New York State Off Grid Laws: An In-Depth Guide


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Last Updated: January 10, 2022

New York State is notorious for having some of the strictest building codes and laws about off-grid living in the country. Don’t let this dissuade you from going off-grid, though. If you are willing to put in the effort, NY can be a great place to live off the grid.

In some ways, these laws make it easier to go off-grid in NY because there is no gray area: you won’t have to guess whether your system will be approved because the requirements are laid out clearly in the law.

This isn’t always the case in other states where the decision is left up to local officials who may or may not know about new off-grid technologies.

Is Living Off-Grid Legal in New York State?

Off-grid living is usually legal in remote or rural parts of New York State. Some areas have laws requiring you to connect to the municipal sewer if one is available, effectively making it illegal to live completely off-grid. New York State also has stringent building codes, making it difficult or expensive to go off-grid legally.

Building Codes in New York State

New York State has strict building codes which must be followed if you want to live off-grid legally. For example, you may be required to install automatic fire sprinklers if you have multiple families living in a dwelling or want to build a home that is three stories tall.

  • Building Code of New York State: Adopts 2018 IBC with amendments
  • Residential Code of New York State: Adopts 2018 IRC with amendments
  • Existing Building Code of NYS: Adopts 2018 IEBC with amendments
  • Plumbing Code of NYS: Adopts 2018 IPC with amendments
  • Mechanical Code of NYS: Adopts 2018 IMC with amendments
  • Fuel Gas Code of NYS: Adopts 2018 IECC with amendments
  • Property Maintenance Code of NYS: Adopts 2018 IPMC with amendments
  • Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities: Adopts 2009 A117.1 without amendments
  • Standard for Installation of Sprinkler Systems: Adopts 2016 NFPA 13 without amendments
  • National Electrical Code: Adopts the 2017 NFPA 70, without amendments
  • National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code: Adopts the 2016 NFPA 72 without amendments
  • Safety Code for Elevators and Escalators: Adopts the 2016 ASME A17.1 without amendments
  • Building Code Requirements for Structural Concrete: Adopts the 2014 ACI 318 with amendments

 

Is There Away Around New York State Building Codes?

Because inspections are required to get a Certificate of Occupancy, there is no way to get around NY State building codes.

The State prioritizes enforcement, and fines for violating code can be steep. Currently, the law imposes a $25 fine per day after 180 days of a property being in violation. After 360 days, the fine doubles to $50 per day. The maximum fine is $1000 per day.

However, there are many amendments to the codes that exempt owner-occupied dwellings not supplied with electrical, plumbing, or other utilities. These can create loopholes that make getting permits and passing inspections easier.

The 144 Square Feet Exemption

In many places throughout New York State, structures 144 sq. feet or less do not need a building permit if they don’t have any plumbing, heating, or electrical systems. I’ve heard of many people who used this loophole to build tiny off-grid cabins without a permit. However, the exemption is only for storage sheds and does not apply to dwellings. You might be able to get away with it for a while but could also find yourself in multiple code violations.

Camping, Hunting and Fishing Cabin Regulations in NY State

You might be able to get around some of the stricter building codes and regulations in New York by building a cabin. Under the law, a camping unit is defined as,

“A tent, camping cabin, recreational vehicle or other type of portable shelter intended, designed or used for temporary human occupancy.”

The Adirondack Park Agency has stricter definitions of what counts as a cabin:

“Cabin, camp or lean-to or other similar structure designed and used only for occasional occupancy and primarily for hunting, fishing and similar purposes that:

(1) is a one-story structure but may include a sleeping loft;
(2) is built on posts or piers and does not have a permanent foundation;
(3) is served by a sanitary pit privy or chemical toilet and does not have a conventional, onsite wastewater treatment system;
(4) does not have pressurized or indoor plumbing (this prohibition does not preclude a kitchen sink with appropriate grey water leach pit); and
(5) is not connected to public utilities (electric, phone, cable, water, or sewer systems).

Even off-grid cabins aren’t exempt from regulations, though. You will have to get a permit for your cabin, and the permit is only valid for a maximum of three years. The code exemptions only apply if you live in the cabin seasonally and not full-time.

I have heard of many people who have lived in their cabins full-time and not gotten caught, but it is a considerable risk.

New York Zoning Laws and Off-Grid Living

In addition to meeting State building codes for your off-grid property, you’ll also have to meet local zoning laws. These laws sometimes make certain off-grid technology completely illegal. They can also make it illegal to live the type of off-grid life that you want. For example, zoning laws will often restrict how many buildings you can put on your property, whether wind power is allowed, and whether you can have farm animals.

Zoning laws vary on a county-by-county basis. You’ll have to carefully look at the zoning laws of each location before buying property to make sure you understand what’s allowed.   In general, land zoned as Agricultural or Rural is the most lenient.

Tiny Homes and Mobile Homes

New York State has recently gotten much better about allowing tiny homes. Appendix Q of the IRC deals with 400 square feet or fewer homes. It establishes standards for staircases, ceiling heights, emergency exits, etc. However, some areas of New York State may still have zoning laws that set minimum dwelling sizes. These zoning laws would make it illegal to live in a tiny house on your property.

As with most states in the US, the rules about living in a mobile home are much stricter. Zoning laws often outright forbid living in a mobile home or restrict them to specific areas.

Off-Grid Electricity in New York

Off-grid electricity is legal in New York. However, you’ll have to follow the State’s strict building codes and inspection process.

Things get more complicated if you don’t want to have any electrical system in your home. You might not meet parts of the fire code if you don’t have electricity. The State also requires all homes to have a Certificate of Occupancy. Without an electrical hookup, the inspector might not issue the certificate. In this sense, living completely off-grid in NY could be illegal.

Solar Power Laws

Off-grid solar is legal in New York State. There are numerous financial incentives for installing solar. State law prohibits homeowners associations from putting “unreasonable restrictions” on solar panel installations.

Even though it is legal, installing solar in NY isn’t always easy. You will need a permit, a process which usually involves submitting numerous documents such as a “Certificate of Workers Compensation” and tax bills. Many counties require solar panels – even small installations – to be installed by certified professionals.

Wind Power in NY

Laws in New York State make it surprisingly easy to use wind power. The rules are clearly laid out, so you don’t have to worry about getting special permission from zoning boards (as is the case in many parts of the USA).

Most zoning ordinances have a height limit of 35 feet for residential properties. Noise limits are typically 50 decibels. There are exceptions for farms and agriculturally-zoned land in many counties, which make it possible to install a wind turbine without a permit so long as setbacks are followed.

Off-Grid Water Laws in New York

New York State has stringent rules about off-grid water. The Fire Code requires all new buildings to have wet plumbing.

Even existing buildings are usually required to have potable running water under pressure.

The Plumbing Code states that,

“structures equipped with plumbing fixtures and utilized for human occupancy or habitation shall be provided with a potable supply of water in the amounts and at the pressures specified in this chapter” and “only potable water shall be supplied to plumbing fixtures that provide water for drinking, bathing or culinary purposes, or for the processing of food, medical or pharmaceutical products. Unless otherwise provided in this code, potable water shall be supplied to all plumbing fixtures.”

Because the Building Code (Section 2902) requires residential homes to have at least one shower or bathtub and one lavatory, you can’t get around the law by simply not putting fixtures in your home.

This essentially makes it illegal, for example, to carry rainwater into your home for showering. To comply and get your Certificate of Occupancy, you will most likely need to connect to the public water supply, dig a well or install an expensive system that pumps and treats water from non-potable sources.

Well Water

All wells in New York State must be drilled by a registered water well contractor registered with the DEC. You cannot dig your own well in NY. The State does not require a permit to drill a well so long as it does not pump more than 45 gallons per minute. However, some local counties may require a permit or have more strict requirements. The law requires testing for all new wells and wells which have not been in use for an extended period.

You can get more information about wells in NY here and here and information about testing here.

Rainwater Harvesting Laws in NYC

Rainwater harvesting is legal in New York and even encouraged by the State. However, there are strict regulations about rainwater harvesting systems. These are addressed in Section 1303 of the NY Plumbing Code.

Some of these regulations include:

  • Rainwater can only be collected from above-ground impervious roofing surfaces. In some cases, you may be allowed to collect rainwater from sidewalks or parking lots.
  • Debris excluders must be used on downspouts and leaders.
  • If used, a first-flush diverter must operate automatically and not manually.
  • Rainwater may need to be treated for some uses.

In addition to these rules, rainwater tanks must meet the requirements for non-potable water storage tanks (sections 1301.9 and 1303.10.1 through 1303.10.3). You will, for example, have to follow setback requirements and only be allowed to collect rainwater in opaque barrels unless you protect them from the sun.

Sewage and Waste Removal

Meeting onsite sewage treatment laws is usually one of the most challenging parts of living off-grid.

In New York State, you won’t be able to get a building permit if an approved wastewater disposal system is not available. This means connecting to the public sewer or installing a septic tank in most cases. However, there are some exceptions to use alternative off-grid systems for waste disposal.

Required to Connect to the Public Sewer

While State law does not currently require it, many municipalities in NY require you to connect to the public sewer if one is located nearby. This effectively makes it illegal to live completely off-the-grid in many parts of New York.

Graywater

If you want to recycle graywater or use other non-potable water for things like flushing toilets, you will have a hard time doing it legally in New York State. The law requires all graywater for flushing toilets to be disinfected. Even non-potable water from rainwater harvesting has to be filtered by a 100-micron or finer filter before it can legally be used for flushing toilets.

There are exemptions for reclaimed water, which is defined as “Non-potable water that has been derived from the treatment of wastewater by a facility or system licensed or permitted to produce water meeting the jurisdiction’s water requirements for its intended uses.”

You’ll have to check with your local health inspector about the permitting requirements to have your water quality as reclaimed water.

Compost Toilets

Compost toilets are legal in New York. They must be NSF Standard 41 Certified or equivalent and have a warranty of at least 5 years.

It is even legal only to use a compost toilet or other non-waterborne system on your property. The law states that these systems are allowed:

“In certain areas of the State where running water is not available or is too scarce to economically support flush toilets, or where there is a need or desire to conserve water.”

However, the law goes on to say that,

“The treatment of wastewater from sinks, showers, and other facilities must be provided when non-flush toilets are installed. Household wastewater without toilet wastes is known as greywater.”

Because of this last requirement, you will need to install a septic tank or a graywater treatment system.

Are Outhouses Legal in NY?

Outhouses, called “pit privies” in the law, are surprisingly still legal in many parts of New York State, such as the Catskills. However, it is generally illegal to construct a new pit privy. You’ll need to keep any existing pit privies in good working order if you want to continue using them legally.

Wood Stoves Laws in New York

You will need to get a permit for any heating system in your home in New York, including wood stoves. The US EPA regulates new indoor wood stoves through the New Source Performance Standard (40 CFR 60, Subpart AAA). Under these rules, wood heaters must be certified to meet clean air standards. Read more here.

If you plan on sourcing your own firewood for heat, also be aware that it is illegal to import untreated firewood from other states. Untreated firewood from NY cannot be transported more than 50 linear miles from its origin source. “Treated” means that it has been heated to 160F for at least 75 minutes. This effectively means you can only source firewood from near your property.

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

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