The Legality of Living off Grid

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Living off the grid is the solution found by more and more people who either want to prepare for a long-term disaster, or just want a quiet, self sufficient life. However, moving away from crowded cities does imply some legal research about what they can and cannot do.

In short, yes, it is legal to live off the grid in all 50 states in America. But, just like with homeschooling laws, some states welcome the self-reliance activity, while others throw up monumental barriers.

In one state you may be able to simply start living off grid and go about your business without any government intrusion whatsoever. In other states, you should expect to spend both time and money acquiring the permits you need to live simply and disconnected from modern society.

In each state in the republic, you can legally use off grid water delivery systems, and grow your own groceries. You can also use alternative and off grid methods to heat or cool your residential off grid greenhouse and off the grid barn.

The red tape and government intrusion into off grid living really don’t come into play, at least not fully, until you want to build an off grid home or convert your conventional home into an off-the-grid paradise.

Doing something as simple as installing an off grid toilet, even a commercially manufactured one that meets all government regulations could cause hefty fines to be levied against you – or in some cases, be threatened with jail time.

When preparing to live off grid, plan to spend a lot of time and a significant amount of money putting in a government approved septic system, no matter which state you reside in.

Disclaimer: the author is not a lawyer, and this article is not legal advice. The contents of this article is for information purposes only.

Leaving The Grid and Creating Your Own Energy

It is not just homeowners who are seeking to disconnect from our fragile, aging, and overly taxed power grid. Companies both large and small are also taking the off grid leap to save money and natural resources.

A California-based Kroger food distribution center set up an off grid system that allowed them to turn bacteria that is created by old food and other natural matter into a biogas that is then burned to churn out roughly 20 percent of the energy the store uses.

In addition to solar power, more American cities and even states are allowing – or in some cases encouraging, the use of wind turbines and hydropower for both residential and business use.

A Home Power magazine report revealed that in excess of 180,000 homes in American now supply 100 percent of their own power.

Roughly one million American homes now have installed solar panels installed to either completely or partially reduce their dependence on utility companies.

Some states are now offering tax rebates for using alternative forms of energy. At least 35 states now have net metering laws designed to permit homeowners and businesses to sell their extra energy back to power companies not at a discounted rate, but at full retail rates.

More than 27,000 American homes use either – or in some cases both, wind turbines and solar energy to live off grid.

Solar panels have gone down in price more than 50 percent since 2008, making them a far more affordable off grid living option than ever before.

In some cases, you can get a state and – or federal tax break for installing them.

Geographical Variances In Off Grid Living Rules

While some municipalities restrict state off grid living rules more than the law requires, most regulations are standard throughout each state.

Where you choose to go off grid will make a big difference in what you are legally allowed to do, how quickly you can do it, and how much it will cost to jump through hoops to get it done.

Rural

Everything is just better in the country – where all preppers should live either on or off grid. In rural counties a government permit office or zoning office might not even exist.

The only governmental regulation you will surely have to deal with in a rural area is following sanitary sewer laws.

Typically, this means that you have to undergo an inspection on the site where you want a septic tank and leach bed placed and have the work completed by a contractor on the county’s approved list – and pass a completion inspection.

The health department inspection and processing fee usually runs a few hundred dollars.

Small Town

If you live in a state with significant Amish populations like Pennsylvania and Ohio, laws are likely currently on the books that will make living off grid far less cumbersome.

If you are lucky, your small town will be located in a rural county with little or no government permits required to build or adapt your own home.

In my county, you can simply buy a piece of land in town or out, and start building with your own two hands – but not everywhere still allows this much American freedom.

If the small town has a municipal sanitary sewer system, you will likely be compelled to hook into it, but that does not mean you cannot use off grid power methods to run your household commodes and water system.

Most small towns allow composting commodes but may require you to purchase a specific type and not build your own and also require you to submit to a health department inspection of the system – if you choose to inform them of your plans to use an unconventional commode.

Suburban

If you live under a HOA, there may be stringent rules that must be followed for absolutely everything that has to do with both the inside and outside of your home.

The use of solar panels are becoming more commonplace and may be permitted in many suburban areas, except those in affluent neighborhoods – the type that fine you for having a swingset in the “wrong” color or do not allow you to leave your garage door open.

Urban

Rules in great abundance over most everything you do in your daily life and with your home abound in cities. If you live in an “earth friendly” city, odds will be in your favor for many off grid living activities.

But, it is unlikely that you will be able to fully disconnect from modern life in most cities, especially if you rent the home you live in or dwell in an apartment.

Composting Commodes

All 50 states tightly regulate the disposal of raw sewage, but only a handful have specific guidelines pertaining to composting commodes.

To find out what specific rules exist in your town, county, or state in regards to composting commodes you will need to visit the state’s revised code website and / or local municipal websites, including the health department website.

The United States Building Codes mandate that a flushing toilet be hooked into a municipal sewage system or septic tank in every state. In some states, if and how composting commodes are to be installed and what manufacturing standards they must meet when being placed in new home builds only.

A Portland based group, ReCode, has been working to create a comprehensive and legal set of uniform composting commode regulations on a nationwide scale.

The group began drafting, with the aid of composting commode manufacturers and installers, regulations that would meet the IAPMO – Universal Plumbing Code.

In western states, a Water Efficiency Standard code was put into place to address several issues, composting commodes among them, in 2017.
Rainwater Collection

In some states, collecting rainwater and setting up your homemade rainwater collection system is a breeze but in others, not so much.

You can collect rainwater legally in each of our 50 states, but there are limits to how much in some locations.

You may need a government permit in some cities or states to set up a rain barrel or rainwater collection system.

Solar Power

In some states you do not necessarily have to use electricity in you home, but you must remain connected to the grid, and make the minimum account payment every month, anyway.

Solar panel installation is permitted in every state, but some require a permit and inspection first before doing so.

In some states, like Nevada, the state mandates a fixed fee to putting in a solar power system on your home and running it. This fee could be offset by selling any extra energy you do not use back to the power company.

But, in many cases, you might not have any extra power to sell back to the utility company you wanted to avoid in the first place.

Solar panel use in rural areas is typically far easier and a less expensive prospect than disconnecting from the grid is in suburban or urban areas.

Even if you live in the Midwest where winters are very chilly or surrounded by woods, it is likely that you can use solar power to fuel a fully operational yet modest energy needs associated with off grid living.

Review the International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC) to determine quickly if your municipality or state has adopted their standards and mandates to better guide your initial steps in the going solar process.

Outhouses

Outhouses are illegal in the vast majority of all 50 states, but that does not mean they do not still exist. Composting human solid waste is still in its infancy stages and not legal, but is being used by some folks as a gardening alternative to using commercial fertilizers on their crops.

Legal Hurdles To Off Grid Living

Do not expect your state to being composting toilet friendly simply because it welcomes rainwater barrels and solar panels.

Each aspect of off grid living brings with it its own set of rules, regulations, permits, and inspection process that must be followed to remain in adherence to the letter of the law.

It was definitely far easier, from a legal perspective, to live off the grid 50 years ago than it is now.

Living off grid involves far more than disconnecting from conventional power sources. The lifestyle choice brings with it a common set of daily homesteading type activities that could also run you afoul of the law.

Below are some examples of off grid living activities that WILL land you in court if you get caught doing them incorrectly… or doing them at all.

Raw Milk

The selling of raw milk is illegal in almost all 50 states. The rules governing the sale of raw milk are frequently changing and hotly contested in states that prohibit such an activity.

In some states, you cannot sell raw milk but can sell a “herd share” of a milk producing animal like a cow or goat, but not its actual milk.

A herd share means you are selling, theoretically, a share of the animal which then entitles the partial owner to milk the animal themselves.

Living in an RV

A few decades back you could simply pitch a tent or park an RV on a piece of land you own and live in it. Not anymore, not in most states at least.

Most states have laws that limit to a specific number of days, weeks, or months that you can live in a tent, camper, or motorhome on your very own land.

Not only can keeping such living quarters longer get you fined and summoned to court, doing so could also result in being forcibly evicted from your own land because you have not erected or purchased a permanent dwelling.

Places with such laws also typically have ordinances against moving in used manufactured or mobile homes or have place and age limit for such types of dwellings.

Size of Your Off-Grid Home

As in many things in life, size matters. The dimensions of your off grid home must meet and not exceed, state or local laws pertaining to off grid dwellings. In some counties or cities, this effectively turns people who live in a “tiny house” outlaws.

Read the deed to the land you plan to purchase to turn into an off grid home very carefully – in fact, get a good real estate agent or attorney to inspect it with a keen eye, as well.

Some property deeds come with covenants that exceed the sometimes stringent demands of local ordinances and dictate activities, dwelling types, and even the animals which can be kept on the property by any owner.

Rainwater Harvesting

In suburban and urban areas, and even in some small towns, you might be forced to house a rainwater collection system inside a permanent visual barrier to avoid creating an “unattractive nuisance” in the neighborhood.

In such municipalities, stringing up a clothesline is probably also going to be against the rules and prompt swift fines if they are violated.

Urban Gardening

In a rural area you can put a garden anywhere you want and grow crops and medicinal plants in any upcycled container pot that strikes your fancy.

But in suburban and urban areas ordinances often exist regulating how close to property lines a garden can be planted, how large the garden can be, and also restrict growing containers not only by type and size, but also color.

Off Grid Living Rules By State

Not all states have formally addressed various aspects of off grid living. Those that have adopted policies, regulations, or state legislature bills at the time of publication are noted below.

Alabama

  • Alabama allows residents to live entirely off grid but the permits Alabama Power to levy a per kilowatt fee to anyone who lives wholly or partially off grid.
  • Composting commodes are not necessarily illegal in Alabama, but rules do exist, and are strictly enforced when it comes to raw sewage and gray water disposal.
  • Rainwater harvesting is part of a resident’s property rights in the state. Alabama A&M extension offices and Auburn University are working together to urge the state to extend guidelines as well as technical instructions regarding off grid water collection.

Alaska

  • Off grid living is welcomed in Alaska with primarily open arms.
  • Ground water harvesting is deemed part of a property owner’s water rights but it is regulated. Rainwater harvesting is often a main water source for off grid residents in the state.
  • The use of both wind turbine and solar panels are common in Alaska.
  • Outhouses and composting commodes are largely used in off grid homes outside of municipal areas in the state.

Arizona

Arizona House Bill 2363 launched a joint study by the state legislature on the study of several issues that relate to off grid living.

Rainwater collection, particularly macro-harvested water, is being researched as a part of the study, and the impact of such harvesting on water rights, aquifer management, groundwater management, and downstream uses.

Arkansas

A bill was passed in the Arkansas General Assembly to require the state health board to allow rainwater to be harvested for only non-potable uses by property owners.

But, the rainwater collection system must be designed by a licensed Arkansas engineer and the system must comply with all current plumbing codes and possess cross-connection safeguards.

California

In 2012 the California State Assembly passed Bill 1750 or the Rainwater Capture Act. This law permits both commercial and residential property owners, as well as governmental entities, to establish and operate rainwater collection systems and rain barrels.

But, these off grid water system must remain in compliance with current usage regulations such as gardening and landscaping irrigation systems.

Colorado

The state House Bill 1005 paved the way for Colorado property owners to establish two rain barrels with a total 110 gallon combined capacity to use as a rainwater catchment system on rooftops.

The property owners may only use the rainwater collected for outdoor purposes on their own land – providing that such activities did not interfere with any existing water rights on the deed.

Composting commodes are legal in Colorado if established rules and guidelines are followed.

Connecticut

Rainwater collection is allowed in Connecticut and property owners are urged to do so by the state energy and environmental department.

Delaware

Incentive programs to encourage rainwater catchment exist in Delaware.

Florida

Rainwater catchment systems are allowed and urged in the Sunshine State. Folks who live in Manatee County may garner tax rebates and other incentives if they set up rainwater collection systems.

Composting toilets are legal in Florida providing they meet all existing health department regulations.

Georgia

In this state rainwater catchment is strictly regulated but not illegal. The Georgia state plumbing code requires any rainwater harvested must be limited to outdoor usage only and not be used for potable purposes.

Hawaii

The state senate passed Concurrent Resolution 172 in an effort to urge rainwater catchment systems. Until the law was passed, rainwater catchment systems were almost entirely found only in rural locations around the islands that comprise the state.

Idaho

The only limitations on rainwater collection in Idaho involve the harvesting of rainwater that has entered into natural waterways.

Composting toilets are also allowed in Idaho as long as state health department regulations are adhered to.

Illinois

  • Composting commodes are legal as long as they anticipated number of users remain in compliance with the manufacturers recommended guidelines.
  • Raw sewage in the state has to be processed via a municipal collection system, an approved incinerator, or into a sanitary landfill as per state mandates.
  • The Green Infrastructure for Clean Water Act passed in 2009 approved and promoted rainwater catchment systems.
  • In 2011 Illinois House Bill 991 was approved. The bill amended the Homeowners’ Solar Rights Act to require an association board to adopt a policy on energy systems and use. The policy statement must address rainwater collection, wind energy, solar energy, and composting systems.

Indiana

The collection of rainwater is actively encouraged by both residential and commercial property owners in the state.

Iowa

The state of Iowa does not restrict rainwater collection.

Kansas

The Kansas Department of Agriculture requires residents to garner a permit to collect rainwater. The Kansas Water Appropriation Act does protect the right of property owners to collect rainwater.

Kentucky

The state of Kentucky does not restrict rainwater harvesting, and officially offers tips to do so.

Louisiana

While rainwater catchment systems are allowed in Louisiana, collecting large amounts in cisterns must follow state government regulation standards.

Maine

Harvesting rainwater on private property is allowed in Maine. Some urban areas levy stormwater fees to pay for maintaining and improving government run stormwater systems.

Maryland

Harvesting rainwater is largely unrestricted in Maryland, and some counties in the state offer incentives for establishing such systems.

Massachusetts

  • Residents of Massachusetts are urged to collect rainwater in the state.
  • Composting commodes are permitted if they remain in compliance with state health department regulations.

Michigan

  • Michigan’s Cost Effective Governmental Energy Use Act made collecting rainwater and a host of other energy efficient activities legal.
  • This state has long had composting system and gray water disposal laws in place. Approximately 46 county health departments in Michigan have regulations in place pertaining to both issues.

Minnesota

The State of Minnesota permits rainwater catchment systems.

Mississippi

The State of Mississippi also welcomes rainwater harvesting systems.

Missouri

The state of Missouri allows and urges the establishment of rainwater collection systems.

Montana

Montana property owners are urged to set up and use rainwater collection systems.

Nebraska

The state of Nebraska also does not restrict rainwater catchment system creation and use.

Nevada

Assembly Bill 198 required the Nevada Legislative Committee on Public Lands research alternative water sources available, and how they might impact communities throughout the state.

The same study also was tasked with reviewing the potential impact of rainwater catchment systems along with other non-traditional forms of sourcing water.

New Hampshire

The state of New Hampshire both allows and promotes the use of rainwater harvesting systems.

New Jersey

The New Jersey State Assembly Bill 2442 required the Department of Environmental Protection to establish Capture, Control, and Conserve Reward Rebate Program.

This new program was created to provide money use to fulfill water conservation rebates for residents take advantage of permissible water control, capture, control or conservation activities.

New Mexico

In this state property owners can earn up to a $5,000 rebate for collecting rainwater.

New York

Any residential or commercial property owner who engages in green infrastructure, rainwater catchment, and similar activities is eligible for a tax credit that can be equal to up to 50 percent of their construction costs.

North Carolina

  • The State House Bill 609 mandated that the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources to office outreach services and technical assistance – as well as a best practices guide on rainwater catchment systems, gray water usage, and water conservation.
  • The North Carolina Senate Bill 163 heralded the harvesting of rainwater and the many ways “reclaimed” water can be used in the state.

North Dakota

In the state of North Dakota residents must navigate some strict regulations related to the use of water sources but still urge rainwater collection system creation by residents.

Ohio

  • In Ohio rainwater can be collected for potable uses.
  • Even residential water systems that will be used by fewer than 25 people still must remain in compliance with state regulations.
  • Composting commodes are legal if they follow state health department regulations and inspection guidelines.

Oklahoma

The State House Bill 3055 paved the way for the Water for 2060 Act that allows gray water usage and collecting rainwater.

Oregon

  • In Oregon, rainwater is only legally collected from rooftops. But, the Oregon Building Codes Division permits rainwater collection systems to be used as a non-traditional means of adhering to conventional state plumbing codes for both potable and non-potable uses.
  • Oregon Senate Bill 79 mandates that state building code offices enhance and encourage energy efficiency in multiple ways, including the use of rainwater collection systems.

Pennsylvania

  • The state of Pennsylvania allows rainwater collection without restriction.
  • Composting commodes that meet NSF standards and have the approved testing seal can be used in the state. Before a residents installs a composting commode they must secure a permit excess gray water and sewage disposal.

Rhode Island

Rhode Island House Bill 7070 created a tax credit for both commercial and residential property owners that install rainwater catchment cisterns on their land.

The language in the bill defines an eligible cistern as a “container that holds a minimum of 50 gallons of divert rain or snow.” The cistern can be created below ground level or above ground.

South Carolina

  • Residents and businesses in this state are only legally allowed to install a composting toilet if it is connected to an approved septic system.
  • In South Carolina residents and commercial property owners are urged to collect rainwater.

South Dakota

In South Dakota a multitude of regulations exist in relation to water rights on private property, but rainwater harvesting is legal, and there is no permit required.

Tennessee

Cisterns, rain gardens, and other modes of green infrastructure as defined by state guidelines are allowed if hooked into sanitary sewer systems when applicable.

Texas

  • Texas State House Bill 3391 was a huge bill that amended many sections of existing state code related to rainwater catchment. One of the changes was the ability for loans to be made accessible to purchase properties that would have just rainwater harvesting as water source. All newly constructed state buildings of a specified size that garnered at least 20 inches of rain establish rainwater collection systems for potable and non-potable.
  • Every municipality and county in the Lone Star State urges rainwater catchment systems be used or rainwater barrels, and offers incentives for property owners who do it via the Texas Water Development Board. No municipality can deny a permit request based upon solely rainwater harvesting being in use.

Utah

The Utah Senate Bill 32 permits property owners and leasers to collect rainwater and also limits any person registered with the state’s Division of Water Rights to collecting a maximum of 2,500 gallons of rainwater annually.

Any unregistered residents are limited to collecting a maximum of 100 gallons of harvested rainwater each year.

Vermont

There is no permit required to collect rainwater in the State of Vermont.

Virginia

In Virginia the Senate Bill 1416 established the Alternative Water Supply Assistance Fund. The programs created income tax credits for residents and businesses that set up rainwater catchment systems.

Gray water and rainwater harvesting regulations in the state were also established as a part of the conservation bill noted above in an effort to ease the burden on strained public water supply systems.

Washington

  • Residents that have rainwater catchment systems now experience lower stormwater control facilities fees.
  • The Washington Department of Ecology issued an “Interpretive Policy Statement” in 2009 declaring that harvesting rainwater does not fall under established water rights.

West Virginia

Residents and businesses don’t have any permit regulations or restrictions on rainwater collection in West Virginia.

Wisconsin

Permits and restrictions do not apply to rainwater collection in this state.

Wyoming

In Wyoming no special permits are required to set up a rainwater catchment system.

Wrap-Up

If you live in a right to farm state you might find the laws regulating common off grid activities are more lenient, but not always.

Living entirely (or even partially) off grid in most states will likely involve some form of permit process and government inspection, for septic system and composting commode approval, if nothing else.

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Tara Dodrill
About Tara Dodrill 30 Articles
Tara is a completely off the grid homesteader and prepper, living on a large farm with her mutual assistance survival group. She's raising a wide variety of animals, farms, gardens, living an organic lifestyle.

2 Comments

  1. Correction: A person must register with the Utah Division of Water Rights, not Water Resources.
    https://waterrights.utah.gov/forms/rainwater.asp

    Utah

    The Utah Senate Bill 32 permits property owners and leasers to collect rainwater and also limits any person registered with the state’s Division of Water Resources to collecting a maximum of 2,500 gallons of rainwater annually.

    Any unregistered residents are limited to collecting a maximum of 100 gallons of harvested rainwater each year.

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