Us Land Deed How to Live Off Grid Legally

How to Live Off Grid Legally in the United States

January 18, 2020

Daniel Mark Schwartz Profile Picture

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.

The first thing to know that is that self-generating power is thought to be a constitutional right 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.

If you decide to go without power in the sense of traditional lights and wall sockets, you may encounter local livability codes. In some areas not having lights and power could be considered an uninhabitable structure.

In many off grid situations, heating is another important area to investigate concerning regulations. Both the International Fire Code and International Building Code have extensive sections about installation and proper use of heating devices.

My recommendation when going off grid is to first optimize your off grid home through insulation, proper sizing, good windows, and appropriate solar placement of your home. It is generally much cheaper and less work to make your home as efficient as possible rather than pay extra for heating over time. And, there are very few legal considerations when doing these types of additions.

Many off gridders choose to use wood heat in some form when either cooking, hot water, or heating their homes. Be aware that in some localities burning may be limited by code. For instance in Colorado there are limitations on when you can burn to heat your home. In these cases there may be specific rules about the types of stoves you can use if you intend to heat your house with wood full time.

One possible way you can get around burn regulations is to have a backup propane or heating oil system that you use only when burn restrictions are in effect. In my opinion such a system is not entirely off grid, but they can be a decent compromise if necessary. And they are good to have around as a backup.

Another possibility, if your local codes say you cannot release smoke rather than burning specifically, is to use ultra efficient rocket mass heater. These stoves can be built cheaply, are great for DIY, and burn so efficiently there is no perceptible smoke coming out the chimney. This is because all the some is burnt up before it exits.

Water Rights Use Map

Off grid water is probably the most straight foreword of the off grid utilities, because it is so common. Most rural areas have allowances for residential wells.

If you are living in the city, you may be required to connect to your municipal water system. In such cases you may also be allowed to have a well as a backup.

Typically, wells need to be professionally drilled and receive a permit from the state in order to operate. This may come with required lab tests for well quality and safety. Your county building office will be able to point you in the right direction the steps you need to take.

Deep wells are typically allowed for use in permitted residential structures for general water. However, the state may limit how much water you can use for agricultural purposes without applying for an additional permit or well. For instance, I’ve seen states where you can only use a residential well to grow at most a 2 acre garden without needing to apply for an agricultural use well.

Other sources of water including surface water, shallow wells, springs, and rain water are usually not considered safe for use as potable water without additional filtering, and may not be allowed in your area. Check your county sanitation office for more info on what is allowed in your area.

For use in irrigation and grey water systems, what is allowed depends on your area. For use of surface water and shallow wells, check out the map above. In general, in the Western US you will need to apply for a permit to use any surface water. However, in the East you entitled to a share of the water that naturally flows through or along your property boundaries.

Rainwater harvesting is an ever evolving legal landscape and [every state has their own unique regulations regarding what is allowed and what isn’t]{rainwater_laws].

Dealing with sewage off grid is legally, usually a matter of installing the required type and size of septic system. However, this in one area where I really am not happy with the mainstream solution.

Not only are septic systems usually quite expensive, but they must be pumped every so often. This makes them not an off grid system at all. It would be better and cheaper to use your human waste as an input and life giving component of your homestead rather than a pollutant and irritant you would have to pay to be rid of.

Unfortunately, humanure, biogas, composting systems or even old fashioned latrines are not usually allowed as an alternative to septic systems. Check with your county public health office to see what specifically is allowed in your area.

However, this is where following the letter of the comes in. I have seen it written that the county requires that you have a septic installed in order to either get a building permit or for a home to be considered livable. Yet, there is no specific requirement that you can’t use composting systems if you want.

So, one way to legally live off grid regarding waste disposal is to indeed have a septic installed, albeit either a DIY one that meets code or the cheapest one available, and in practice use a simple composting system as your primary waste disposal system.

One word of caution: be sure that whatever means you choose is tidy and odor free. There are many composting systems, some as simple and cheap as a bucket and a few pallets, that let you safely generate rich and productive soil from your “night soil”. Don’t make the mistake of not taking the time to make your system indictable from the outside. While having a compost may not be illegal, in many jurisdictions offensive odors are.

Off Grid Food Production

Growing your own food off grid is probably one of the easier areas of the law to navigate. If you don’t intend to sell the food you produce, then most agricultural activities, which are generally heavily regulated, are given an exception.

If you live in the city, then you will need to be wary of local zoning, beautification, and nuisance laws. Although some areas are lent enough to allow for whole families to subsist off their tiny 1/4 acre lot, others won’t accept anything but grass and a small garden. Some zones limit the amount of type of livestock that you can have on your land. Further, some cities have vaguely written rules about how your property should look from the street. Private regulations such as HOAs and covenants may also limit what you can do on your land. In such cases, it may be best just to move out of the city a bit.

For those of us that live aurally, you will need to be wary to stay below what ever classifies as a regulated agricultural activity. This is usually part of the zoning laws, and may specify how much land can be used for growing and how many livestock animals you can have per acre. I’ve also seen jurisdictions that limit how much water you are allowed to use for growing, or limit how much land you can irrigate. Further, be aware of protected ecosystems such as wetlands or spotted owl territory. Check with your county mapping office to see which areas have been designated as such.

Access to foraging pretty common on your own land, and is often allowed in government land as well, but varies on a park by park or agency by agency basis. Hunting and fishing, of course, is regulated on a state by state level and usually requires a license or permit of some kind.

Fuel Alcohol

One exciting possibly regarding off grid energy is growing your own fuel alcohol. Many small engines run fairly well on pure alcohol, or can be retrofitted to run as such. Small farms are capable of growing corn or other grains and potatoes that are cheaply fermented in to fuel alcohol.

Although alcohol distillation is heavily regulated in the United States, there is an easy to get permit that allows you to run a still solely for the purposes of making fuel.

Off gridders are often interesting in alternative housing arrangements. While a typical modern house may be able to be off grid, tiny houses and natural building can be much more affordable and amenable to hardworking DIYers.

While most forms of natural building such as cob, straw-clay, log cabins, straw bale homes, and other earth constructions are not explicitly banned by code, they aren’t mentioned either. The International Building Code, the basis of most state building codes, specifically says that it does not restrict new building techniques other than those in the code. This means that natural building may be legal, although the determination usually is given to local building inspectors or government personnel.

Tiny homes, on the other hand, usually come up against minimum space requirements found in most building codes including the IBC. However, some builders also leverage the loop hole that says buildings 200 sqft and less or movable structures (not on a foundation) don’t require any form of permit to build. So in this case tiny homes are not legal full time residences, but are also not illegal to build.

Most tiny home aficionados rent a space near a permitted residential structure which servers as their legal residence while they live full time in their tiny home.

However, with tiny homes increasingly in the public view as interest increases, cities and counties are starting to make laws that both help or hinder tiny home’s legality. So, check with the building office in your area to see what you can legally do.

What states allow you to live off the grid?

Most states allow for some form of off grid existence if you are willing to read between the lines, but states such as Alaska, Texas, Idaho, and Arkansas are considered to be a bit more lenient when it comes to laws that you have to follow.

Can you legally live in the forest?

Public lands usually limit the amount of time you can legally stay there. Private forest that you do not own may be able to be lived in via “squatter’s rights” and may even allow you to eventually take title. But this requires that you live there openly, are not kicked out by the owners, and stay their contiguously from 5 - 40 years depending on the state.

What is needed to live off the grid?

In order to live successfully off grid you need tools and skills to survive without outside input. This could include solar panels, a well, wood for heating, farming skills, hunting skills, and more.

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