Energy-Efficient Solutions for Small Spaces

When it comes to home ownership, the “American Dream” of our parents’ generation has taken quite a turn… and with surprising effect. Many people, in all age groups and demographics, are choosing to live, not in a two-story Colonial with attached garage, but in a tiny, 800 square foot space on wheels. So, it is little wonder why “energy efficient heating and cooling for small spaces” has become a frequently searched phrase on the Internet.

Of course, the subject of energy efficiency in small spaces should not be limited to how it pertains to tiny homes, but also to smaller mobile homes and even specific spaces in traditional houses, Colonial or otherwise. In fact, even though alternative housing options have found their way into popular culture, most homeowners hoping to increase the system efficiency of their small spaces will be looking to heat and/or cool a currently uncomfortable room or newly built addition.

The Element of Heat

Deciding on how to effectively heat a small space with maximum energy efficiency in mind comes down to where you are geographically, and how often you use the space. For example, the heating solution for a tiny home that frequently travels through climate zones will be vastly different than that of a poorly conditioned room in a classic 50s ranch style in the Midwest. Therefore, defining your location and how often the space will be used is key here.

There are many heating options on the market today, some with higher price tags (and lower Energy Star ratings) than others. So, deciding on whether you prefer something portable, built-in, or retrofitted should be the first thing you do.

Portable Space Heaters

In certain circumstances, a portable space heater can be a great choice for heating a small space or tiny home. For instance, in rooms or additions that will be rarely visited during the colder months, or if you are geographically located in a warm climate, a portable space heater may be your best bet. They are compact, inexpensive and highly effective in small spaces.

However, portable space heaters are not the most energy-efficient solution. The heat output is restricted to the size of the heater in relation to the size of the space. In a tiny or mobile home, for example, a small heater could literally run all day and still not produce a comfortable environment. Plus, depending on what type of heat source they use, some may not be safe for small, enclosed areas.

Electric or Gas Fireplaces

Just because you don’t have a built-in fireplace doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy an old-fashioned, cozy night in by the fire. Electric or gas-powered fireplaces provide heat plus that quaint, nostalgic appeal that comes from sitting in front of a fireplace on a cold, blustery day. Though they range in price, depending on size and features, electric and gas-powered fireplaces are fairly inexpensive and widely available.

In terms of energy efficiency, however, gas and electric fireplaces fail to make the mark. For the same reasons why space heaters are less than ideal for extended use, the fireplace method should be enjoyed as an extra form of heat instead of the primary. Plus, while electric fireplaces are quite portable and can be set up with minimal effort, gas-powered versions should be installed by a professional. This service will add to the overall cost of what is, essentially, a large space heater.

Built-In Fireplaces:  Fiction vs. Fact
Though charming in a classic, “Little House” way, and portrayed as an effective way to heat an entire log cabin, built-in wood-burning fireplaces are, in reality, the least energy-efficient way to heat any space, large or small. The amount of heat lost through the flue is actually more than is radiated out into the room. So, by all means, enjoy them for their coziness and visual appeal, but have an alternate source on tap for actual heat.

Cool It Now

A lot of factors go into deciding how to cool a small space. As in the case for efficient heating, geographical location and frequency of use top the list. But you also need to determine just how cool you want to be. Some people are perfectly comfortable simply enjoying an open window and a fresh breeze, while others seem to require an arctic frost to keep cool in the summer. Once you decide on the level of comfort you desire, the options with the highest efficiency come into play.

Window Air Conditioners

A reliable option for cooling a small space, such as an addition or a south-facing room that overheats in the summer, a window air conditioner is easy to install, budget-friendly and unobtrusive. The space-saving design and sleeker look of modern window units make them a nice choice for newer construction. These ductless units fit snugly into the window, often using baffles to fill open spaces between the unit and the window casing.

Though they are the easiest to install and the lowest in price, window air conditioners are the least energy efficient of all available options. By virtue of their design, they leave large openings that even the most snug-fitting baffles or coverings can’t completely close. This lets quite a lot of the cooled air escape to the outside, keeping the unit from cycling off as it is constantly working to re-cool the space.

Wall Air Conditioners

As their name suggests, these air conditioners are mounted directly into the wall for a more permanent cooling solution. And though this does do away with the big open spaces seen around window units, it also requires cutting a large hole in your home’s exterior wall. So, unless you are a skilled DIYer, it is recommended that you get help from a licensed professional. This, coupled with the higher initial price tag, makes it more of an investment than you would make with a window AC.

As for cooling efficiency, wall units perform much better than their window-mounted counterparts, keeping utility bills at a fairly even keel throughout most of the summer. They also last longer than window units, and require fewer repairs and service calls. However, they are not an effective solution for cooling larger areas, such as a tiny house or more than one room in a traditional home.

The Best of Both Worlds:  The Mini-Split System

If you’ve never heard of a ductless mini-split system, get ready to be enlightened. These compact, easy-to-install units have a duct-free design that lets them go anywhere in the house without costly retrofitting or cutting into walls. The systems are available in a range of sizes and configurations to fit your needs perfectly. Plus, they top the list of energy-efficient options for small spaces.

DIY mini-split systems have two central components: an indoor air-handling unit and an outdoor condenser/compressor. The two units are connected by refrigerant lines and electrical wiring rather than ducts, making it much easier to install. From an efficiency perspective, they are outstanding. Mini-splits give you ultimate control over your home’s energy usage by letting you turn up, down, or off the AC or heat in unoccupied rooms independent of the rest of the house, lowering your utility bills in the process.

When choosing a mini-split system for your home, it is important to find the right size unit for the space. Just as with a traditional central air setup, a system that is too small or too big will not perform in an efficient manner, driving your utility bills skyward.

Ductless mini-split systems come in various configurations:  AC only, Heat Pump only, and Dual systems with both AC and Heat Pump included. Depending on where you live and your specific heating and/or cooling preferences, there is a configuration that will efficiently address your needs. Plus, mini-splits are available for multiple zones, or rooms, making them ideal for retrofitting multi-family structures or older homes, as well as tiny or mobile homes.

Installation of these systems does not require cutting massive holes in your walls or installing ductwork, making it a cheaper option for most. Those who are comfortable doing more complex DIY projects can even install certain mini-split models themselves, saving even more. If you decide to go the DIY route, just be sure to choose a model that is specifically designated as DIY-Friendly.

Whether you are outfitting a tiny house, mobile home or simply providing an additional heating and/or cooling source to an uncomfortable room, we’re sure this has given you plenty to consider. But with the right information in hand, you will soon be on the right path to a comfortable, energy-efficient space.