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How to remodel a 1962 mobile trailer into an energy-efficient abode called home?

Heike Paw | Posted in Energy Efficiency and Durability on

I am living in Idaho and purchased the only thing I can afford at the moment, a 55x10ft travel trailer mobile home, the choice of so many poor people I met up here. Of course these mobiles are less then efficient in every way. I do have my vision on what I want (I am a single women) and the contracters I have considered to help me with the improvements are coming from places like it cannot be done or, changes have to be done this or that way.
I would love to explain to the contractor who will help me with the remodel exactly what and how I want the work done and need some advise on how to achieve this. Of course I will need to stay within building codes also. The trailer has 1 1/2 inch walls of probably R9. The inside is all wood and I would like to keep the feel and look of the interior walls,.but would love to make thicker insulated walls like the PassivHaus suggests. Now I am told by the contracter that this would add too much weight to the frame, with all the extra studs we need to put in the trailer will not be able to handle that. Its a triple axl. Then I finally met someone that says we could use a light weight aluminium framing were the insulation can be attached too? Will that still follow building codes and or what other options do we have to accomplish getting the trailer insulated to lets say R40 for walls and R60 for floor and ceiling?After all, since we have the whole tiny house movements, these houses are a lot heavier and sit on moveable frames. Next everybody tells me that if I try to remove the wood paneling it will splinter and brake because it was most likely glued. How do I remove wood paneling safely that has been glued? How do people restore those beautiful Spartan birchwood trailers without damage to the wood. There has to be a way to get this done without damage. As heat source I have been thinking of radiant pex floor tubing? which is not PassivHaus but an option. Is there a lightweight thermalmass to distribute the heat other then aluminum plates or gypsum that would not add too much weight to the trailer. Any input is hightly appreciated, Its one thing for me to have these ideas but an entirely different one to translate this to a conventional contractor, that for example thinks when I talk about a composting toilet it means a chemical toilet……. thank you for every ones input

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  1. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #1

    If you dream of having a Passivhaus with R-40 walls, an R-60 ceiling, and radiant floor heating, it makes no sense to start with a trailer. The trailer will just be in your way. The materials you seek -- new framing, new insulation, and interior paneling -- are expensive. If you can afford to buy those materials, you need to install them on a new foundation, without a trailer in your way. The trailer makes the work expensive.

    So, you can build a simple tiny house -- whatever you can afford, as long as it is legal -- and forget the trailer. If you can't afford to build a tiny house, you should live in your trailer and listen to you contractors. Fix up the trailer by sealing air leaks and improving the weatherstripping of the doors and windows. Save up your money -- and some day you may be able to afford to build a new tiny house with the features you want.

    If you want to fix up your trailer beyond what I have described, here are the usual energy upgrades I see:
    1. Install a pitched roof -- a gable or a shed roof (usually new 2x6 rafters or site-built 2x4 trusses), installed on top of the existing metal roof, creating a new tiny attic. Install metal roofing on the trusses; extend plumbing vent pipe and chimney through the roof. Beef up the roof insulation in conjunction with this work. Rigid foam is better than fiberglass.

    2. Build a better skirt. Pressure-treated studs and pressure-treated plywood over a layer of rigid foam. Not cheap, but better than the usual skirt.

    3. If your budget is low, wrap the entire walls with polyethylene in October. Secure the poly with a few strategically placed 1x3s, fastened with screws. Cut out the door. Remove the polyethylene in April or May. This is a common method where I live in Vermont.

  2. Lucy Foxworth | | #2

    We are currently building a home where my brother's trailer stood. He asked the contractor the same question, "Can't you just use the trailer and upgrade it?" The answer is you can, but it's still a trailer with all the limitations of a trailer. We live in the South where bugs, termites are serious pests. The walls were all rotted out because the windows were really just 2 sets of storm windows screwed to the frame with no flashing to prevent water intrusion. And where the water came in, the termites made huge nests. There was really no option but to tear it down.

    Your trailer may be in much better shape than that since you live in a much colder, drier area of the country.

    I agree with Martin in that to have a Passivhaus quality home, you need to build it on a decent foundation and do it right. The trailer is just not a framework for a Passivehaus.

    But after tearing a trailer apart, I have some sense of what you could do to make a trailer more energy efficient. Martin's ideas are one place you can start, but I think there are other things you can do as well.

    Walls - the panels were glued on, but they used 2 x 4s for the framing. I've included some photos of the wall with the panels removed. I don't think there is anyway you can save these panels.

    Options from there if you can remove the wood panels, then your choices are either install better insulation in the space available or add new framing and substantially increase the amount of insulation. I think air sealing the exterior sheathing to the frame and then install new or even recycling the old insulation would make a tremendous difference in the comfort of your trailer. Then you won't have to move electrical outlets, etc.

    I do not agree with the contractor that new studs would be too heavy for the trailer framing, that stuff is very solid. But I don't think it is worth the money.

    Here is a link to the first post on my blog where we started tearing down the trailer. This is just to give you an idea of what the inside of the wall framing of the 50+ year old trailer looked like. Again we are in the South with heavy humidity and insects.

    I've got to go to work now. I have a few other ideas that might be useful. Will post later.

  3. Lucy Foxworth | | #3

    Did you buy land as well as the trailer? I agree with Martin that you should save your money for a small, really well built house rather than trying to fix up the trailer, but if you only bought the trailer, then that's what you've got to go with.

    I think there may be a simpler way to insulate the roof. We'll have to see if Martin agrees that this is feasible. You could layer 1-2 layers of polyisocyanurate or other foam insulation on the roof, install 2 x 4s to support the metal roof. Somewhat similar to what you see on this webpage I think sealing the roof like that would make a tremendous difference in the comfort of your home. You could also extend the roof overhangs to help protect the home as well.

    Let us know what you are thinking about doing.

  4. Heike Paw | | #4

    First I want to thank everybody for the so much needed input here. Oh if I were in a different situation I would love to built a house even if smaller. I do not own the land. I am a guest on someone elses property, hoping to find my own land maybe in the next year and then move my trailer onto my own land and living in the trailer until I slowly built my own house. that's why I cannot built a free standing roof in the present situation. I could built a metal roof on top of the trailer with more insulation but again it would have to be done in such a way that the trailer is still legally moveable in a year. I guess
    what I was looking for is instruction on how to insulate better even if I do not get to the passivhaus level, in a way that will be lightweight and efficient with what I have and I thought that it is not possible according to contracters here at all until I met the one contracter who advised on using aluminum framing once I widen the walls instead of studs. since I am not a contracter I really do want to hear in this forum which answers apply and which way makes sense to do before I run out and get someone to do it and then find out I should not have done it that way, it was all wrong in the first place. especially since the contracters here do not think green or efficient just what they know from how it is done in Idaho. And I also if aluminium frames are not building code approved then again even if it is a great idea.. I then cannot do it. I agree that it can be very costly but I have been very resource full were I find my materials and even some of the workers helping me.. as long as I can get the advise and come to the conclusions of this is the way I am going to do it. after that I will be good to go. then I can pick a solution and then properly relate that to the person I have working for me. Right now that's the part that is missing. the instructions. I hope I have become more clear with my needs, I do not expect to achieve the perfect passivhaus. also I will end up doing some of it in stages once the trailer is sealed I can slowly, if I know how to get the glue undone on the birch wood paneling do room by room. I am so happy to have gotten your advise and look forward to receiving more. also the reason I want to do a good job on this one is I do not know how many years I end up living in it before I can have a real house. last thing on the tinyhouse movements, so many are built on wheels and are a lot heavier then my trailer some have 2 stories. that's why I guess I did not understand that I could not make my trailer more insulated with adding more studs.and please if I am not clear ask me more so I can clarify. I

  5. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #5

    I don't think it's a good idea to take apart your walls. While it's possible to build anything you want out of aluminum tubing or aluminum angle, those materials aren't usually used for residential construction or even for mobile home construction. If you want (for some reason) to replace your walls with new aluminum-framed walls, I would advise you to have the plans checked by an engineer. The changes sound expensive and unlikely to save enough energy to be worth the trouble.

    By the way, aluminum is a conductor, not an insulator. If you build a new wall with aluminum framing, you'll need one or two layers of rigid foam sheathing on the exterior side of the aluminum framing.

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