Dreaming of living off-grid in Alabama? While the state has lots of rural land suitable for living sustainably, make sure you check the laws first. It might be illegal to live the off-grid lifestyle you want.
Want to more about living off grid? Read:
Is Living Off-Grid Legal in Alabama?
Living off-grid is legal in Alabama, and some areas are very permissive. However, the state has outdated laws in regard to many off-grid systems. It might be illegal or impossible to get a permit to use certain systems such as compost toilets, hydropower, and graywater recycling systems.
Alabama Zoning Laws and Off-Grid Living
Whether you can live off-grid legally in Alabama ultimately depends on local zoning and building laws. Some areas, such as Jackson County, currently don’t have any zoning laws or require building permits outside municipal areas: you can essentially do whatever you want on your property. However, most locations (even rural ones) in Alabama do have some zoning laws.
Land zoned as Rural Residential or Agriculture tends to have the least restrictions. You’ll be able to do things like farm, raise animals and have accessory buildings. The minimum lot requirements are usually just ½ to 1 acre.
One obstacle you might encounter in Rural and Agricultural land is running a home business. Many commercial uses are prohibited in these districts. It might be illegal to do something like run a bakery from your home. For example, in Athens, Alabama, even selling produce from your own farm on a roadside stand is only a “conditional” use and not guaranteed as a right.
If your property is zoned as Residential, you can expect many restrictions on what you can do. For example, the City of Centreville allows gardening as a right on R1 land but only for non-commercial uses. You could get into trouble if you tried to sell produce from your garden.
*If you know of any other counties in Alabama without zoning, let us know in the comments section!
RVs and Manufactured Homes in Alabama
Almost every state in the USA has strict rules about living in an RV (often called a “manufactured home”).
By comparison, Alabama rules about RV living are very relaxed.
It is often legal to live in a manufactured home on land zoned as Rural or Agriculture (as is the case in Centreville, Calera, and Baldwin County). You can expect rules about sewage hookups, driveways, minimum lot sizes, and the number of dwellings per lot, but these rules aren’t too strict.
You might also find it helpful to read: Homestead Declaration: What Is It and Why You Need One
Off-Grid Electricity in Alabama
Off-grid electricity is legal in Alabama. You will need a permit for your system, and, in most cases, it needs to be installed by a licensed electrician. The permit and installation requirements vary depending on the county.
Many counties haven’t updated their laws to reflect the growing demand for renewable electricity. So, it can be annoyingly difficult to figure out your county’s rules regarding solar. It’s even more challenging to figure out the rules for other off-grid electric systems, such as micro-hydro or wind power.
If you want grid-connected solar in Alabama, you will also have to deal with the power company’s requirements. Some companies even charge you $5 per kilowatt simply for having solar. Companies do have net metering, but there is no statewide net metering policy in place.
It is legal to use surface water on your property in Alabama. However, if you want to divert surface water in any way, the rules are more complex. The law treats water as a “common enemy” and allows you to divert water off your property, even to your neighbor’s property – but harming your neighbor’s property could open you to a civil suit.
Generally, it is legal to divert water to use it, such as by creating irrigation canals or a holding pond. However, if you deprive your neighbors of their right to water, you could be taken to court.
Bear in mind that water flow often changes in Alabama due to flooding, hurricanes, and erosion. Thus, surface water rights can get very complicated. Many lawyers in Alabama work specifically with water rights because of this.
It is legal to build a pond on your property in Alabama. You’ll probably need a permit from your local county.
If the pond is located in a wetlands area, then you will need a permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers. Ponds that disturb an area of land larger than 1 acre will likely need an NPDES permit from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.
To drill a water well in Alabama, you will first need to file a Notification of Intent to drill a well with the Department of Environmental Management. After completion, you will need to file a Certification of Completion. You may be required to collect geological samples to have your well approved.
Can I drill my own well in Alabama?
Only licensed drillers can drill a well in Alabama. To get licensed, you must have at least two years of experience and take an exam. You are also required to pay an annual fee for the license. Because of these requirements, it probably doesn’t make sense to get licensed just to drill your well.
Rainwater harvesting is legal in Alabama. There currently aren’t any state laws regulating the practice. However, if you want to install a larger rainwater harvesting system or use the rainwater for potable purposes, you will likely have to meet plumbing codes. Because these codes don’t always mention rainwater systems, getting a permit for your system could be problematic.
Sewage and Waste Removal
Alabama has relatively strict rules when it comes to sewage disposal. If your property is not located near a municipal sewer line, you will most likely need to install a septic tank.
It is worth noting that many areas in Alabama, especially in the Black Belt, have poor soil for septic.
You may be required to have a special septic system designed by an engineer, which can be very costly. For this reason, the State encourages people to investigate which sewage treatment options are available before purchasing land.
Despite the strict sewage laws in Alabama, many people still use faulty septic systems, cesspools, outhouses or directly dump sewage onto the land. This has created a sanitation nightmare in some areas. Don’t be surprised if you find raw sewage on lawns or in streams.
Before installing septic in Alabama, you will need to have your soil tested by a professional engineer, land surveyor, geologist, or soil classifier. Check with the county first, though; a soil test may have been done already and be on record.
If soil tests show that your land is unsuitable for a conventional septic system, you will need to have one designed by an engineer.
Regardless of whether you are installing a conventional or engineered septic system, you’ll need to get a permit to install it first. You apply for the permit at your local county health department. Once the septic system is complete, you will need to have it inspected. Only then will you get an “Approval to Use” permit for the septic system.
Can I Install My Own Septic System in Alabama?
Alabama law states that only people licensed by the Alabama Onsite Wastewater Board (AOWB) can install, repair, or pump septic systems. Unlike in some states, it is difficult to get even a license. You can’t even attend the required training or take the exam for a “Basic Installers License” until you’ve had 12 months of relevant experience.
Even if you go through the long process of getting a septic license in Alabama, you will be required to attend continuing education classes to keep your license.
Unless you want to work as a septic installer, it probably doesn’t make sense to go through the hassle of getting licensed just so you can legally work on your septic tank.
Composting toilets are legal in Alabama. They must be certified by NSF or an organization that is ANSI-certified. However, you won’t be able to use only a composting toilet in Alabama because the law states that
“disposal of a liquid from a composting toilet shall be to either a public or private sewer system.”
You’ll also need to have an approved graywater disposal method for household water.
In almost all cases, it is illegal to use an outhouse in Alabama. They are only legal in remote locations where the dwelling does not have indoor plumbing or water under pressure. Even in these situations, you will still need a permit before constructing and using an outhouse in Alabama.
Incinerating toilets are legal in Alabama. They must meet NSI Z21.61 and NSF standards. However, you’ll need to dispose of liquids from the toilet to a public sewer or septic tank. You’ll also need an approved method for disposing of greywater from the home.
Greywater recycling is technically legal in Alabama. However, the laws are so strict that they might as well be illegal. To recycle greywater legally in Alabama, you’ll have to install a complex filtering and disinfection system as well as meet other confusing requirements.
The first problem with greywater recycling in Alabama is how it is defined in the law. The Alabama Public Health Administrative Code defines greywater as
“that portion of wastewater (sewage) generated by a water-using fixture, excluding toilet and food preparation waste from dwellings and regulated establishments. It is of similar composition but of lower strength than sewage.”
Obviously, there are many situations where greywater is not even close to a similar composition as sewage. Yet, Alabama law requires you to treat all greywater as though it were dangerous, pathogen-containing sewage.
The requirements can vary on a county-by-county basis, but you will probably need to filter and disinfect greywater before you can use it. Even then, you will only be able to use greywater for certain things, like irrigating non-edible crops. You’ll also likely need to dye greywater used for toilet flushing.
If your home doesn’t have “water under pressure,” the laws about disposing of greywater are slightly more relaxed. You can dispose of them through an Effluent Disposal Field (EDF) pipe, but the pipe must have a minimum of 50 linear feet per dwelling and not be located closer than 50 feet from any surface water of the state.
Read the complete Alabama Reclaimed Water Reuse Program law here.
Do you live off grid in Alabama? Let us know about your experiences in the comments section below.