Want to live more sustainably in Massachusetts? Before you disconnect from the utilities, here is what you need to know about Massachusetts’s off-grid laws. It might not be legal to live the type of off grid life you want in the state.
Is Living Off-Grid Legal in Massachusetts?
Living off grid in Massachusetts is sometimes legal. Many areas require you to connect to the municipal sewer and/or water system, thus making it illegal to live 100% off grid. State and local codes can also make it very difficult or illegal to use certain off-grid systems such as compost toilets or to live a primitive type of life without electricity.
Building Codes in Massachusetts
All homes in Massachusetts must meet the State Building Code. This code is based on the following international codes:
- The International Building Code (IBC);
- International Residential Code (IRC);
- International Existing Building Code (IEBC);
- International Mechanical Code (IMC);
- International Energy Conservation Code (IECC);
- International Swimming Pool and Spa Code (ISPSC); and
- Portions of the International Fire Code (IFC).
While nothing in these codes specifically makes off-grid living illegal, they can make it difficult to legally use some alternative systems or building materials.
Massachusetts Zoning Laws and Off-Grid Living
Counties, towns, and cities in Massachusetts have their own zoning laws. These zoning laws dictate what you can legally do on your property, such as whether you can raise chickens, have accessory buildings, or even have private well water. You’ll need to look up local zoning laws carefully to see what is allowed. In general, areas zoned as “Agricultural” have the least restrictions.
Living in a Manufactured Home
Because of strict zoning laws, living in a manufactured home on wheels is usually illegal throughout Massachusetts. You will most likely need to put the home on a permanent foundation and connect it to utilities. Even then, some zoning laws might only allow your home in certain zones.
Tiny Home Laws in Massachusetts
Living in a tiny home is mostly legal in Massachusetts. In 2020, the state enacted Appendix Q of the International Residential Code, which sets standards for homes less than 400 square feet in size.
However, some areas in MA have zoning laws that set minimum dwelling sizes. For example, Holliston zoning laws require dwellings to be at least 500 to 768 square feet in size, depending on the zone.
Even if the county has no minimum dwelling size, there are probably minimum lot sizes. Since land is so expensive in Massachusetts, getting enough land for your tiny home can be costly. Zoning laws are generally very strict about allowing accessory dwelling units (ADUs), so you might be unable to put a tiny home on your existing property legally.
Off-Grid Electricity in Massachusetts
Off-grid electricity is legal in Massachusetts. Getting a permit for solar power systems is generally easy, though you will still need to follow all the regulations under the State Building Code and use a licensed electrician. Zoning regulations make it much more challenging to use wind power.
While off-grid power is legal, it might be illegal not to have any power in your home at all. Parts of the International Residential Code, for example, require a certain number of electrical outlets in dwellings.
Further, many places in Massachusetts require you to get a Certificate of Occupancy before you can live in a building – a process that requires final inspectors. The inspector might not issue your certificate if you have no electricity. Thus, living a primitive type of off-grid life in Massachusetts can be illegal.
Off-Grid Water Laws in Massachusetts
Even though Massachusetts is a water-rich state, using off-grid water on your property may not be easy. Local laws can make it illegal to drill wells in certain situations, and state regulations make it very difficult to use greywater or rainwater indoors legally.
Who Owns the Water in Massachusetts?
The public owns navigable water in Massachusetts. However, Massachusetts recognizes riparian rights: property owners are allowed reasonable use of water on or next to their property, so long as that use doesn’t infringe on other riparian rights.
Water Use Permits
Massachusetts enacted the Water Management Act in 1986. Under this act, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) can regulate water withdrawals. Under their rules, you need a water-use permit if you use an average of 100,000 gallons per day for three consecutive months of the year or use 9 million unregistered gallons over a three-month period. Otherwise, you are allowed to withdraw water without a permit.
You may still be required to get a permit to construct dams, alter stream flow, or withdraw water from wetlands or protected areas. Local construction permits may also apply.
Well Water Laws in Massachusetts
A registered well driller must drill all wells in Massachusetts. Despite this requirement, though, Massachusetts has no statewide regulations on private wells. Instead, it is up to local health departments to regulate wells. The rules vary, but you can expect a complex permitting process and inspections. Some areas require well water to be tested.
Note that many counties have combined water and sewer departments. Since many of these counties require you to connect to the municipal sewer system if it is located nearby, you are thus also required to connect to the municipal water system.
Further complicating things, some of these counties (such as Mendon) do not allow you to have municipal water and a private well at the same time. This could make it illegal to have your own off-grid water source in Massachusetts.
Rainwater Harvesting Laws in Massachusetts
Rainwater harvesting is legal in Massachusetts, and the state even encourages it. Some localities distribute rain barrels or have incentives for harvesting rainwater. Using rainwater for nonpotable outdoor uses like watering your yard is legal. However, if you want to use rainwater indoors – even for things like flushing toilets – you will have a hard time doing so legally.
The State Plumbing Code and Building Code do not currently address rainwater harvesting. This means that rainwater systems usually must meet the strict greywater regulations, which would make it difficult and expensive to use rainwater indoors.
Sewage and Waste Removal Laws in Massachusetts
If you want an off-grid wastewater system on your property in Massachusetts, it may not be possible. Many areas (such as Milton, West Boylston, and Franklin) require you to connect to the municipal sewer system, thus making it illegal to use off-grid systems.
If you aren’t required to connect, you will most likely need to install septic and go through the state’s rigorous permitting process.
The rules about on-site wastewater systems can be found in 310 CMR 15: State Environmental Code, Title 5. This includes the laws about greywater systems, compost toilets, and alternative systems.
In 2016, Massachusetts updated its laws to allow compost toilets. However, legally using a compost toilet in MA will not be easy. You must use an approved model and get approval from the local health authority.
You’ll also need to use an approved method for disposing of solids and liquids from the compost toilet.
Solids must remain in a chamber for at least two years and then be buried on-site or hauled by a licensed septage hauler. Liquids from compost toilets must go in a greywater system which includes septic or stored and hauled away.
You can use “alternate” methods, but only if you get approved by the DEP. You will need to have a plan for disposing of greywater from your home. This is usually going to mean septic.
On top of that, many towns have laws that prohibit compost toilets. For example, Lynnfield requires flush toilets in all homes.
Are Outhouses Legal in Massachusetts?
Outhouses, including pit and vault privies, are illegal in Massachusetts. They are considered “nonconforming systems” under the code. In addition, many towns expressly forbid privies in their local codes.
Greywater Recycling Laws
Under Massachusetts law, greywater is any domestic wastewater that does not come from toilets, urinals, or drains with garbage grinders. This definition is fairly lenient: many states consider wastewater from sinks and laundry machines to be blackwater.
While the laws are improving, Massachusetts still does not make it easy to reuse or recycle greywater. The plumbing code states that water recycling is prohibited unless you get special permission. Even if you get consent, you’ll still find it nearly impossible to reuse water for things like flushing toilets legally.
Wood Heaters and Stoves Laws
Using a wood heater or stove in Massachusetts is legal, but you must get a permit first. A local inspector will come to check whether it adheres to the State Building Code. Learn more about the laws here.
Do you live off grid in Massachusetts? Let us know about your experiences in the comments section below.