In its literal sense, off-the-grid living means living disconnected from the public electricity grid. However, off-grid living involves disconnecting from all, if not most, public utilities for all practical purposes. It means living off your own piece of land in as sustainable a manner as possible- producing your own electricity, getting your own water, growing your own crops, etc.
In other words, it is living as your forefathers did.
It is a simple life away from crowds and the rush of city life and offers a serenity we crave so often. Add to this the devastating ways of the civilized world and the almost complete powerlessness of a single person who wants to live sustainably. Off-grid living allows you to disconnect from polluting systems and toxic humanity to live a peaceful life.
But as it turns out, off-the-grid living is not easy to do. Sure living by yourself facing the elements can be difficult but doable. No, in your quest to live off the grid, you will face a challenge even bigger than blizzards and hurricanes: the law.
You can’t just pitch a tent or park a trailer in a nice open field and fulfill your off-grid living dreams. No, you will probably end up in jail for doing so, even if you own the land. While off-the-grid living is itself not illegal, myriad laws regulate off-grid living.
These vary from state to state and between different counties and are restrictive and confusing for anyone looking to live off-grid.
Needs of Off-Grid Shelter
Obviously, you will need a place to live in to live off the grid. Disconnecting from the grid will be impossible in an apartment or a rented property, so you will need your own piece of land. And that’s where your problems start.
Minimum lot size
If you are buying within city limits, you will have the option to buy smaller lot sizes: as small as 5000 square feet in some areas. But if you live in a city, you won’t be allowed to disconnect from the public utility system. So you will have to move out of the city to buy a property in the rural areas.
Many states have zoning laws that force you to buy land in minimum lot sizes. This is due to county planning and population density requirements set forth by the county.
Though these laws vary from state to state and between different counties, as a rule, the minimum lot sizes get bigger the farther you go from the city. Usually, minimum lot sizes are around 5-10 acres but may be as large as 20-40 acres in some areas.
This also means that you cannot parcel out and sell your land without getting a special permit called a variance from the authorities.
Check out our post on 20 amazing off-grid homestead ideas to know how you can utilize your land.
Prolonged Camping is Illegal
In most 50 US states, you cannot camp out in a temporary shelter for more than two weeks, not even if you are on your own property. You will need to build a permanent shelter if you want to live off the grid.
But if you want to camp on your land while you build your house, you will need to get a long-term camping permit from the local authorities. And failing to get that will mean motel bills that will add to your expenses.
Minimum Square Footage for your House
Many counties have zoning restrictions requiring your house to be of minimum square footage before issuing you a building permit. Tiny homes and one-room log cabins, although cheap, are usually frowned upon and won’t be permitted.
Your house’s minimum size is around 500-1000 square feet in most counties. You won’t be allowed to build anything smaller unless you get a variance, which is quite difficult to obtain. Your house also needs to meet the international building codes, which are accepted or enforced in all 50 states of the United States of America. You can grab a copy of the IBC here.
You will obviously need potable freshwater if you want to live off-grid. If you wish to disconnect from the public water grid, most states will allow you to do so if you have a source of potable water on your property. Note that potable water differs from freshwater. You can drink potable water directly, whereas freshwater may need treatment to make it potable.
If you are lucky enough to have a source of potable water like a well or a hand pump on your property, you can easily sever ties with the public water system. However, if you are planning to harvest rainwater and use it for drinking purposes, the situation becomes murky.
While harvesting rainwater is allowed in almost all the states, drinking the collected rainwater is not. Most of the rainwater that is harvested comes in contact with roof shingles, and roof shingles are often treated with chemicals to prevent the growth of mold and grass. Such water may have toxic chemicals in it, and many states strictly ban the use of rainwater for drinking, especially if you have a family or kids with you.
You can build a rainwater collection system that is completely disconnected from your roof if you have the space and the finances and may get around this problem.
However, in some areas, especially in dry and arid regions, all freshwater sources sometimes fall under what is called “prior appropriation.” Under this rule, the state declares ownership of all-natural sources of freshwater: aquifers, rivers, and even sometimes rainwater.
This usually happens in areas of high population and/or low rainfall, where the difference between the supply and demand of freshwater is very low.
In such situations, you will have no other option but to connect to the public water supply or a commercial supplier and pay for your water.
This is a crucial one. Almost every state is very strict regarding waste disposal or processing. So if you want to disconnect from the state waste and sewer services, you must be able to properly dispose of your waste, including trash and human waste.
You will not be allowed to use your waste as manure for your plants, even if they are for your own consumption. Untreated human waste can breed dangerous diseases and pollute the soil and nearby freshwater sources.
Instead, you will need to have a minimum size septic system and get a percolation test done. A percolation test, also called a perc test, measures the water drainage of the soil and is required for designing a leach field for your septic system.
Another option you have is a composting toilet. A composting toilet uses healthy, high temperature, and aerobic decomposition to decompose human waste.
They depend on high carbon content materials such as sawdust or dry leaves that need to be dropped into the toilet after every use to break down human waste in a sanitary and clean way. Composting toilets use far less water than conventional toilets and remove the need for a separate septic tank to process the waste.
Using composting toilets is subject to regulations. Your composting toilet must follow National Sanitation Foundation’s NSF/ANSI Standard #41 or Electrical Testing Labs (ETL) standards to be accepted by local authorities.
Many counties, however, simply ban the use of composting toilets or leach fields. In such cases, you have no option but to connect to the local waste system, and costs for doing so will go up the farther you are from the city.
You will need to show that you can properly dispose of your trash. An off-grid lifestyle, if done correctly, yields mostly organic waste. You can turn such waste into compost using composting bins and then use it as manure for your garden.
The rest you can burn using an incinerator. As long as you follow local environmental and composting laws and do not dump your waste in the open, this should not be a problem with the authorities.
The quintessential off-grid living experience involves generating your own power. But even here, you may run into trouble with local laws. Using a diesel generator is out of the question, both because most states penalize that and because it is very polluting and beats the point of living sustainably.
Your best bet is solar power. With solar technology becoming affordable, you can have your own solar power setup without burning a hole in your pocket.
That is if the authorities allow you. Disconnecting from the public supply grid is illegal in almost all cities and towns in the US, and depending on the county, it may also be illegal in rural areas closer to town. By moving to rural areas farther from town, you might be able to completely disconnect from public power, most of which comes from polluting sources such as coal.
Some counties have what is called the solar grid option, where you have your solar setup but are still connected to the public power grid. Any surplus power you produce will be sold to the city at a discounted wholesale rate.
The benefit is that you will still have power in case your solar setup does not generate enough to cover your needs.
This means paying electricity bills, but if you are frugal with your power consumption, you can significantly decrease your bills by selling your excess power to the state. If done correctly, you can even offset your electricity bill completely, so you don’t have to pay anything.
Note, however, that solar power generation varies from region to region. If you wish to generate most of your power through solar, you will need to settle in a state that gets lots of sunny days in a year. Low temperatures during winter will also be a factor in driving up your energy usage.
Cooking and Heating
You are going to need fuel for cooking and heating in your off-grid home. We wouldn’t recommend using wood or coal or some similar fuel as they burn dirty and release a lot of noxious gasses into the atmosphere.
However, if you plan on using wood as a fuel, you will need to collect it from your own property, buy it from a supplier or purchase the right to collect wood on someone else’s land. Many states, however, have rules against using burning wood.
You can use electric cooktops and electric heaters to get around this, or buy and use canned propane for cooking and heating.
Crops and Livestock
Living off the grid, you may want to grow your own crops or keep some animals to provide for yourself. Store-bought food is expensive and usually grown using a lot of harmful pesticides. Since you have your own piece of land now, this should be easy, right?
Yes and no. If the land is agriculturally zoned, you are free to grow crops or keep animals such as chickens, pigs, cows, or horses. However, growing crops or raising animals on land that is not agriculturally zoned will land you in trouble with the authorities.
Always check the zoning of the plot of land before you buy it, as changing the zoning can be very difficult. As a rule, though, rural plots are agriculturally zoned, and restrictions increase the closer you move to the city.
Most states will also not allow you to sell your surplus produce unless you get the proper permits and health inspections. Failing to get those, even if you are producing more than you need, you won’t be able to sell it.
Taxes and Loans
It is very hard to avoid all taxes in the US, even if you live off the grid. If you have a source of income, you will have to pay income tax; you will have to pay property tax for your property. Buying something from the store, you will have to buy some things from the store now and then, which will mean paying sales tax.
Since off-grid living is all about sustainability and reducing consumption, you may reduce your taxes considerably but won’t be able to eliminate them.
Some administrations try to discourage off-grid living. For example, there was a period between 2008 to 2011 in which banks in the US stopped lending to build off-grid dwellings.
Combine this with the minimum square footage requirement in most states, such whims of the government may lead to a financial disaster for you. Make sure you have some money saved up to survive if such situations arise.
As you can see, living off-grid in the US is not technically illegal. However, many laws that vary from state to state and even within a state that range from restrictive to downright prohibitory make off-grid living very difficult.
If you do not read the legal and technical fine print when going off the grid, you can very easily find yourself on the wrong side of the law. We have compiled lists of the best and worst states for an off-grid enthusiast to live in to help you find your perfect sanctuary.
Best US states for off-grid living
The “Heart of Dixie” is the only state in the US to have an alcoholic beverage as its official drink. While that may be enough motivation for fans of booze, Alabama offers some clear advantages for an off-grid enthusiast settling there:
- Low cost of living.
- Low property taxes.
- Lax building codes in many of the counties.
- Rainwater harvesting is recognized as a property right.
Possibly one of the oldest settled areas in the North American continent, Missouri has rolling prairies and is home to several beautiful communities like the Ozarks. Advantages of settling in Missouri are:
- Low taxes.
- Lax waste management laws.
- Fishing and rainwater harvesting is legal.
- Lots of rainfall all year round.
The “Peach State” is a beautiful place to go off-grid in, with its mild weather and the Blue Ridge mountains.
- The cost of living is moderately low.
- Zoning laws are lax in some counties.
- The weather and soil are great for farming.
- There is a whole monument in Georgia that has instructions to rebuild society in case of an apocalypse. Living close to that might be a good idea, just in case.
Tennessee has many beautiful forests and high peaks, like the Unaka Mountains, Clingman’s Dome, and Lookout Mountain, which have views of seven states! It is also home to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Advantages of settling in rugged Tennessee include:
- The cost of living is very low.
- Property taxes are low.
- Farming and rainwater collection laws are lax in most counties.
- Building codes are lax in most counties.
- It has a long 260 day growing season.
The second-biggest state in the US after Alaska, and home to the highest number of cattle among all other states, the “Lone Star” state is known for its many ranches and its unique Tex-Mex food. Other than that, Texas also offers:
- Low price of land, especially in rural regions.
- A long growing season.
- Lots of sunlight for solar power.
- Water, however, may be a problem in some areas.
Worst US states for off-grid living
- The cost of land is quite high.
- The cost of living is very high.
- Property taxes are very high.
- Regulations related to power generation are very strict. Many areas will not allow you to disconnect from the public grid.
- Groundwater is contaminated in some areas.
- The cost of land is high.
- Very high cost of living.
- They do not allow off-grid solar setups.
- Very difficult to disconnect from the public water and waste services.
- The main problems with off-grid living in Alaska come from the environment.
- The state receives up to 200 inches of snowfall every year, accompanied by strong winds and frequent thunderstorms.
- Alaska is home to large numbers of wolves and bears, making an off-grid lifestyle dangerous.
- The cost of living is quite high.
- Low sunlight means difficulties with using solar power and growing crops.
- Very high cost of land.
- Very high cost of living.
- Regulations about all public utilities are generally quite stringent
- Taxes are some of the highest in the US.
- Gas prices are high.
- The cost of land is high.
- The cost of living is above average.
- Connecticut does not allow rainwater harvesting or disconnecting from the public water supply.
- The soil is not suited for growing crops.
These are the best and worst states to live off-grid in. However, as regulations vary from county to county, there may be other places that are also great for living off the grid. While we hope to give you a heads-up on which laws are problematic and where laws are lax, you should always go through the county laws and regulations before you embark on your off-grid life. Otherwise, off-grid living can turn into a legal nightmare.