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story.lead_photo.caption A male cardinal sits protected in the bushes near a bird feeder. Think your bored on a cold winter day? Plant a chair in front of a window and observe the comings and goings of birds beyond the glass. (John D. Simmons/Charlotte Observer/KRT)

My grandfather loved cardinals, I'm told. Pop-Pop fed the birds and could identify them by their calls, a skill that's harder than it looks. Our resident cardinals flocked to our feeders in recent weeks to devour black oil sunflower seeds, fatty insurance against cold autumn nights. Seeds are bird fuel; they eat as much as possible to stay warm by generating body heat.

Thankfully, humans have heating alternatives. So instead of flapping my arms to the nearest seed feeder and stuffing myself like a turkey, this week we are installing a new propane heater that vents through the wall. The Rinnai Energy Saver provides 8,000 BTUs (British Thermal Units), offers a built-in thermostat, fan, electric starter (no pilot light, no wasted gas) and boasts an efficiency rating of 82 percent AFUE (Annualized Fuel Utilization Efficiency standards for all heating systems in the United States). Its "smart" heating function allows it to independently provide only as much heat as needed, similar to a mini-split, rather than the usual on or off option of other heat sources. As the most efficient model by a solid margin, we hope this will save on propane costs and further our conservation goals as well.

At a cost of over $1,000, this option was not cheap, but after weighing alternatives like wood-burning stoves, natural gas, and other propane heaters, the Rinnai Energy Saver seems like the best fit for us. It prevents unnecessary heat from being generated in our small space, and reduces the amount of heat lost from inefficiencies. The unit's exterior remains cool to the touch, which is an added safety bonus in a super-compact home. It has a longer warranty than its competitors, which we hope translates into better build quality. And it's supposedly quiet, with the fan generating 27-36 decibels of sound (40 is the level of a gentle rain).

Natural gas was not an option for us because it is mostly a grid-tied utility. Wood-burning stoves typically become super hot, and their temperatures are difficult to control. In some cases, the installation of a wood-burning stove may cancel homeowners' insurance plans. Cutting or gathering and storing logs for that stove, while a great use of available local timber as opposed to non-renewable fuels, requires a sheltered space that we don't have outdoors. There is nowhere on our floor to place a tiny stove without it touching and endangering some other furniture or ourselves. Actually, the Rinnai model usually rests its weight of around 50 pounds upon the floor, but my husband Ryan built a shelf for it because there wasn't an accommodating space at floor level.

Our off-grid house came with two electric Envi brand wall-mounted heaters and a thermostat, but these didn't work out for us because of limited solar electricity. These electric heaters are designed to run 24/7 but the sun isn't out at night and our batteries can't store enough to meet the high demand for power. They required us to run a gasoline-powered electric generator, which is noisy, produces smelly pollutants, can be difficult to operate, and was incorrectly sized to our system. Time will tell if the Rinnai propane heater is a better fit, but it's turning out to be a cozy, warm Thanksgiving, something I am truly grateful for.

Amanda Bancroft is a writer, artist, and naturalist living in an off-grid tiny house on Kessler Mountain. She and her husband Ryan blog about their adventures and offer tips to those wanting to make a difference at

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