California Off Grid Laws: An In-Depth Guide


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Last Updated: September 9, 2021

Dreaming of moving to California and living off the grid? Before you start looking for property, make sure you understand California’s off grid laws. It might not be legal to live the type of off grid life you want.

Want to more about living off grid? Read:

Is Living Off-Grid Legal in California?

Off-grid living is usually legal in California. State laws are generally very friendly towards off-grid living.  However, you’ll have to meet extremely strict building codes and get a permit for nearly everything.

Getting water rights can be problematic, and there’s currently no guarantee that wells won’t go dry. You may also encounter a law that requires you to connect to the municipal sewer system if one is located nearby, which would thus make it illegal for you to go completely off-grid in CA.

California Zoning Laws and Off-Grid Living

Zoning laws are local laws that dictate everything from setbacks to how many chickens you are allowed to have on your property.  All areas of California are subject to some type of zoning.  These laws might make it illegal to live the type of off-grid life you want on your property.

Local zoning laws can vary drastically between counties.  You’ll need to do a lot of research to figure out what is allowed in the area, especially if you choose to use any alternative building materials, live in a mobile home or tiny home, or have multiple accessory dwellings.

You might also find it useful to read: Homestead Declarations Explained

Off-Grid Electricity in California

Off-grid electricity used to be illegal in California under Title 24.  The law required residential homes to have an “interconnection pathway.”  However, the law has recently been updated and now specifically allows off-grid electricity.

Solar Laws in California

California is one of the best states for solar power.  As of 2020, all new homes up to three stories high must have a solar photovoltaic system installed.  The system must be able to meet all of the estimated annual energy consumption of the home.  The solar mandate also applies to accessory dwelling units (ADUs), so you’ll need solar panels on your “granny flat,” too.

Even though California is very friendly towards off-grid solar, it is still the strictest state in America regarding code requirements.  Your system will need to meet all of these requirements:

  • California Building Code, Title 24, Part 2
  • California Residential Code, Title 24, Part 2.5(One- and Two-family dwellings)
  • California Electrical Code, Title 24, Part 3
  • California Mechanical Code, Title 24, Part 4
  • California Plumbing Code, Title 24, Part 5
  • California Energy Code, Title 24, Part 6 California Fire Code, Title 24, Part 9

If you decide to connect your solar system to the grid, you will also need an interconnection inspection and approval from the utility company.  There is net metering for grid-tied systems.

This California Solar Permitting Guidebook is a good place to start.

Wind Energy Laws in California

Many places in the United States still haven’t addressed small residential wind turbines in their laws.  By contrast, California has very detailed laws about which types of wind power systems are legal.  While the laws and code requirements are strict, they are very clear.  This actually makes it much easier to install an off-grid wind energy system in California than in other areas of the country.

Under California law, a small wind energy system is defined as one in which the combined capacity of all turbines does not exceed 50 kilowatts.  You only need a minimum of 1 acre of property to install a wind energy system of up to 65 feet.  On parcels of 5 acres, the maximum turbine height is 80 feet.  If you want to connect the wind system to the grid, the utility companies cannot impose insurance requirements on you.

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Off-Grid Water Laws in California

Drought is a serious problem in California, and the state does not have enough water to meet growing demands.  As a result, getting water for an off-grid property in CA can be incredibly problematic or expensive.  You’ll need to navigate the complexities of water rights laws, permitting requirements, and even then might still find your water source running dry.

You can find a detailed guide to California water rights laws here.

California Water Rights Laws

Under California law, you must have a water right to use water – even if it is just a small amount of water for domestic use.  There are three types of water rights in CA:

  • Riparian: Rights to water on or abutting your land.
  • Appropriative: Right obtained by using water from non-riparian land. The State Water Board must issue the right.
  • Prescriptive: These are generally water rights from before 1914 and were obtained by taking someone else’s unused water rights.

Getting water rights in California is very difficult.   Even if you have water on your land, you may not have riparian rights because the land and water rights can be separated.  Aside from buying land with riparian rights, your only way to get a water right is to get a permit from the State Water Board.

Laws about Using Surface Water in California

If you have riparian rights to water on or touching your land, then you can use the water on your land. It must be put to beneficial use.  All riparian owners have the same rights in the case of streams: upstream users cannot deprive downstream users of their water.  In cases of drought, certain domestic uses such as drinking and bathing have priority over other uses.

Diverting Surface Water

If you have riparian water rights, you are legally allowed to divert it onto your property.  However, it must drain back into the same source where it was taken.  You are not allowed to divert the water into a storage area like a reservoir or pond.   You’ll need a permit if you want to store diverted water.

It is possible to get appropriative water rights from a stream or other water source.  You’ll need to apply with the Water Board.  The maximum amount of water you’ll be able to use is 4,500 gallons per day for immediate use or 10 acre feet per year for storage.  If the water source is already fully appropriated, then you won’t be given a permit to use it at all.

Well Water Laws in California

All water wells in California must be dug by certified contractors and meet strict requirements.  Under previous rules, well owners were allowed to remove as much water as they wanted without restrictions.  However, because of droughts, wells across the state were running dry.  As a result, California passed the Sustainable Ground Management Act (SGMA).

Under SGMA, local groundwater agencies in overdrafted basins must create a plan for groundwater use by 2040.  The law also requires certain well owners to file water reports each year.  Generally, “de minimis” users who extract less than two acre-feet per year for domestic uses are exempt from reporting requirements.

Because drought is such a serious issue in California, it is very likely that the state could impose serious restrictions on well water use.  Keep this in mind if you plan on doing any commercial activity like raising livestock on your off-grid property in CA.

Rainwater Harvesting Laws in California

It is completely legal to collect rainwater in California. You can capture water off of any manmade impervious surface, including roofs and parking lots. Many places in California offer financial incentives for harvesting rainwater, including generous rebates.  Under a 2019 law, rainwater harvesting systems are not included in property tax assessments.

You do not need a permit to install a rainwater catchment system in CA in these situations:

  • Exterior rainwater catchment systems used for outdoor non-spray irrigation with a maximum storage capacity of 5000 gallons where the tank is supported directly upon grade and the ratio of height to diameter or width does not exceed 2 to 1 and it does not require electrical power or a makeup water supply connection.
  • Exterior rainwater catchment systems used for spray irrigation with a maximum storage capacity of 360 gallons.

If you want to use rainwater indoors, install underground rainwater tanks or use pumps, you’ll likely need a permit and need to meet codes.  However, you will have to meet the California Building Standards Code.  The system will need a filtration or disinfection device.

Using Rainwater Indoors

Under California law, it is legal to use rainwater indoors but only for nonpotable uses.  These include using rainwater to flush toilets, washing machines, or air-conditioning systems. You’ll need a permit for the system, which may involve having a health officer come to inspect the system.

You can read the law here.

Also Read:

Sewage and Waste Removal Laws in California

In many areas of California, you will not be able to legally live off-grid because of sewage laws.  The laws vary depending on the county or city but often require you to connect to the municipal sewage line if one is located nearby (usually 160 to 300 feet).   You may get a “notice to connect” even if you have an approved septic system.

Compost Toilets

Even though California law is generally advanced in sustainable systems, the law is still lagging when it comes to compost toilets.  They aren’t mentioned by Water Board as an Onsite Wastewater Treatment System.

Contents of compost toilets are generally defined as “septage.”  Thus, many places allow composting toilets, but only if a licensed hauler hauls off the solids.  You would still be required to have a septic system or connect to the municipal sewer system for all graywater.

Some places in California, such as Kern County, specifically prohibit compost toilets.  Until the California Water Board address the issues, you’ll have to do some detailed research to see if composting toilets are allowed in your area.

Also Read:

Are Outhouses Legal in California?

Throughout most of California, outhouses are usually illegal.  They are generally only allowed in primitive campgrounds or recreational areas.  Most places do not even allow outhouses for seasonal dwellings like cabins.  However, there are some exceptions. For example, Humboldt County does allow outhouses in some rural areas.

Also Read:

Do you live off grid in California? Let us know about your experiences in the comments section below.

https://www.energy.ca.gov/sites/default/files/2021-06/CEC-400-2018-020-CMF_0.pdf
https://www.energy.ca.gov/programs-and-topics/programs/building-energy-efficiency-standards/2019-building-energy-efficiency
https://klinedinstlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/how-title-24-is-keeping-california-connected-to-the-grid.pdf
https://news.energysage.com/an-overview-of-the-california-solar-mandate/
https://library.municode.com/ca/saratoga/codes/code_of_ordinances?nodeId=CH15ZORE_ART15-52SMWIENSY
https://www.cga.ct.gov/2011/rpt/2011-R-0023.htm
https://www.sandiegocounty.gov/content/dam/sdc/pds/zoning/z6000.pdf
https://calmatters.org/environment/2021/08/california-groundwater-dry/
https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/sgma/reporting_and_fees.html
https://up.codes/viewer/california/ca-plumbing-code-2016/chapter/16/nonpotable-rainwater-catchment-systems#16
https://pioneerwatertanksamerica.com/california-property-tax-exemption-for-new-rainwater-systems-in-effect-january-1-2019/
https://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-ca-rainwater-storage-homeowners-taxes-20171107-story.html
https://library.municode.com/ca/riverside/codes/code_of_ordinances?nodeId=PTIICOOR_TIT14PUUT_CH14.08SECOPE
https://www.mswd.org/documents/Information%20on%20Notice%20to%20Connect%20and%20Financial%20Assistance%20Program/Frequently%20Asked%20Questions%20-%20English.pdf
https://kymkemp.com/2019/05/27/shit-talking-humboldt-county-looks-at-adjusting-compost-toilet-rules-amidst-bureaucratic-tangle/
https://humboldt.county.codes/Code/613-5
https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/rwqcb5/board_decisions/tentative_orders/1704/25f_placerco_lamp/placerco_lamp_sewage_man.pdf
https://library.municode.com/ca/del_mar/codes/municipal_code?nodeId=TIT22SESEDI_CH22.20PRTESEDISYSETACE_22.20.020WHUSPRDISYPE

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