Minnesota is known for its abundance of natural resources and there is a growing movement of people living off-grid there. But, before you start dreaming about a self-sufficient life in the state, make sure you know the rules about whether it is legal to live off-grid in Minnesota.
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Is Living Off-Grid Legal in Minnesota?
Minnesota law is generally very favorable towards off-grid living. However, there are many regulations that might prevent you from using your property how you want, especially if you have high water needs or live in a wetlands area.
Because the law requires you to connect to public sewer lines if one is located nearby, it could even be illegal for you to go completely off-grid.
Minnesota Zoning Laws and Off-Grid Living
Even if Minnesota State law allows something, it does not mean that it is legal in your county or city. Many areas, especially those near tourist destinations or protected waters, have very strict zoning rules. Don’t be surprised if it is illegal for you to do things on your property like live in an RV, raise livestock, build an outhouse or install wind power systems.
As with most states, land zoned as “rural” tends to be the most relaxed in regards to off-grid living laws. You’ll have to research your area’s zoning laws carefully though because the laws can differ drastically, even between rural-zoned areas.
You might also find it useful to read: How to Get a Homestead Declaration
Off-Grid Electricity in Minnesota
Minnesota has many incentives for switching to solar, including exempting solar equipment from state sales tax and programs that pay you based on performance.
However, if you want to stay grid-tied, some utilities charge you a fee just for remaining connected – even if you produce your own electricity. There are also controversial Solar Tariffs that would give solar customers less money for their extra power.
Minnesota has very favorable laws when it comes to off-grid micro-hydro systems. No permit is required for systems that produce less than 100kW of power, so long as they don’t pose a safety threat or are detrimental to wildlife.
If you need to divert water for your hydro system though, then you will need a permit from the DNR.
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Water is one of Minnesota’s main resources and the State highly regulates its use. Even if you have water on your property, it may not be legal in Minnesota to use it in certain ways. You’ll especially find it difficult to use water in wetlands or infested waters.
Read more about Minnesota water laws here.
Do I Need a Permit to Use Water in Minnesota?
Regardless of where the water comes from, you will need to get a water-use permit if you use more than 10,000 gallons per day or 1 million gallons per year. You’ll also need a permit for withdrawals from infested waters. Permits are issued by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. You can find more information on the DNR website.
Over 800 of Minnesota’s lakes are considered “infested waters.” You will need a permit to withdraw any amount of water from infested waters. This permit is separate from the use permit; you will need to get it even when withdrawing small amounts of water that don’t require a use permit. The permit is free and available through the DNR Invasive Species Program.
Who Owns the Water in Minnesota?
In Minnesota, the State owns all navigable waters and the land to a point below the “ordinary low water mark.” Non-navigable waters which have meandered are also owned by the State; the adjoining landowners own the bed of the water.
Waters that are non-navigable and non-meandered are owned by the property owner. These waters won’t appear on government land surveys.
Can You Use Water on Your Property in Minnesota?
Minnesota follows riparian water rights: you are free to use the water on your property so long as it does not negatively affect the water rights of other riparian rights holders. However, there are many restrictions on how you can use this water.
You will need a water-use permit from the DNR if you plan on using more than 10,000 gallons of water per day or 1 million gallons per year. You are not able to use more than one-half acre-foot per acre per year from lakes. There are also restrictions on diverting water, creating ponds or using water in wetlands.
Diverting Water on Your Property
It is generally illegal to divert water from a stream or lake in Minnesota, even if the stream or lake is on your property. However, there are some loopholes in the law that might make this legal.
For example, the law allows you to drain public waters so long as you replace the water with waters “that will have equal or greater public value.” You are also allowed to divert water for drainage purposes, as outlined here.
Can I Build a Pond on My Property in Minnesota?
It is sometimes legal to build ponds on your property in Minnesota. The law allows stormwater ponds, but there are very strict rules about construction and design.
Excavation is highly regulated on wetlands, so many ponds would be illegal (see rules here). However, excavation on wetlands is allowed if “the functional value of the altered wetland is higher than the pre-existing condition.”
Permits Required for Wells
Under Minnesota law, any well withdrawing more than 10,000 gallons per day or 1 million gallons per year must have a preliminary assessment before drilling. After the assessment, they will also need to get a water-use permit from the DNR.
The law defines wells that are capable of withdrawing more than 100,000 gallons per day as “high capacity. These wells need approval before drilling, regardless of whether they require a water use permit. The law also requires owners of high-capacity wells to submit a pumping report to the DNR each year.
Wells which withdraw less than 10,000 gallons per day or 1 million gallons per year do not need to get a water-use permit. However, you still must report the well to the DNR. When buying or selling a property, the well must be disclosed and transferred to the new owner.
Can I Dig My Own Well in Minnesota?
Minnesota law requires anyone who works on a well to be licensed by the Minnesota Department of Health. There are licenses for specific well-related work, such as pumps or sealing. However, the law does allow people to build wells on their own property so long as the well is used for domestic or agricultural uses.
New wells in Minnesota must be tested for coliform bacteria, nitrate and arsenic. Testing must be done by a certified laboratory. You can find a list of certified labs here.
Wells Going Dry
Minnesota law prioritizes domestic water use. The law outlines a series of steps that you can take if your well goes dry because neighbors are pumping large amounts of water. You’ll need to submit a complaint and the DNR will investigate. Read more here.
Rainwater Harvesting in Minnesota
Rainwater harvesting is legal in Minnesota. It’s encouraged by the government and many major organizations in Minnesota already collect rainwater. For example, the St. Paul’s Lowertown Ball Park and a residence hall at the University of Minnesota use rainwater for flushing toilets.
You are allowed to collect rainwater in barrels, cisterns, holding tanks, ponds, or basins. However, you are only allowed to collect rainwater from roofs and must meet the standards laid out in the Minnesota Plumbing Code.
You generally don’t need a permit for rainwater systems that will only be used outdoors. However, if you want to use the water indoors you will need to get a permit and follow strict guidelines, especially about water quality.
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Off Grid Sewage and Waste Removal in Minnesota
Minnesota has a lot of shorelands, wetlands, and clay soil. Because of this, the onsite sewage rules in Minnesota are fairly strict. While alternative systems are allowed, there are many rules and regulations to follow.
Onsite waste is handled by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Their website is surprisingly well-organized and informative (I’ve looked at a lot of state websites and many are a complete mess). Visit it here.
Do I Have to Hook Up to the Municipal Sewage System?
Minnesota law states that all premises must hook up to the municipal sewer if one is located in a nearby street or alley. Unlike other states with this requirement, they don’t define what “nearby” means.
However, the law does allow homes to go off-grid if their system gets a permit from the local authorities. There’s no guarantee that the local government unit will permit your system, thus making it illegal to go completely off-grid in some parts of MN.
Septic Systems in Minnesota
Septic is the default off-grid sewage treatment system in MN. Even if you use an alternative system like a compost toilet, your home will probably still be required to use septic. The State requires septic systems to be pumped every three years by a licensed pumper.
How Much Does a Septic System Cost in MN?
An EPA report put the cost of septic in MN at $4,000 for a gravity trench system and $6,500 to $12,000 for mound systems with pumps. Other accounts put the cost of mound systems at $12,000 to $15,000. If soil conditions make drainage difficult and special pretreatment systems are needed, the costs can be even higher.
Because of how expensive it can be to install septic in Minnesota (especially near the shore or in wetlands), you should meet with a septic expert before buying any property. The government does have grants and loans for low-income residents to fix failing septic systems, but this financial aid is only available for existing septic and not new construction.
Can I Build My Own Septic System in MN?
Under Minnesota state law, all subsurface sewage treatment systems (SSTS) must be designed and constructed by a licensed individual. Getting licensed requires training, exams, related experience, continuing education, and renewal every three years. Because the licensing process is so stringent, it doesn’t make sense to get licensed just to work on your own septic system.
Compost Toilets and Other Alternative Toilets
Alternative toilets are legal in Minnesota, including composting, incinerating, biological, recirculating, and holding toilets. In areas with soil unsuitable for conventional septic systems, these alternative toilets are even required as a pretreatment method. If your home has running water though, you’ll need septic in addition to your alternative toilet.
The law does not set any specifications for composting toilets, which means you have some more flexibility in choosing your system. However, without specific regulations, it means that it is ultimately up to the local county whether they want to issue a permit for your system. Composting toilets are becoming more popular but don’t be surprised if your permit application is denied anyway.
Outhouses are legal in Minnesota. You will need to get a permit first though, which may not be approved except in very rural areas. There are very specific rules laid out in Chapter 7080.2280 about outhouse design, location, maintenance, and soil conditions. If you cannot meet certain requirements, then you’ll only be allowed to have a watertight outhouse and need to have it periodically pumped out.
While graywater recycling is legal in Minnesota, getting a permit for a system can be very difficult. There are very strict regulations laid out in Chapter 7080.2240 about how the system must be designed.
However, because these technical specifications are actually laid out in State law, it will be easier to have your system approved on a local level – even if the local permitting authority isn’t familiar with graywater systems.
Do you live off-grid in Minnesota? Let us know about your experiences with regulations in the comments section below.