A Comprehensive Guide to Heating and Cooling Tiny Homes

row of tiny homes in a lush landscape

From skirts to Coopers to replicas of everyday things, “mini” is in. And the perfect quarters for a minimalist? A tiny house. But along with making downsizing très chic, cheap, and sustainable, comes learning the various ways of keeping your micro manor comfy year-round. Whether you plan to live off-grid or on, we’ve rounded up a slew of options in this comprehensive guide to heating and cooling tiny homes. Let’s delve into the deets.

But First, What Is a Tiny Home?

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A scaled-down version of a typical single-family dwelling, the size of a tiny house is defined by the International Residential Code as having a square footage of 400 or less. Keep in mind, though, that not all states allow the building of tiny homes, and in those that do, different localities may have varying size requirements and rules for the type of tiny home (e.g., mobile or permanent) permitted.

A Comprehensive Guide to Heating and Cooling Tiny Homes

1. Calculate the Right Amount of BTUs for Your Space

Simply put, British Thermal Units (BTUs) are used to measure energy usage in heating and cooling — specifically, how much energy it takes to remove heat from or add heat to a space. A living space typically requires 20 BTUs per square foot, so if your tiny house is 150 square feet, you’ll generally need about 3,000 BTUs. 

The environment you live in will also play a part in this determination. Will you live in a tropical climate, a region with moderate weather year-round, an area with harsh winters, or will you travel in your mobile tiny house through them all? In places that are warm the majority of the year, you won’t need as many BTUs per square foot for heating and vice-versa for cooling in areas where the weather remains comfortably temperate.

2. Choose the Appropriate HVAC System

Photo Credit: Ductless Mini Split AC Installation / Phyxter Home Services / CC BY 4.0

Since tiny homes are, well, tiny, there’s typically not enough space for a standard HVAC unit and all the ductwork that comes with it. Fortunately, ductless HVACs exist, one of the most popular being the ductless mini-split system heat pump, as it frequently includes both an air conditioner and a heat pump.

Here’s how it works:

  • mini-split connects to external unit via refrigerant line
  • refrigerant inside indoor unit extracts heat from rooms, expels it outdoors (AC unit)
  • heat pump draws in heat from outdoor air and moves it inside (same as the cooling process, but in reverse)

This system is energy-efficient because rather than creating cold air or hot air, it merely transports it from one area to another, reducing energy consumption. Plus, since there’s no ductwork, you won’t have to worry about losing precious hot or cold air to duct leaks. 

3. Review Other Types of Heating Options…

Wood-Burning Stove

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Living off-grid? Fully embrace that #pioneerlife with a wood-burning stove — plus, get the perfect cozy feels a crackling fire provides.

Benefits:

✓ carbon-neutral
✓ ambiance
✓ multipurpose (can use for heating, cooking, making hot drinks)
✓ less expensive overall than electric heaters (no impact on energy bills)

Disadvantages:

✗ no thermostat to regulate temperature
✗ higher upfront cost than electric heat source
✗ takes up space/needs clearance
✗ labor-intensive/high-maintenance (chopping/retrieving of wood; regular cleaning)
✗ risk of chimney fire if too much creosote buildup
✗ can’t be left on while you’re gone/may burn out in the middle of the night

Propane Heat

Another tiny house heating option for homeowners who want to be off-grid is propane. Not only is it portable — shout out to all the folks with THOWs (tiny houses on wheels) — but propane is also readily available in many locations, affordable, and clean-burning. (Note: While it’s a clean-burning fossil fuel, it still emits small amounts of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.)

Propane can be used to power gas fireplaces or propane heaters. Just don’t leave it unattended; as with any heating source, there may be a risk of fire.

Benefits:

✓ can be controlled by a thermostat
✓ clean-burning and energy-efficient
✓ flexible installation (direct vent or vent-free)
✓ multipurpose (can power all sorts of appliances; use for heating, cooking, lighting, showering, etc.)

Disadvantages:

✗ non-renewable fossil fuel
✗ emits low levels of greenhouse gasses into air
✗ higher upfront cost for equipment
✗ risk of carbon monoxide poisoning

Electric Heating

Tiny homeowners can also heat their little abodes with electricity, including electric space heaters or radiant floor heating. Space heaters warm up a room quickly by blowing air over hot electric coils, while radiant floor heating emanates warmth from the flooring into the air; this heat is then absorbed by objects in the room, which further help disperse the heat.

Benefits:

✓ space heaters are cheap to buy; easy to find
✓ space heaters need no installation–– they can plug right into an outlet
✓ radiant flooring produces even heating
✓ radiant flooring is noiseless, low-maintenance, hypoallergenic, and energy-efficient
✓ radiant flooring install is easy to DIY; saves space

Disadvantages:

✗ not available for off-grid lifestyle (requires electricity)
✗ space heaters occupy floor space (unless wall-mounted)
✗ space heaters not visually appealing nor energy-efficient
✗ radiant flooring requires replacement of existing flooring
✗ radiant flooring has higher upfront cost

4. …And Cooling Options

Window Air Conditioner

window ac unit in the side of a wood home
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Besides a mini-split, a window unit is the next best alternative to cooling air. These compact air conditioners sit inside your window and blow cold air into your living space.

Benefits:

✓ cost-effective and energy-efficient (choose Energy Star-certified units)
✓ easy DIY installation
✓ low-maintenance
✓ can cool an entire tiny house

Disadvantages:

✗ may obstruct natural light
✗ risk of falling/break-ins (intruder could simply remove unit to access home)
✗ not aesthetically pleasing

Portable Air Conditioning Unit

A portable air conditioner works similarly as a window unit in that it draws in hot air from your space, chills it by running it through refrigerant-cooled evaporator coils, expels heated air outdoors, and blows the cold air back into the space.

Benefits:

✓ easy to move around; can be stored when not in use
✓ no installation needed if ventless; other portable ACs do require you hook up an exhaust hose to the outside
✓ can double as dehumidifier
✓ inexpensive
✓ has thermostat controls

Disadvantages:

✗ takes up floor space
✗ loud when running
✗ high-maintenance
✗ not energy-efficient

Ceiling Fan

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This tiny house living hack helps keep you cool and save on energy bills. Best for use in temperate climates that don’t have too many super-hot days a year, ceiling fans don’t directly lower the temperature of a room; their rotation accelerates the evaporation of moisture from your skin, producing a “wind-chill” effect that makes you feel cooler.

Benefits:

✓ can also be used with AC unit to circulate air/make you feel cooler
✓ works instantly/easy to install
✓ less energy consumption
✓ also useful in winter to circulate warm air

Disadvantages:

✗ doesn’t actually lower temperature of a space
✗ cleaning can be difficult/done often (collects dust quickly)
✗ may become noisy over time; maintenance can help prevent this

FAQ About Heating and Cooling Tiny Homes

What are the challenges of heating and cooling tiny homes?

Because of variations in size, location, and mobility, different tiny homes may require different types of heating and cooling systems. A few challenges tiny homeowners can face include:

  • uneven temperatures throughout entire space
  • space limitations/restricted ability to store portable units off-season
  • ventilation issues
  • amount of insulation

What’s the cheapest way to heat a tiny home in winter?

Of all the heating options discussed above, the cheapest method is electric heating. A favorite among tiny homeowners living on the grid is the standard space heater (or forced air heater). Radiant floor heating is another option that’s inexpensive operationally; radiant floors do cost a lot more upfront, though.

How do you prevent excess humidity in your tiny home?

Tiny homes are susceptible to excess moisture due to their compactness and ventilation issues. Stemming from showers, cooking, pets, and even your own sweat and breath, this moisture, if left unchecked, can result in:

  • mold/mildew
  • damage to structure and interior elements
  • stuffiness
  • allergies

To combat this during the building process, be sure to select materials that are moisture-resistant. Other ways to prevent excess humidity include:

  • choosing the best HVAC for your tiny house
  • installing vents
  • re-sealing windows and doors as needed
  • clearing clutter (it can hinder air circulation)
  • using a dehumidifier

When to Hire a Professional

After reading this complete guide to heating and cooling your tiny home, you may be feeling a tad overwhelmed — we get it; it’s a lot all at once. No need to stress about making the right decision; just hire an HVAC pro near you. They’ll assess the needs of your tiny home and make expert recommendations on how to effectively keep your petite place toasty in winter and chill in summer.

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Andréa Butler

Andréa Butler is a writer and editor. And while she hasn't been blessed with DIY skills herself, she is adept at writing and enjoys sharing home improvement tips and pool care guides for the true DIYers out there.