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.
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 can legally 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 from 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.
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.
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.
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.
Do you live off grid in California? Let us know about your experiences in the comments section below.
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Does California allow you to truck in potable water to your off-grid house? How do I find out the storage and filtration requirements?
Lots of people rely on water delivery services. The laws you want to look for are for “water storage tanks” or “underground water storage”. There are usually very strict laws about the size of the tanks, load bearing, etc.
How do the fire sprinkler system laws for new construction apply in off grid living? I can’t imagine pressurizing a sprinkler system off grid!!
In some situations, CA requires you to have a sprinkler system. For example, if your off-grid home is also a business or has multiple families living there, you might be required to have one. The laws are crazy complex though, so you’ll likely need a lawyer to help you dig through legalities in some cases. 🙁
In Calaveras County we have a client who is completely Off-Grid with a Luxury 4,000sf home with Well, Septic, Solar, 3 air conditioners, Sprinkler system and Pool. Also is propane dependent.
Granted the solar system was only justified by the cost of shore power being over $150,000 to bring to the property line.
To sum it up, anything is possible if you have the means.
You may check out: Limited Density Owner Built Rural Residential Dwelling laws in Calaveras County for more information on what is possible on specifically zoned parcels within the County.
Can you share the company that put together the Off grid system. This is something we are looking for. Thanks
Do you know if it is possible to have part of your solar system grid tied and the other panels off-grid? We have one established system and would like to get additional panels no need to send excess back to the grid and get involved with the ever restrictive and non-beneficial electric company.
Yes, that is definitely possibble. Though, depending on your budget, it might make more sense to just get some power stations and solar panels that you can connect to them. That should handle basic needs during a power outage and you won’t have to deal with inspections, permits, etc. Or disconnect your entire system from the grid if you can afford to have a system large enough to meet all of your requirements.
In 2019, my proposal to use captured rainwater for toilet flushing in a new coastal home took Sonoma County completely by surprise. Water supply being in very short supply in the area, I was amazed that there was no building department experience to rely upon. They approved a parallel purple pipe system to each toilet on the building plans, and no other permit was required. Three 5,000-gallon tanks were approved, to serve that flushing use, landscape irrigation, a private fire hydrant (at considerable savings to paying for a water district hydrant), and an emergency-use rooftop ember-suppression spray system. (The plans included a solar carport and battery system, with the expensive PG&E trenched connection optional).
That’s pretty amazing. I’m thinking of buying land for an off-grid property. Was it difficult to work with them?
California uses IAPMO plumbing standards. IAPMO offers a supplement https://www.iapmo.org/green-plumbing-and-mechanical-code-supplement/ that allows for site-built compost toilet systems (similar to Joseph Jenkins’s “humanure” systems). IAPMO’s green supplement has been used to approve compost toilet systems in at least one major US city.
The supplemental code is also known as WE-STAND, which stands for the Water Efficiency and Sanitation Standard for the Built Environment.
Thank you for the info!
Humboldt county ca does not allow outhouses anywhere. Its almost impossible to permit an electric composting toilet.
The law says that they are allowed in certain circumstances – But the conditions are so strict that it might as well be illegal.
“California is one of the best states for solar power”.
Not for long, if the CPUC (California Public Utilities Commission) has it’s way they will turn back California’s solar progress 50 year, wipe out thousands if not tens of thousands of jobs and slap those of us that have invested in solar in the face. They are making it impossible to ever get you investment back in energy saving and sent back to the grid. They want to add a tax to new solar which will pretty much stop residential solar in it’s tracks AND RETROACTIVELY APPLY THAT TAX TO THOSE OF US THAT HAVE INVESTED IN SOLAR FOR OUR HOMES. Incase you didn’t know, the P in CPUC is not in public the public’s interest, quite the contrary, they are in bed with the power companies and have little to no concern for the public, only the power company’s interest.
I’ve been living off grid full time in Slab City CA for the last 3 years (I’m into my 4th summer now). As far as water, a delivery business located in Slabs supplies the town with water from the next town over, for a reasonable price. Most people do solar here(other option is a generator), which during summer months can allow you to have endless power if need be. Enough to run A.C., fans, a small fridge, and other power needs.
It does get hot here. The summer temps are no joke. It’s 100% doable, however. I’ve seen it reach 130° here, but that’s rare. August tends to be between 110 to 120.
It doesn’t snow here, and it’s rare that it reaches freezing temps even in the middle of winter. 50°-70° is usually the average high through winter.
There are no building codes, or permits required. Pretty much as long as you don’t give the state/county a reason to look into your activity, they won’t. It’s actually disheartening to read about all the restrictions that are in place for off grid living in other parts of the state.
Im thinking of buying 5 acres in ideally Landers, twentynine palms or wonder valley ca. The more remote the better, anyway i was hoping to pour a slab and slide in some containers to store my bikes and off road stuff in. I was thinking 2 20′ and maybe a 40′ in the shape of a u. The plan would be to have a seasonal cabin and visit it a couple of times a year. I have sucessfully made a solar shower and bio digester and 100watt solar system here at my home in vista. The plan would be to move all this stuff up there and make one of the storage boxes habital with insulation ect. Do you all think this is possible or would i be hounded on code laws ect. It looks like some people drag an old motor home up there and that seems to screen outhouses and such. I dont like this idea as it seems tacky. I just want peace and quiet and not be bothered by anyone.
I live in landers and there’s no way you’ll get that permitted. Don’t do it!
I’m just curious about no wood burning fireplaces or stoves. What if you live in Northern California and get snow? How are you supposed to hear your home all winter? Up here in Oregon the wood burning stove is an off grid staple. I thought perhaps you were allowed to have one in CA if it’s your sole source of heat. Would love to move back to CA and homestead at some point but the laws there make it so hard to build off grid and I imagine pretty expensive for the permitting.
ive lived in several counties in northern California and still currently live here, woodstoves are very common around here and im pretty sure you dont need a permit to put one in, ive had several and i have one in my school bus. Ive lived off grid here for 14 years, ive never had any problems with laws or permits. I think theyre more strict closer to the big cities.
San Bernardino is cracking down on exactly this type of living situation. I would read more about alt structures in the area. You have the right to camp on your land 4 days a month.
Is that just for the county or CA state-wide?
I want to build my own self-sufficient house on a piece of land in center or northern California but to have a septic tank installed cost at of money. Does anyone know of a county other than Humboldt County that will allow a composting toilet instead of a septic tank? I have a very small budget for the land and build.
Hi I am looking to put in an off the grid Solar system to run the water pump on our well. This is a bare piece of land in Temecula ( Southern California). Does anyone know of a company that installs of the grid solar systems like this?