Want to build the off-grid property of your dreams in North Carolina? State and local laws can make this surprisingly difficult to do.
Here’s what you need to know about the off-grid laws of NC, including zoning, electricity, water, and waste regulations.
Also see South Carolina Off-Grid Laws
Want to more about living off-grid? Read:
- Summary of Off-Grid Laws in the USA
- Costs of Going Off-Grid
- Checklist: How to Get Off Grid
- Which States Are Best for Homesteading?
Is Living Off-Grid Legal in North Carolina?
Off-grid living is completely legal in North Carolina. The state is surprisingly permissive about things like outhouses and building ponds on your property.
However, you’ll need a permit and inspections for almost any off-grid system you want to install on your property.
North Carolina Zoning Laws and Off-Grid Living
Whether or not you can legally go off-grid in NC will ultimately depend on local zoning laws. Unfortunately, North Carolina has some of the most confusing zoning laws of any state. The definitions and terms often vary drastically between counties.
For example, one county might call land reserved for agricultural use “Working Lands” whereas others call it “Rural Residential” or “Rural Preservation.” NC recently updated their zoning laws though. As of July 2021, all counties will follow the statutes laid out under Chapter 160D.
Zoning Law Restrictions in NC
In areas zoned as neighborhood residential or waterfront, you’ll likely face a lot of restrictions about how you can use the land. You may even be required to connect to the municipal water supply, thus preventing you from going off-grid legally.
Land zoned for rural or agricultural use generally has the fewest restrictions and you’ll be free to farm or raise animals. However, zoning laws might make it illegal for you to get income while living off grid in other ways, such as opening a bed & breakfast on your property.
Also, pay attention to rules about minimum lot sizes. You may be required to have at least 5 acres per dwelling. On open-space preserve land, the minimum lot may be 20 acres per dwelling. This can be problematic if you want to build more homes on your property later in time.
If you qualify as a farm though, you can avoid some of the zoning regulations. Under the NC Farm Act, certain zoning regulations like setbacks and number of dwellings don’t apply to farms.
Qualifying as a Farm in North Carolina
If you qualify as a farm in North Carolina, your land will be taxed at use-value instead of market value.
To qualify, you will need to meet these requirements:
- Land size: At least 10 acres of land in use for agriculture. Horticulture requires a minimum of 5 acres and forestland requires a minimum of 20 acres. There are some situations where smaller tracts might count.
- Income: You’ll need to generate at least $1,000 gross income per year to qualify.
Read more about qualifying for property use value here
North Carolina also offers other incentives for farmers, such as reduced sales tax and various grants and subsidies. However, the requirements for these incentives are higher. You will generally have to earn at least $10,000 gross from farming to qualify. You can read more here.
Note that farmer income requirements may be difficult to meet in North Carolina because of various regulations. For example, you may need a certificate in order to sell food items to markets. Read more about those regulations here.
You might also find it useful to read: How to Get a Homestead Declaration for Your Property
Off-Grid Electricity in North Carolina
Off-grid electricity is legal in North Carolina. The state is particularly favorable towards solar energy. Under Chapter 160D, no local government is allowed to pass rules prohibiting solar panels on residential property.
Local governments are still allowed to set some regulations about where solar panels can be placed, but only if these rules don’t prevent “reasonable use of a solar collector.”
NC also offers incentives for installing solar such as exempting 80% of the value of the solar system from property taxes, net metering for grid-tied systems, and some rebates from utilities.
When it comes to other forms of off-grid electricity in North Carolina though, the laws aren’t so favorable. Zoning laws will make it difficult to install wind turbines and you’ll likely need a difficult-to-obtain permit for hydropower.
North Carolina has strict laws in regards to off-grid water systems. In most cases, you must have potable water before you can get a building permit. The code requires all appliances which use water to be connected to the water supply. This might make some simple off-grid water systems illegal.
North Carolina follows riparian water rights: you have the right to use water on your property, so long as the use is “reasonable” and does not infringe upon the rights of other users. In fact, NC is one of the only states that doesn’t require you to get a permit to withdraw large amounts of surface water. You are also allowed to build ponds on your property for catching and storing water.
There are some exceptions though, particularly in wetlands or certain drought-prone areas. In these areas, you may be required to submit plans and get a permit.
If you are not connected to the municipal water system, you will most likely need to dig a well. You’ll need to apply for a permit, have a site inspection, and have a certified contractor install the well. The well water must also be tested for safety.
If you are also installing septic at the same time, the well and septic permit will rely on the same site plan. You can read more about well permits here.
It is legal to harvest rainwater in North Carolina and many areas actually offer incentives like rebates for capturing rainwater. However, you can’t just stick some rain barrels under your downspouts; there are strict regulations you have to follow.
Rainwater harvesting is regulated under Section 1303 of Code Chapter 13: Nonpotable Water Systems. The system must follow regulations about gutter size, approved piping, and barrel placement. You must use roof washers and debris excluders. Untreated rainwater can mostly just be used for irrigation.
If you want to use water indoors for things like flushing toilets or washing clothes, you’ll need to treat the water first and color it green or blue.
You can find a good guide on rainwater harvesting in NC here.
Gray water Recycling
Gray water recycling is legal in North Carolina but it is strictly regulated. You can only use recycled water for nonpotable uses. The law on nonpotable water systems states that gray water systems must:
- Have a separate supply line
- Pipes must be labeled
- Be equipped with a filter
- Gray water used within buildings must be colored blue or green
- Meet requirements for tank size and location
- Be disinfected before it can be used indoors for things like flushing toilets.
For more details, see Chapter 13 of the Nonpotable Water System.
Is it illegal to drain washing machines outside in North Carolina?
Even though many North Carolinians pipe their washing machines outside, this is illegal. North Carolina State plumbing code states that all plumbing fixtures and appliances which use water must be connected to the water supply system. Further, gray water must be clearly labeled as such and systems must meet plumbing regulations.
Sewage and Waste Removal
Like many states, North Carolina has strict rules about sewage and waste removal. You won’t even be able to get a building permit without first getting an approved waste treatment method. You’ll need a permit and inspection before you can legally use the system.
Compost toilets are legal in North Carolina and fall into the category of “non-ground absorption sewage treatment systems.” However, the law is written in a way that may make it illegal to use composting toilets in some situations.
The law states that composting toilets cannot be prohibited in situations where an approved privy, septic tank, or connection to the public sewage system isn’t possible or practical. The law further states that composting toilets shall only be approved if all wastewater is handled by an approved system. The system must reduce “toilet contents to an inert or stabilized residue or to an otherwise harmless condition, rendering such contents noninfectious or noncontaminating.”
Because composting toilets don’t completely compost waste and it would likely be illegal to dump your human manure onto a compost heap for finishing, you’d likely need to dig an approved pit privy for disposing of composting toilet waste.
North Carolina is one of the few states where outhouses (called privies) are legal. The law establishes rules about how pit privies must be built and maintained, but they are fairly relaxed rules. You’ll need to get a permit and have an inspection for your outhouse before you can use it. However, there may be many local laws that make it illegal to have an outhouse on your property.
Do you live off-grid in North Carolina? Let us know about your experience in the comments section below.