Water Rights Maps of the US

Where to Legally Live Off Grid

May 18, 2019

Daniel Mark Schwartz Profile Picture

In the years I’ve spent learning about and living off grid, the most common question I encountered was how can someone legally live off grid. There is a lot of bad information out there on off grid regulations Here, I’m going to cover the details of what you need to know to live off grid legally, or at least cleverly to avoid legal trouble.

Where Can I Legally Live Off Grid? There are no states in the US which have outlawed living off grid. It is legal to generate your own power. Full time residences, including RVs, are generally required to have approved water and sewage facilities — usually a well and septic.

Don’t make import decisions about how to live off grid based on the rumor mill. Below I’ll walk you through the most important information you need to know, and how to find out what is legal to do in your area from real authorities. I’ll also answer common questions.

Exactly What You Can Legally Do Off Grid

As state above, there are no states that expressly prohibit living off grid. The primary limitations around an off grid lifestyle the states requirements for establishing a legal residence, and the limitations on activities allowed in your area based on zoning laws.

What You Can Do Limits
Power generate your own may require permit
Water well or surface water may need water right
Sewage septic (sometimes pit toilet or composting) may require permit
Gardening garden up to 1/4 acres for personal use garden size limited by zoning
Livestock keep livestock for personal use cities may limit type and quantity

In order to live full time anywhere in the United States, you are required to have a permitted legal residence on that site. Currently, every state but Wisconsin has formally adopted the International Residential Code (IRC) as the basis for their rules about what can be considered a legal residence.

Every state and county (except for a few counties in Idaho, Texas, and Alaska) also has a specific process for getting a building permit, that often has specific stipulations about the design and construction of your residence that may impact your ability to live off grid without utilities. Read on or contact your county’s building office for more information.

Further, activities such as growing food and raising livestock are probably partially or wholly regulated by the county (and city if you are in the city limits). The best way to find information is to search your county, and city’s, codes for zoning laws and usage restrictions that apply to that area.

Although the big power companies are working to change this, this legal opinion on self-production of power confirms that the law in the US allows property owners to generate their own electricity as part of their property rights.

The IRC code has quite extensive rules about every detail of how a residence must supply power.

I have not any laws that require a property owner to have power (as long as they are living on their own land). I know of instances of people living without power do so.

If you do want power, very state in the US requires any electrical work done in a residence be performed by or under the guidance of a licensed electrician. This restriction is generally at a state level, and so even fairly lenient states like Idaho have this requirement.

If you feel confident doing so, most states have an exemption that home owners can do their own work, like this law in Washington State. However, new work will still need to pass inspection to be legal.

So if you want to live off grid and generate your own power it is possible. If you want to live off grid without power that is also possible.

Every off grid home will need a source of water, unless you consider trucking in your water supply “off grid.” The most common off grid water sources are deep wells, with the second most common being surface water like streams and springs.

Off Grid Wells

The most common type of water system for off grid homes is a deep well, that draws from sub-surface sources of water. These wells almost always require a permit from your state or county, and must be drilled by a professional and licensed business (see this Guide to the Well Laws in Oregon).

Deep well will require a submerged pump at depths below 25 feet (or in same cases 100 feet with an injector pump). Thus you will often need electricity of some kind on the property to draw water from a deep well

Shallow or hand dug wells are explicitly forbidden in most states. Some do allow it, for instance New Hampshire allows dug wells if installed by a professional. Springs are generally considered either a shallow well or surface water.

Surface Water Regulations

If you intend to use surface water for any reason, including drinking or gardening, that may or may not be allowed by your state. The way to check is to look up your states water rights regulations.

Water Regulations Map of the United State by Penn State

In general states west of the Mississippi follow a Doctrine of Prior Appropriation with regards to water rights. This means you need to apply for a water right with the state before you use any surface water. Water rights only apply to a specific quantity of water, which can be used for a specific purpose. In the case of drought, the oldest rights take priority and the newest water rights may not to take any water at that time.

States east of the Mississippi tend to follow the Riparian Doctrine which allocates everyone adjacent to steam or body of water the right to use the water. This right is in proportion to how much of the body of water you control, so if you own 3% of the land adjacent to a stream, you are entitled to 3% of the water flowing through the stream at any given time.

If you need to apply for a water right, your state may not allow it to be used for drinking, but you may be able to use it for gardening or livestock. States that do allow drinking of surface water will require a filtration system be installed according to their regulations.

Rain Water Collection Regulations

Rain water collection right vary from state to state. Here is a detailed list. The take away is that almost every state has rules about how you can build rain water collection systems, and what you can use the water for.

City or Municipal Water Requirements

If you want to go off grid in the city, you may find you run in to difficulty. Every city has their own code about water usage, and may not allow wells in the city limits where city water is available. For instance Madison Wisconsin requires all dwellings who have access to city water to use it. Be sure to check your local city code about water usage requirements.

The health departments of every state in the US requires some for of waste management of sewage in any permitted residence, including RVs for long term use.

Off Grid Septic Requirements

By far the most common way of dealing with sewage off grid is with a septic system. Every state has specific requirements for septic construction and generally require tests and special permit before you build. Check your county building office for more information.

One problem with septic in an off grid situation is that they require service and pumping from a professional, according to the EPA once every 3 – 5 years. Depending on your tastes, this may disqualify a septic from being truly an off grid solution.

While being the most common solution, septics are easily the most expensive. Additionally, septics require running water to operate, which limits use in a “dry” cabin.

Pit Toilets Regulations

Regulations on pit toilets vary considerably from state to state and some times county to county. Check with you county’s health department for more information on regulations in your area.

Pit toilets, where allowed, are generally fairly cheap and easy to build, although you will have to cover and move the location every so often depending on how often they are used. If they are allowed in your area and you can handle a rustic lifestyle, they can be a good option.

Composting Toilets or Dry Toilets Regulations

Composting toilets and dry toilets store sewage internally for later extraction and potential use on site. Such systems can vary between complex commercial “flushable” installations to simply a bucket with a seat on it.

The number source for information on composting toilets is the Humanure Handbook which covers most of the options including safety factors and legal around recycling waste.

Some states, such as Oregon and Washington have specific laws already on the books about composting toilets. However, there are no states that specifically don’t allow composting toilet use. States that have no specific laws on composting toilets will require another waste system exist on site, such as septic. But, if you do have a flush toilet available, no state currently has a problem with you not using your septic, and composting your waste instead.

Off Grid Gardening Regulations

There are a few land use laws that might affect off grid gardening:

  • Easement, right of way, wetlands, riparian zones, and other setbacks
  • Zoning requirements for non-agricultural areas
  • Water right restrictions
  • Municipal beautification codes
  • Covenants and HOA

I have found no laws that specifically restrict the ability for an off grid homesteader to plant a garden.

If you have an easement or other record right of use that crosses over your land, you may not be able to garden there. For instance, if you have a gas line or power lines running under your property, you may be required to not plant in that area.

Some residential zones limit the maximum size of gardens, or limit the maximum size of a garden you can have without an additional water right for commercial production. A typical size for such a restriction, if it exists, is 1/4 acre of land or less can be gardened without an additional water right.

If you live in the city or a development with an HOA or any type of covenant, be ready for any number of restrictions to your activities.

Off Grid Livestock Regulations

In most cases, if you are out of city limits, then there will be few regulations on the number and kind of livestock you can keep on your property, as long as they are for personal use. Check your local zoning ordinance for more information.

Cities, HOAs, and developments covenants generally have restrictions on larger livestock such as cows, pigs, goats, etc. Some areas allow chickens below a certain number, and may or may not allow roosters. Rabbits, ducks, and other small animals can generally be kept if they do not create a nuisance.

Here are answers to a few common questions.

What are the best states to homestead in?

Homesteaders and off gridders are generally looking for cheaper land, open spaces, fertile land, and relaxed regulations. Here a few of the most popular states to homestead in the United States: Idaho, Arkansas, Texas, Oregon, Alaska.

Is living off the grid illegal?

Living off grid is NOT illegal. Every state allows some form of off grid living, although it varies state by state and there a still quite a few laws that limit what you can do in any case.

Is homesteading still possible?

While the US Homestead Act is no longer in force, and the US government is no longer giving free land out to settlers, it is possible to live a homestead lifestyle where you grow most of your own food and only have minimal external financial obligations.

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