People who considering living off grid are often concerned that it may not be legal to live the lifestyle that they want. While generally increasing in popularity, going against the grain by living off grid can be a bit unnerving when you get started. However, with a few common sense practices and a some basic knowledge you should be alright.
How to legally live off grid in the United States. Living off grid legally is possible in the United States. However, you will encounter a wide variety of local, county, and state laws that regulate aspects of what you are able to do on your property.
The biggest trick when going off grid legally is to do your homework and determine exactly what are the regulations that apply to your case. Because going off grid is not yet mainstream, the vast web of laws that construction companies, utilities, developers, and farmers negotiate on a daily basis doesn’t have an obvious easy way through. Unlike living a basic mainstream lifestyle, going off grid requires a bit of effort an ingenuity on your part. But, you don’t need to go through it alone. Below I’ll cover some of the main point you need to know to start living off grid legally in the United States.
The Basics of Going Off Grid Legally
While, in the right areas, it is certainly possible to survive and thrive for quite a while by skirting the laws and keeping to yourself, the specter of the government can be disconcerting. Our objective here is to live a lifestyle of independence by both knowing and following the laws in your area. Sometimes this takes a bit of ingenuity on your part and other times it means following the law to the letter, but no further.
The biggest difficulty when going about living off grid within the laws, is that there are so many, and they come in from a wide range of different angles. There is no one law or set of laws that you would need to follow. The unfortunate reality is that no one can really be sure that they are following all the laws that apply to them, living off grid or not.
However, for off gridders, here are some of the laws that you will want to look in to:
- Local zoning codes
- States / county level water and sanitation requirements
- Community nuisance laws
- State and federal environmental regulations
- Local building codes
- Municipal codes if any
- Property covenants if any
In short, all you need to do to live off grid legally is to know and follow the laws around you. But, to make things easier I’ll break down some of the key areas that the laws can affect your off grid lifestyle.
The “Business in the Front” Approach
One popular way of living off grid is to have a traditional on-grid home, trailer, or RV in the front of the property. Most utility regulations require that you have certain facilities and most counties require that you have a permit in order to consider a property a residence.
You can bypass all of this trouble by either buying an existing cheap home or doing the minimal it takes to get a RV permitted on your property. That way, if any questions come up, you have the legal right to live at that location and you have followed all the laws concerning your legal residence.
However, just because you have access to something, doesn’t mean that you need to use it. With your activities firmly established as being with the law, you have more freedom to establish alternative off grid systems without raising any eyebrows. That way you can live cheaply and securely via your off grid means without appearing to do so to the outside world.
Because so many of the laws are subjective to the interpretation of the government officials, going out of your way to be within the usual bounds of the law may be the most conservative choice. While your activities may be entirely legal, it is generally good to take steps to avoid undo scrutiny, and to make everything look inconspicuous to the neighbors. Ultimately, the most difficulty you will have going off grid legally would be if people start to complain to the authorities.
Legal Off Grid Power
The first thing to know that is that [self-generating power is thought to be a constitutional right][off_grid_energy_legal_opinion] in the United States. Although at the time of writing I have not found any court cases that have tested this hypothesis.
If you are installing solar panels, aka photovoltaics (PV) systems, yourself you will need to be aware of relevant sections of the International Building Code, International Fire Code, and the National Electric Code. Most of this applies only if you are mounting your panels on your roof or attaching them in some way to your home. Otherwise, if you mount your panels away from your home as I recommend in my article on shading and solar panels then you need to focus on the regulation NEC690 which covers the electrical code for solar panel installation.
Be sure to check your state, county, and any local amendments to these codes, as most jurisdictions make small modifications to the national level codes. And, not all states follow the IBC, and have their own building codes instead.
One way you can avoid legal hassles is to use a small scale temporary solar system such as an RV system or portable PV system. Automotive systems don’t require a permit or special licensing to work on and install.