Even though it is best known for Chicago, most of Illinois is rural and agricultural. Many people live off grid in the state, including many Amish.
Before you start looking for property, though, make sure you know Illinois’s off-grid laws – it might not be legal to live the type of off grid life you want.
Is Living Off-Grid Legal in Illinois?
Living off grid is legal in Illinois. Because the state has such relaxed laws about building codes, wastewater treatment, and water rights, it is actually one of the best states for living off grid – at least as far as meeting legal requirements go.
You’ll still need to carefully check local laws, though, as some places require you to connect to the municipal water or sewer system.
Illinois Zoning Laws and Off-Grid Living
Local zoning laws ultimately determine what you can legally do on your land. Some of the zoning laws you can expect in Illinois include:
- Building setbacks
- Minimum lot sizes
- Minimum home sizes
- Whether mobile or manufactured homes are allowed
- Permitted businesses
Much of Illinois is rural and has Agricultural zoning. Ag zoning tends to be much more relaxed. In some states (such as Colorado), Ag zoning has sizeable minimum lot sizes, making it very expensive to buy property.
Luckily, this is not the case in most areas of Illinois. Minimum lot sizes tend to be low at around 1 to 3 acres.
Areas without Zoning in Illinois
There are still a lot of counties in Illinois that do not have zoning – especially in the southern part of the state.
While you still have to follow building codes, you are mostly allowed to do whatever you want on your unzoned property in Illinois.
There will be fewer permit requirements as well. The bad news is that your neighbors will also be allowed to do whatever they want, so you could end up with a nuisance next door.
This PDF has a map on page 2 showing zoned and unzoned land in Illinois. It is outdated, so check with the county to ensure they haven’t added zoning laws.
Illinois Right to Farm and Zoning
Illinois has laws that protect the Right to Farm. For example, the Farm Nuisance Act protects farmers from nuisance lawsuits. The law also exempts farms from many zoning restrictions.
Counties are still allowed to create setback limitations for farms. They can also require farms to get permits (but not make them pay for the permits). However, zoning laws cannot regulate the size, location, and design of farms.
To be exempt from the zoning regulations, your property must qualify as a farm. In counties with over 300,000 residents, size is usually the defining factor: a farm must have 5 acres or more and generate more than $1,000 in sales of farm products. In counties with smaller populations, size cannot be used to define a farm.
Read more about the right to farm in Illinois here.
Because so many areas in Illinois do not have zoning laws, the state is friendly toward tiny home living.
However, many areas with zoning do have minimum sizes for dwellings. For example, Livingston County requires 672 square feet on the ground floor. Many places also have restrictions on accessory dwellings. You’ll need to carefully look at your area’s laws to see what is allowed.
Living in a Mobile Home or Manufactured Home
In unzoned areas of Illinois, living in a mobile home or manufactured home is legal. Even in many places with zoning, it is still legal – so long as the home has a permanent foundation, an approved waste treatment system, and a water supply.
Building Codes in Illinois
Illinois is unique because it is one of the only states in America which has not adopted statewide building codes. Instead, it allows local areas to adopt their own codes. The only exception is that all regions of Illinois must follow the State Plumbing Code, Accessibility Code, and Energy Conservation Code.
Many counties have adopted their own building codes. You will likely need a permit and possibly inspections for anything you want to build – even small sheds or decks.
See a list of Illinois local building codes (PDF) here.
Areas without Building Codes in Illinois
Many areas in Illinois have no building codes. Most of these no-building code areas are located in the southern part of the state, with no zoning laws.
If a local government does not adopt any residential codes, it must comply with the 815 ILCS 670-Illinois Residential Building Code Act. This law is amazingly lenient – practically allowing you to build whatever you want.
Part of it reads:
“The home builder and the home purchaser may agree to adopt any municipal residential building code or county residential building code that is in effect on the first day of construction in any county or municipality that is within 100 miles of the location of the new home. If the home builder and the home purchaser fail to agree to a residential building code or if no residential building code is stated in the contract, the plumbing code promulgated by the Illinois Department of Public Health under Section 35 of the Illinois Plumbing License Law, the National Electric Code as adopted by the American National Standards Institute, and the International Residential Code shall, by law, be adopted as part of the construction contract.”
Is Primitive Living Legal in Illinois
Under Illinois law, you are not required to have electricity in your home. Most places (even Chicago) do not require a Certificate of Occupancy, so you can legally live without electricity.
However, all buildings in Illinois meant for human habitation or occupancy must have a wastewater treatment system and a water supply. This requirement does not necessarily mean you can’t live a primitive off-grid lifestyle. You could legally use rainwater, well water, or a stream for your water source.
An outhouse or compost toilet could be used for your waste – though it’s still hard to get around the septic requirement in most places.
Note that some places have their own rules, though – such as requiring you to connect to the municipal sewer or water system. These rules effectively make off-grid living illegal.
Off-Grid Electricity in Illinois
It is legal to live without power in Illinois. If you want solar or wind power, it is straightforward to get a permit (and one might not be required at all). Depending on whether your county has an electrical code in effect, you may be able to install your own off-grid energy system legally too.
Off-Grid Water Laws in Illinois
Illinois is a water-rich state, so you generally should not have trouble getting water for your off-grid property.
State law requires all dwellings to have a water supply, but this can be an off-grid supply such as well water or surface water.
However, some counties require you to connect to the municipal water supply – thus making it illegal to live off grid. These rules aren’t typical, though, especially in rural areas.
Who Owns the Water in Illinois?
The public owns the water in Illinois. However, Illinois recognizes riparian rights: property owners have the right to use water on or next to their property.
For groundwater, Illinois used to follow “absolute ownership” – property owners owned the water underneath them and could use it as they wanted, even if it affected nearby groundwater sources.
The law has been since changed, and landowners are only allowed “reasonable” use of groundwater. In times of shortage, correlative rights apply – the groundwater must be shared based on reasonable need.
Under Illinois riparian law, it is legal to use water on or next to your property – so long as the use does not infringe upon the rights of other riparian users. The use must be “reasonable,” such as for domestic use, irrigating your garden, or watering livestock. You generally do not need a permit.
However, there are many situations where you may need to get a permit to use water on your property. For example, if you want to use water from Lake Michigan, you must first obtain a permit from the OWR. An OWR permit is also required for certain work on Illinois streams or mapped floodways, such as if you want to install a permanent intake structure or create a dam.
Well Water Laws in Illinois
Under Illinois law, you must get a permit to drill a well. The state must license all well drillers, but an exception allows you to drill a well on your own property.
Wells that pump at 70 gallons per minute or greater (100,000 gallons per day) are required to report their water usage.
Rainwater Harvesting Laws in Illinois
Rainwater harvesting is legal in Illinois. However, all rainwater harvesting systems must comply with the State Plumbing Code.
This generally means you can only legally use rainwater for nonpotable outdoor uses, such as irrigating your lawn. If you want to use rainwater indoors for flushing toilets or washing clothes, you will have to meet stricter requirements for nonpotable water.
Sewage and Waste Removal Laws in Illinois
Illinois has some of the most relaxed laws in the country regarding on-site wastewater treatment. The state law allows many types of off-grid systems. However, local governments often have stricter rules which make specific systems illegal. Some areas even require you to connect to the municipal sewer system if it is located nearby, thus making it illegal to be 100% off grid.
In most cases, you will be required to have septic as your off-grid waste disposal method. Licensed installers must install all septic systems, and you will need a permit.
Compost toilets are legal in Illinois. They must comply with NSF/ANSI Standard 41. You are even allowed to apply waste from the compost toilet to the ground, so long as you meet specific criteria.
You probably won’t be able to use just a compost toilet, though. The law stipulates that you must use a “conventional system” for other domestic wastes – which means septic. It might be possible to use a graywater system for other wastewater, but it will be up to your local health inspector to approve the system or not.
This usually means having a septic system, although it might be possible to use a greywater system. The Illinois Plumbing Code doesn’t set specific standards for this, so it can ultimately be up to your local health inspector whether your system gets approval.
Are Outhouses Legal in Illinois?
Outhouses – including pit and vault privies – are legal in Illinois. However, the law stipulates that you must have a conventional system for disposing of other household wastes. This almost always means septic. You’ll be able to have your septic requirements reduced if you use an outhouse, though.
Graywater Recycling Laws
The Illinois State Plumbing Code does not currently address graywater reuse and recycling systems. This can make it hard to get approval for your system, as it will be up to the local health inspector to issue the permit or not.
If you want to use wastewater for irrigating your yard, you will need to meet the Section 905.120 requirements, which say that,
“the effluent from any new, repaired or replaced private sewage disposal system that is designed and approved to have a discharge point shall be disinfected prior to discharge.”