Tiny Houses Are Alluring, But How Safe Are They?
7 precautions to take if you live in one
Tiny houses are all the rage. Living in a space less than 400 square feet can be gratifying in innumerable ways. But it can also pose dangers if the house doesn’t meet safety standards.
Although some small houses (less than 1,000 square feet) and tiny houses (less than 400 square feet, with some as small as 80 square feet) are designed by architects and built by contractors, many people build them on their own and bypass certain safety requirements.
Architect and small house proponent Lloyd Alter, writing on TreeHugger.com, says “some, if not all, are lacking the safety features that all manufacturers must conform to.”
Here are seven precautions to take when building and living in your tiny home, courtesy of John Drengenberg, consumer safety director for UL, and other experts.
Know where to build. Check to see whether local codes permit you to build a tiny home on your property.
Use certified building materials. “It may be a tiny house, but you still have to follow all the same recommendations that you would use when building a normal house,” says Drengenberg. “Make sure that any electrical wiring and circuit breakers meet the local codes and carry the UL Mark. You want to make sure that the building materials meet all the local codes." Depending on the rules in your community, the wallboard may be required to be certified, especially the wallboard near the furnace. The UL Mark on wallboard means a sample has been tested for fire resistance.
Install smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms. You might think that in a tiny home you’d instantly be aware of any outbreak of fire, but what if you’re asleep? Drengenberg’s advice: “Even though it’s a very small house, you need to have a smoke alarm. When you’re sound asleep, your smoke alarm is doing a much better job of sniffing the air then you are.” The same is true for a CO alarm, Drengenberg says. If you use gas or propane or anything that burns fuel in your tiny house for cooking or heating, he says, having a carbon monoxide alarm is crucial.
On “The Tiny Project” website, Gary Bute of Tiny House Systems recommends installing a fire extinguisher, a propane gas detector (which should be close to the floor because the gas will collect there first) and automatic controls that will shut off your gas if your smoke, CO or propane alarms go off. Also, he warns not to vent gas or propane outside a window. Instead, vent such piping above the roof and store propane tanks outside in an enclosure that’s open on the bottom.
Consider going electric. According to Alter, a tiny home’s gas heater and propane stove exhaust may undermine your air quality in winter. Going all electric, he says, may be a better solution. At the least, open a window when an exhaust fan is operating.
Have a home fire escape plan. No matter how small your home, you should know the escape route in the event of a fire, earthquake or another emergency. “Escape plans are just as important in a tiny house as they are in a larger structure,” says Drengenberg. The escape plan should include at least two ways to get out of the house. “In case you can’t get to them, your kids should also know how to open the window and jump out in case there is a fire.”
If you sleep in the loft, notes Bute of Tiny House Systems, you’ll need to have a window or skylight there that’s big enough for escaping through.
Follow local codes for water and sanitation. “Local inspectors have the say on sanitation,” says Drengenberg. “There are usually plumbing inspectors and health inspectors who will come around and look at your tiny house.”
Observe regular home safety guidelines. Some precautions you take in a regular home are even more important in a small house, including turning the pan handles in toward the center of the stove when you cook, Drengenberg says. “Even electrical cords can be more of a problem in a small space,” he says. “If you have a deep fat fryer, for example, you don’t want your child to snag the cord.” Take care to keep cords out of reach.
A glance at the interiors of small houses online shows that many lack stairway and loft railings. Install rails on the stairway and around a sleeping loft, especially if you have children, says Drengenberg. “Falling is the most common cause of injury in American homes, so you don’t want people falling over the edge.”