Are you thinking of buying property in Iowa to start living off the grid? While many things make Iowa great for a self-sufficient life, make sure you first understand the off-grid laws. You might find that the type of life you want to lead is illegal in Iowa.
Is Living Off-Grid Legal in Iowa?
Off grid living is usually legal in Iowa. However, some sewer rules in towns and cities may make it illegal to go completely off grid. You may also come across many legal obstacles when it comes to zoning laws and building codes.
Iowa Zoning Laws and Off-Grid Living
Counties and cities in Iowa divided the land into zones. Each zone has its own rules about what is prohibited. These zoning laws may make it difficult or illegal to live the type of off grid life you want. In general, land zoned for Agricultural (AG) or Rural-Residential (RR) has the least restrictions.
Even in AG or RR zones, you may come across restrictions. For example, Oskaloosa County rules prohibit the number of animals you are allowed to have on RR land:
“Any lot of two acres and over may keep one horse, llama, or other equine and/or hoofed animal and its immature offspring. Such a lot may have one additional animal for each additional two acres of lot area, up to a maximum total of three animals.”
If you were hoping to buy a small parcel of land for your off-grid property, you might discover that it’s illegal under zoning rules. For example, Clinton County requires a minimum of 40 acres per dwelling in Agricultural zones. By contrast, you are only required to have 2 acres per dwelling on Rural-zoned land.
Agricultural and Farming Exemptions
Under Iowa State Code 335.2, local zoning laws do not apply to:
“land, farmhouses, farm barns, farm outbuildings or other buildings or structures which are primarily adapted, by reason of nature and area, for use for agricultural purposes, while so used.”
HF 2512 recently modified this law. It states,
“A county shall not require an application, an approval, or the payment of a fee in order for an ordinance to be deemed inapplicable to land, farm barns, farm outbuildings, or other buildings or structures that are primarily adapted for use for agricultural purposes under this section.”
While this does mean that farmers should be exempt from any zoning restrictions, there are still some gray areas. You can read more details about the law here.
Building Codes in Iowa
Iowa has numerous codes that apply to all buildings in the State. While none of these codes specifically prohibit off-grid living, they can make certain types of buildings or systems illegal. For example, you may not be able to use the wood stove you want or build with experimental materials.
The following codes are currently used in Iowa:
- 2015 International Building Code
- 2015 International Fire Code
- 2015 International Residential Code
- 2012 International Energy Conservation Code
- 2015 International Existing Building Code
- State Mechanical Code
- State Plumbing Code
- State Electrical Code
- 2012 NFPA 101 Life Safety Code
- 2010 Americans with Disabilities Act
- Smoke Alarms/Detectors as adopted by Iowa Administrative Rule 661-210(effective July 1, 2021)
- Carbon Monoxide Alarms as adopted by Iowa Administrative Rule 661-211
In many areas of Iowa, these codes are strictly enforced. You will likely need to get a permit for your home, which can involve submitting plans. Alternative systems might need to be reviewed or designed by an engineer. An inspection may be required (which can come with steep fees) before getting a Certificate of Occupancy.
If you want to live in an off-grid tiny home in Iowa, you may find it is illegal. Many local zoning laws have minimum size requirements for homes. Some counties are changing their rules to allow tiny homes, but the change is slow in coming across the State.
Mobile and Manufactured Homes
Like most states, Iowa is not very friendly towards living in a mobile or manufactured home. The first issue you’ll come across is zoning laws. Many places only allow mobile or manufactured homes in specific zones. These zones are generally very tiny, and the land may have already been purchased by parks which charge steep rental fees.
Some Agricultural-zoned land in Iowa does not specifically prohibit mobile or manufactured homes. However, these homes often don’t meet minimum size requirements and thus would be considered illegal.
Off-Grid Electricity Laws in Iowa
Off-grid electricity is legal in Iowa, and there are no laws prohibiting you from disconnecting from the electric grid. However, numerous regulations apply to off-grid power in Iowa. Zoning laws are usually very friendly towards solar power.
Your off-grid power system must meet all building codes adopted by the State. Note that the International Residential Code (IRC) covers Certificates of Occupancy (COA). Theoretically, the county might not issue you a COA if your home doesn’t have any power at all. I’m not aware of any cases where this occurred in Iowa, but people have had issues getting a COA for their off-grid homes in other states that use the IRC.
Wind Power Laws in Iowa
Many counties in Iowa now have specific rules about wind energy systems. You will be required to get a building permit and meet fairly strict rules about setbacks, height, and noise levels.
In places where the local law doesn’t address wind turbines specifically, you’ll likely need to apply for a conditional use permit and may need to have a hearing before the zoning board. The entire process can take weeks, if not months, to complete.
Can I install my own off-grid electricity system in Iowa?
In most cases, you cannot do your own electrical work in Iowa. All electrical work, especially on new homes, must be done by a certified electrician. However, there are these exemptions:
- Homeowners: If the home qualifies for the Homestead Exemption, homeowners can do electrical work on their primary residence and accessory buildings that are no larger than 3,000 square feet. The exemption does not apply to new homes and certain types of property.
- Farmers: The same rules as for homeowners except that they are not limited to 3,000 square feet.
Read more details here.
Even if you meet these exemption requirements, you will still be required to get a permit for electrical work. If you do not get a permit for electrical work, your home will not get a Certificate of Occupancy.
Read more about homesteading in Iowa
Off-Grid Water Laws in Iowa
All water in Iowa is considered a “public wealth.” You do not own the water on or under your land, but you are allowed to put it to “beneficial use.” The State controls water use through permits.
In deciding who has rights to use water, Iowa uses a combination of riparian rights and the doctrine of Appropriation. This essentially means that riparian landowners can prohibit non-riparian neighbors from taking the water. When there are multiple riparian owners and a limited water supply, then the oldest users get priority.
There are some exceptions where older water users will not get priority. When allocation decisions are made, water for human consumption and domestic livestock use always gets priority. Read more about Iowa water rights law here.
In Iowa, it is generally legal to use water from creeks or streams on or next to your property. If you use more than 25,000 gallons of water in any 24 hour period during the year, you will need a water use permit.
However, the laws about surface water use can get complicated. For example, if your water use diminishes the water supply of a downstream neighbor who has water rights, you may not be allowed to use the water. Likewise, the law is written to preserve instream flow and lake levels. You can learn more here.
Digging a Pond on Your Property
It is usually legal to build a pond on your property in Iowa. If you want to build a large pond by diverting water from a stream, you may need a dam construction permit. You can learn more about pond design rules in Iowa here.
You will need a permit to dig a well in Iowa. Wells which serve fewer than 25 people or have fewer than 15 water service connections are considered “private.” Local county environmental health offices issue private well permits.
It is legal to dig your own well, but only if it is on your own property and you are the well owner. Otherwise, the law requires that Certified Well Contractors dig wells.
You do not need a water use permit for private wells in Iowa so long as you pump less than 25,000 gallons per day. All well owners are required to test the water after the well is put into service. The test must be submitted to the administrative authority. Learn more about well laws in Iowa here.
Rainwater harvesting is legal in Iowa. The State actively encourages rainwater harvesting through the Iowa Stormwater Education Partnership. Many cities and towns in Iowa also have cost-share programs that help cover the cost of rain barrels and cisterns. Learn more here.
While there aren’t any laws that specifically cover rainwater captured for outdoor use, many laws prohibit how you can use it indoors. You’ll need to meet all rules for non-potable water under the International Building Code.
These laws can make it incredibly expensive and difficult to use rainwater indoors, even for things like flushing toilets. You may also need a permit if you want to capture rainwater in large cisterns or underground tanks.
Sewage Removal Laws
Iowa law is particularly strict in regards to sewage removal. In many counties, you will be required to hook up to the municipal sewer system is available. This effectively makes it illegal to go completely off grid in many areas of Iowa.
If you aren’t connected to the sewer system, you will need to install a septic tank. There are very few exceptions to this rule.
You can read the full Iowa onsite waste treatment laws here.
Can I install my own septic tank in Iowa?
Yes, it is legal to install your own septic system in Iowa. However, some counties may have certification or training requirements. You will need to get a permit first from the Department of Natural Resources.
Note that Iowa does require all septic systems to be inspected before a home can be sold or the deed transferred. These inspections must be done by a certified Time of Transfer inspector.
Using a compost toilet in Iowa is usually illegal. The law does not address compost toilets specifically but rather mentions waterless toilets and portable toilets.
These are approved only in very low use situations such as cabins or temporary campgrounds. Even then, the waste from these toilets – including urine — must be disposed of at an approved wastewater treatment facility. The law also allows “alternative systems,” but these must be approved on a case-by-case basis.
If you also had an approved septic system on your property, you could theoretically get away with using a compost toilet without getting into legal trouble. However, the law states that you need a permit for all sewage treatment systems. So using a compost toilet without a permit would be illegal.
Are outhouses legal in Iowa?
Outhouses are illegal in Iowa. The law states that
“Every private sewage disposal system shall have as a primary treatment unit a septic tank” and “All wastewater from the facility serviced shall discharge into the septic tank.”
Despite this law, there are still many outhouses in rural areas of Iowa. Many county and city laws also mention outhouses in regards to setbacks. This is fairly confusing as local law should never be more relaxed than State law. If you use an outhouse on your property in Iowa, you could face code violations.
Do you live off grid in Iowa? Let us know your experiences in the comments section below.