Do you have a property in New Jersey and want to disconnect from the utilities completely? Living the type of off-grid lifestyle you want might not be legal. Here’s what you need to know about New Jersey’s off grid laws.
Is Living Off-Grid Legal in New Jersey?
While off-grid living is technically legal in New Jersey, it is one of the worst states regarding legalities. It is completely illegal to live a primitive style of life without running water, a water heater, or electricity inside your home.
You can go off grid if you install approved utilities in your home – but you must meet the state’s strict building codes. These codes are so strict that off-grid might as well be illegal for people on a budget. In addition, almost everywhere in NJ has a law requiring you to connect to the municipal sewer if one is nearby, a law which would make it illegal to be 100% off-grid.
However, it is still definitely possible to live off grid in NJ. Dante Di Pirro, also known as “Mr. Sustainable,” is one example of someone who succeeded. It isn’t a coincidence that he’s a lawyer!
Primitive Living Is Illegal in New Jersey
One of the biggest obstacles to living off grid in New Jersey is the State Housing Code. The law specifically states that a dwelling must have electricity, a potable water supply, flushing toilets, heating, lighting, and other requirements.
All new homes must get a “Certificate of Occupancy” before you can legally live in them. You will not be able to get the Certificate of Occupancy if you don’t have all of the required utilities hooked up.
Read the complete housing code here (PDF).
Exemptions and Workarounds
New Jersey does not have any exemptions in its law for rural cabins. You also can’t live in an accessory building, so you can’t just build a shed on your property and hope no one notices you live there.
If you want to build a new home, there is no way around the laws: you must install utilities in your home.
You might be able to get around the laws if you buy a home that already has a Certificate of Occupancy. Then you could call the electric company and disconnect. However, living without utilities would still be illegal. If someone complained and an inspector found out, you could face huge fines or have your home condemned.
*I am not suggesting that you do anything illegal or try to avoid building codes!
Camping On Your Own Property in NJ
It is illegal to camp on your own property in New Jersey. However, it might be possible to turn your property into a “public campground.” This is not an easy process; you’d have to get a permit and meet various codes.
For example, NJ law requires all campgrounds to have flush toilets and urinals no closer than 600 feet from campsites (do you want to walk 600 feet to the bathroom?). On top of that, you’d have to check local zoning laws to see if campgrounds are allowed. Don’t be surprised if they are forbidden.
Read the full NJ campground laws here.
New Jersey Zoning Laws and Off-Grid Living
In addition to meeting all New Jersey State laws about what you can do and build on your property, you’ll also need to meet local zoning laws. Some of these laws might prevent you from raising animals, growing produce you plan to sell, or having a certain type of business on your property.
Land zoned as Agricultural tends to have the least restrictions. However, Ag-zoned land sometimes has large minimum lot requirements. For example, Sussex County requires at least 50 acres for land used for agriculture. That will make it very expensive to buy property for a farm!
Doing Construction On Your Own Home
In most cases, you must use a licensed or certified professional for plumbing, electricity, and other work on your home. However, there is an exception in the law that allows owners to do some work on their home. The law states:
“No certificate of occupancy shall be issued for any new home built by an owner or in which any design, construction, plumbing or electrical work has been done by the owner unless the owner shall file with the construction official an affidavit in which he certifies that all work has been done in conformity with applicable law, acknowledges that work done by him or by any subcontractor working under his supervision is not covered under the New Home Warranty and Builders’ Registration Act (46:3B-1 et seq.) and states that he will disclose this to any person purchasing the property from him within 10 years of the date of issuance of a certificate of occupancy. The affidavit shall be filed on a form prescribed by the Department of Community Affairs.“
Tiny Home Laws in NJ
Under NJ law, every dwelling must have at least 150 sq. feet of floor space for the first occupant and at least 100 sq. feet for every additional occupant. Each room used as a sleeping quarter for one person has to have at least 70 sq. feet and a further 50 sq. feet for each additional person sleeping in the room.
“At least one-half of the floor area of every habitable room shall have a ceiling height of at least seven feet. The floor area of that part of any room where the ceiling is less than five feet shall not be considered as part of the floor area in computing the total floor area in the room for the purpose of determining the maximum permissible occupancy thereof.”
This law essentially makes many tiny homes illegal in NJ. In addition to the state law, local zoning laws might require even larger dwelling sizes.
Off-Grid Electricity Laws in New Jersey
Under NJ law, every dwelling must have electricity. However, the law does not say that the electricity must come from the public utilities. You can have off-grid solar as your only electrical source. You must meet all the State and local codes and get permits.
Don’t be surprised if your local government has some stupid laws about solar power. For example, Lawnside, NJ code currently prohibits solar panels on the front of your home, and all new connections from the solar panels must be underground.
Off-Grid Water Laws in New Jersey
New Jersey law requires that all homes have running water inside, at least one flush toilet, a kitchen sink, and a bathtub or shower. If you don’t want to connect to the local water service, you will likely need to have a private well drilled to meet these requirements.
You might be able to meet these requirements by diverting water from a stream or river next to your property, but the water would have to go through rigorous filtration requirements before it could be considered potable.
Who Owns the Water in New Jersey?
The public owns all water in New Jersey. However, the State recognizes riparian rights: landowners are allowed to reasonably use the water on or next to their property so long as it doesn’t infringe upon other riparian rights users.
Because the public has the right to use the water, you can’t prevent people from using navigable waters on or next to your property. However, people can’t trespass on your property to access the water. You can read details of New Jersey’s public waters access laws here.
It is surprisingly easy to get permission to use surface water in NJ. You need a Water Allocation Permit if you use more than “100,000 gallons per day for more than 30 days in a 365 consecutive day period, for purposes other than agriculture, aquaculture or horticulture.” There is even a simple “permit by rule” process. Read more about the rules here.
Well Water Laws in New Jersey
You will need a permit to drill a well in NJ, even for residential use. You will also need a Water Allocation Permit if your well uses more than 100,000 gallons per day and isn’t for agriculture or other exempt uses. Only licensed drillers are allowed to construct wells. After completion, the driller must submit well records to the State.
Under the NJ Private Well Testing Act of 2002, you must test well water from private wells whenever the property is sold and every 5 years if the property is leased. You can get more information here.
Rainwater Harvesting Laws in New Jersey
Rainwater harvesting is legal in New Jersey; some local governments may even provide financial incentives. However, NJ does have some strict rules about how you can collect rainwater and use it. For example, water in rain cisterns must be emptied within 3 days of the rain event.
While these rules aren’t enforced (in most places, at least), it does make it illegal to store rainwater for a long time. If your neighbors complained about your rain barrels, such as if they started attracting mosquitoes, you could find yourself in legal trouble.
Sewage and Waste Removal Laws in New Jersey
Many places in New Jersey require you to connect to the municipal sewer system if one is located nearby. Otherwise, the only legal off-grid wastewater system is septic. Holding tanks are only allowed in some very limited situations. It will be illegal if you want to use alternative wastewater systems for going off-grid.
Compost toilets are legal in New Jersey, but only if you have an approved method of treating greywater. Because the Uniform Construction Code requires all dwellings to have a flush toilet, you must apply for a “variance” from the local health authority.
“When the blackwater from the building served by a greywater system is to be disposed of into a waterless toilet, a variance from the Uniform Construction Code, Plumbing subcode, NJAC 5:23-3.15, must be obtained by the applicant prior to approval of the greywater system by the administrative authority and the volume of sanitary sewage to be used in the design of the greywater system shall be determined as prescribed in NJAC 7:9A-7.4.”
There is no guarantee that you will be granted the variance. Even if you are granted a variance, you’ll still need to meet local laws, such as any requiring you to connect to the municipal sewer system. In this sense, using just a compost toilet in your home could be illegal.
The laws around compost toilets are still relatively new (in New Jersey and most of the USA), so it isn’t always clear what is legal and what isn’t. Your best bet is to contact the local health officer and ask them for advice.
Are Outhouses Legal in New Jersey (Pit and Vault Privies)?
Outhouses are completely illegal in New Jersey. There are only a few minimal exceptions for campgrounds. If the property cannot have a septic system or sewer connection, the health officer may approve a holding tank but not a pit privy-type toilet.
Greywater Recycling Laws
Under New Jersey law, greywater recycling is legal so long as an “acceptable means for disposal of the blackwater from the building” is used. However, the law is stringent on how you can reuse greywater. You need a completely separate plumbing system for greywater, which must be treated for reuse (even for flushing toilets!). Simple water reuse solutions – such as direct piping laundry water to irrigate your yard – are illegal.
Wood Heaters and Stoves
So long as they meet the state building codes, wood heaters and stoves are legal in New Jersey. However, many towns in NJ have passed strict laws regulating outdoor wood stoves. For example, Independence, NJ, bans all outdoor wood-burning furnaces from May 1 to October 1 of the year. If you plan to create an outdoor kitchen with a wood stove, carefully check these laws.
Selling Homemade Food Laws
Until recently, New Jersey had a weird law that made it illegal to sell homemade baked goods from your home. It was the only state to have this law. They have since changed the law, but you’ll need a permit as a “cottage food operator.”
The permit does not allow you to sell many other types of food, though. For example, selling home-canned produce, fermented foods, meat, or foods that require refrigeration is illegal. Read more about the law here.
Do you live off-grid in New Jersey? Let us know about your experiences in the comments section below.