Nebraska Off Grid Laws: An In-Depth Guide

Interested in buying property in Nebraska to live off grid? Or maybe you want to disconnect your current property from the utilities. Before you do, here’s what you need to know about Nebraska off grid laws.

Is Off-Grid Living Legal in Nebraska?

There are no state laws that make off-grid living illegal in Nebraska.  Some areas may have local laws which require you to connect to the municipal sewer system but, other than this, it is completely legal to live off grid in Nebraska.  This doesn’t mean you won’t have to adhere to state and local building codes and zoning laws though.

Building Codes in Nebraska

Nebraska uses the following statewide building codes:

  • International Building Code (IBC), 2018 (with amendments)
  • International Existing Building Code, 2018
  • International Residential Code (IRC), 2018 (with amendments)
  • Uniform Plumbing Code, 2018
  • International Energy Conservation Code, 2018
  • National Electrical Code (NFPA 70), 2017 (with amendments)
  • Nebraska State Fire Code

However, the law allows local counties to use their own version of building codes so long as they “generally conform with the state building code.”  Counties that don’t adopt their own building codes are required to use the state building codes.

See the building code laws in Nebraska Revised Statute 71-6403.

Zoning Laws in Nebraska

Each county in Nebraska has its own zoning laws.  These zoning laws can vary drastically.  In general, land zoned as Agricultural has the fewest restrictions on how you can use it. In AG zones, you are generally allowed to have livestock, home businesses, and accessory buildings. 

Pay attention to what the minimum land parcel size is for the zone.  In some AG zones, you must have a minimum of 20 acres of land (which means you couldn’t sell some of the land later).  In most AG areas though, the minimum parcel size is only around 3 acres.

Tiny Home Laws

Nebraska isn’t the friendliest state when it comes to tiny homes.  Many counties have set minimum home sizes in their zoning laws.  For example, La Vista requires at least 900 square feet of floor area on single-floor homes.

The state also has laws about how tiny homes and modular homes must be built.  These are found in Section 71-1557 of the Nebraska revised Statutes.

Mobile Home Laws

Like in most other states, living in a mobile home or RV in Nebraska legally is difficult.  Most areas have zoning laws that prohibit mobile homes or only allow them in special zones. To live in one legally, you will likely need to put it on a permanent foundation and connect to utilities. 

Off-Grid Electricity Laws in Nebraska

Having off-grid electricity is legal in Nebraska.  You will need to meet the county’s electrical codes.  You’ll also need to get a permit for your system.  It is usually legal to install your own electrical system though, so you don’t have to use a licensed contractor.  More on that law here.

One good thing about Nebraska is that local zoning laws usually specifically mention wind power.  This isn’t the case in many other states, meaning that wind power exists in a legal gray zone and you would have to apply to the local zoning board for conditional approval (a process that can be long and annoying). 

The zoning laws about which types of turbines are allowed, setbacks, etc. are usually very clear in Nebraska, making it easier to get your system approved.

Off-Grid Water Laws in Nebraska

Even though Nebraska has a lot of natural waterways, it is a drought-prone state.  Because of that, water use is highly regulated in the state by the Department of Natural Resources. In some areas, it might be difficult or impossible to get a permit to use water — even water on your own property.  Visit the Nebraska DNR for more info.

Required to Have Water

Under Nebraska’s Residential Code, dwelling units are required to have “potable water in the amounts and pressures specified.” This essentially makes it illegal to live a primitive off-grid lifestyle in Nebraska. Your home could end up condemned if you don’t have running water. 

Who Owns the Water in Nebraska?

All water in Nebraska is owned by the public and is dedicated to the use of the people of the state. The Nebraska Department of Natural Resources regulates who is allowed to use the water by issuing permits.  

Water Rights Permits in Nebraska 

In determining who has rights to use water, Nebraska uses the Appropriative “First in time, first in right” rule: whoever was granted rights first has priority over other water rights holders.  In times of drought, for example, priority rights holders will get their full appropriation before others get their water.

Nebraska also uses the “use it or lose it” rule for water rights.  If you do not put the water to beneficial use at least once every five years, you can lose your rights to it. The process is called adjudication and involves a court hearing.

Fully Appropriated Areas

Many areas of Nebraska are considered “fully appropriated”.  In these areas, new surface water rights are banned as well as rights for new high-capacity wells.  Because so much of Nebraska is already considered fully appropriated, it’s important that you check this before buying any land or you might not be able to use surface water  (even surface water on or next to the property!).

Well Water Laws

Even though much of Nebraska is under drought, it is still easy to get a well in the state.  You do not need a permit for test holes, domestic wells, or wells for range livestock. 

For other wells, you will need to get a permit from the NDNR.  If the well is to be drilled within 50 feet of a stream bank, you’ll need to get a surface water right for the stream first.

You are allowed to extract as much water from the well as you want, so long as it is put to “beneficial use.”

Only licensed well contractors can drill a well.  However, there is an exception that allows landowners to drill their own well for drinking water so long as they live on the land or use it for farming.

Read more about the average cost of digging a well.

Well Spacing

To protect existing wells, Nebraska has laws about how far new wells must be from existing wells. Irrigation wells cannot be constructed less than 600 feet from another irrigation well (unless the wells are owned by the same person) or 1,000 feet from an existing industrial or municipal well.

Registering Your Well

Even if you don’t need a permit for your well, you are still required to register your well with the NDNR within 60 days of completion. Failure to register your well is a Class IV misdemeanor. Test well holes are exempt. Domestic and irrigation wells drilled before 1993 are also exempt but it still is smart to register the well since it protects you from having neighbors drill a well within 600 feet of your well.

Surface Water Laws

Virtually all surface water use requires a permit from the Nebraska DNR.  This includes surface water for domestic use, irrigation, or hydropower.  Read more about the permits process here.

Digging a Pond On Your Property

You will need a DNR permit to dig a pond or water reservoir on your property.  However, there is an exception for impoundments storing less than 15 acre-feet of surface water per annum and the impounded water is not diverted for irrigation or any other purpose.

The “any other purpose” clause means that you could really only dig a fish pond or something similar without a permit.

Rainwater Harvesting

Nebraska currently doesn’t have any statewide laws about rainwater harvesting.  Thus, it is generally considered legal to harvest rainwater in barrels or cisterns.  Some cities, like Lincoln and Omaha, encourage rainwater harvesting and publish some informational resources for citizens (though don’t currently have any financial incentives or rebates available).

You won’t need a permit for your rainwater barrels if it is used for irrigation.  However, if you want to use the water indoors, you’ll have to meet the sections of the State Plumbing Code regarding non-potable water (see the code here).  These rules are very strict and make it difficult to legally use rainwater even for things like flushing toilets.

Wastewater Laws in Nebraska

Even though Nebraska has somewhat relaxed rules about animal waste, the rules about human waste disposal are very strict.  If not connected to the municipal sewer system, you will most likely be required to have a septic system. 

The system must be designed and constructed by licensed engineers and installers. Some larger systems or ones not used for domestic use must get a permit before construction.  All systems, regardless of whether a permit was required, must be registered with the state within 45 days of completion.

Required to Connect to the Sewer

Unlike in Michigan, Arkansas, and some other states, Nebraska State law does not require you to connect to the municipal sewer if one is available. However, some counties have made this a requirement.  This would effectively make it illegal to go completely off grid.

Compost Toilets

Compost toilets are legal in Nebraska and even specifically mentioned in the law.  Compost toilets do not have to meet the wastewater treatment system regulations in Title 124 so long as they are not connected to any running water or other plumbing.  Instead, they fall under Title 132: Integrated Solid Waste Management Regulations (PDF).

However, the laws regarding graywater still apply.  This means, that even if you want to use a compost toilet as your only toilet, you’ll still probably need to install a septic system for graywater.

Outhouses (Pit Privies)

Nebraska Title 178 says that pit privies may be approved in

“decentralized camping areas” and they “shall conform to the standards of construction and maintenance set up by the State Department of Health.” 

However, it is not clear what these standards are or when they would be approved.  If you are actually living at the property full-time, it’s unlikely that you will be considered a “camp” and get approval for a pit privy.

Outside of Title 178, Nebraska State wastewater laws don’t specifically mention pit privies.  Instead, they could fall under “seepage pits” or “leaching pits.” Both of these systems are illegal in Nebraska.  The law defines these as:

  • Seepage pit: means an excavation or structure constructed below or partially below the water table into which waste or wastewater has or can discharge and from which the waste or wastewater has or can seep into the surrounding saturated soil.
  • Leaching pit: means an underground pit into which waste or wastewater has or can discharge and from which the liquid has or can seep into the surrounding soil with little or no treatment.

Graywater Reuse Laws

Nebraska has strict rules about graywater reuse.  It is illegal to put graywater onto your lawn or other land.  Graywater includes virtually all water from a dwelling or non-dwelling building (kitchen sink waste is considered black water).

There are some parts of the plumbing code that address graywater reuse, but the requirements are very strict.  It will be expensive to install a legal system, even if you only want to use graywater for things like flushing toilets.

Do you live off grid in Nebraska? Let us know about your experiences in the comments section below.

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