on a rural or outer suburb lot, where their (often) millennial occupants can pay off their $30,000 mortgage, freeing up money for them to travel the world.

Meet the Falcones: a young couple in Michigan who want to downsize to tiny living. They move out of their rented home in the city, out to a tiny house on a lot 15 miles out of town.

Let's compare them with Gary and his girlfriend Sheila, the couple with the RV in the park next door.
If the Falcones stays put in their tiny house through the Michigan winter, driving about 30 miles a day in their Toyota Camry, their overall footprint to heat that 240 square feet should be pretty minimal: a mere fraction of what their suburban neighbors are costing the earth in resources. They'll also use some energy driving to social events, to visit friends, and so on.

Maybe Gary and Sheila stay home this winter too. Their heating costs are quite a lot higher, because the RV is poorly insulated. But they don't drive the Harley (too cold), and take public transportation instead. They socialize mostly with friends next door in the RV park.

Again, tiny house vs. RV, very little difference environmentally.

Now let's change a couple of behaviors.

This year, the Falcones decide to escape their  tiny house and get away for a couple of weeks to Florida. They fly down in January, stay in a hotel and rent a car.

Gary and Sheila also say "screw this damn snow," and haul their RV to a trailer park in Orlando for the winter.

Who's Greener?

A study by PFK Consulting looked at a scenario like this. They found that in almost every case, RV travel is softer on the environment than a vacation by plane. In fact in most cases, it produces about half the CO2 emissions. In fact, another study found that a short family vacation by air can produce more GHG pollution than an ENTIRE YEAR of commuting by car.

"Ok," you're saying, "that's not fair. It's not really looking at tiny house impacts at any more. It's looking at behavior."

That's true, but tiny houses are ALL ABOUT behavior. They're major lifestyle statements. Shelter is a second only to transportation in the typical U.S. citizen's impact on the Earth. But shelter doesn't happen in a vacuum. If you build a tiny house, but treat it as a part-time landing pad while you travel by plane, you're cooking the GHG books.

Don't get me worng. I love the IDEA of tiny houses. But if the force driving you to build one is a desire to reduce how much you scar the Earth, look hard at whether you can handle living in it over the long haul. Are you up to the task? And in general, most tiny houses are better built than the thin-skinned RV, built for road travel. A tiny house can weather the storm. An RV needs to be driven to safety.

If you really want to "go green," however, but your keep air travel in the picture, you might as well live well in an RV and be a snowbird. While you're at it, switch to a vegetarian diet, and cut your food footprint in half. When you start getting serious about curbing your GHG production, every choice makes a difference. GB

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