Virginia Off Grid Laws: An In-Depth Guide


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Last Updated: August 31, 2021

With its abundance of water, resources and cheap land, Virginia is quickly becoming one of the most popular places for off-grid living.

But before you rush off and buy land for your dream property, know that some counties do have laws that can make it difficult or impossible to go off grid legally.

Here’s what you need to know about the off grid laws in Virginia.

Is Living Off-Grid Legal in Virginia?

Off-grid living is completely legal in Virginia.  There are no laws preventing you from disconnecting from the power or water utilities. However, in many urban and suburban areas, you may be required to connect to the municipal sewage system, and there may be local regulations that prohibit you from going completely off-grid.

Even if you live somewhere rural, you’ll still probably have to deal with many permits and inspections.  Despite these regulations, Virginia is still one of the most accessible places to go off-grid.

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Virginia Zoning Laws and Off-Grid Living

Local zoning laws are what ultimately determine how you can legally use your land.

In Virginia’s cities and suburbs, the zoning laws are relatively strict and will probably make it nearly impossible to go off-grid altogether.

However, most of Virginia is rural.  Land zoned as rural or agriculture in Virginia tends to have very relaxed regulations.  Even RVs and tiny homes are usually legal in Virginia (which isn’t the case in most states) though the permit process may still be a nightmare, and you’ll likely need to connect them to septic.

Qualifying As a Farm in Virginia

Virginia offers many tax breaks and incentives for farms.

One is that your land will be taxed at “use value” instead of “market value.” You’ll need to have at least 5 acres of land being used for agricultural and/or livestock. You must make at least $1,000 off of farming per year, and the land must be used exclusively for farming for 5 contiguous years.

There are also land use tax breaks for forest land and open spaces.  Read about Virginia Use Value taxation rules here. Farmers can also get various tax breaks and incentives, which you can see here.

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Off-Grid Electricity in Virginia

Off-grid electricity is completely legal in Virginia; there are no laws saying that your home must be connected to the power grid.

Solar systems are allowed and there are even laws that prevent homeowner associations from prohibiting solar panels.

As there are plenty of streams in Virginia, hydropower is often a good option and not heavily regulated. Local zoning laws are much stricter about wind turbines, though.

As for grid-tied systems, a 2020 law improved net metering for Virginians.  The new law also increased the size of residential solar systems, which were eligible for net metering from 20kW to 25kW.

Unfortunately, not all counties exempt renewable energy systems from property taxes.  If your off-grid system increases your property value, you may end up paying more. (Sources: 1, 2)

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Off-Grid Water

Virginia is very water-rich and has some of the most relaxed water rights laws of any state in America.  You are essentially allowed to use water on your property however you want, including diverting water from streams, without even needing to get a permit in most cases.

While this is good news for people who want to live off-grid, the relaxed water regulations might backfire in the years to come.  Some parts of Virginia (particularly in the high-growth East) are starting to experience water scarcity.

You can find a good overview of Virginia’s water rights laws and a long, informative article about the current state of Virginia’s water resources here.

Surface Water

In Virginia, it is entirely legal to use surface water (streams, springs, lakes, ponds, etc.) that is on or adjacent to your property.  This includes things like diverting water to create retention basins.  There are only a few limitations:

  • No more than 50% of the streamflow can be diverted without a permit
  • The water cannot be diverted to land which is non-adjacent to the water and owned by different people (so no diverting water from your stream to your neighbor’s property)
  • Non-tidal withdrawals of over 300,000 gallons per month (or 1,000,000 gallons per month for agriculture) require a permit

You can read more on the Virginia DEQ website water withdrawal page.

Well Water

To dig a well in Virginia, you will need to apply for a permit and only registered contractors can construct the well.

Besides that, well water is not controlled by the state; you can withdraw as much water as you want.

The only exceptions are in the Eastern Virginia and Eastern Shore Ground Water Management Areas (GWMA), where withdrawals over 300,000 gallons per month require a permit.

You can find Virginia’s private well rules here and details about the construction regulations here.

Rainwater

Rainwater harvesting is legal in Virginia for potable and non-potable use. The state even offers financial assistance for installing systems through VCAP, the Virginia Conservation Assistance Program.  The cost-sharing program can reimburse up to 75% of the costs.  Local governments may have their own incentives too.

There are regulations about how rainwater systems must be designed and built (see here). Currently, only aboveground impervious roofing surfaces are allowed as collection surfaces. If you want to catch rainwater for potable uses, you’ll need to follow the fairly strict Water Reclamation and Reuse Regulations.

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Sewage and Waste Removal

On a state level, Virginia is one of the most permissive states in regards to waste disposal. The state law allows outhouses and many alternative systems like composting toilets.

Soil inspections and permits are required, and a licensed person must design the system.  You will also be required to have regular inspections of alternative systems.

In addition to state laws, local counties may have laws that make it completely illegal to have an off-grid sewage system.  In many counties, you may be required to connect to the municipal sewage system if nearby, essentially making it illegal to go off-grid with waste disposal.

It’s worth noting that relaxed laws mean that parts of Virginia have problems with infectious diseases (like hookworm) from untreated sewage leaching onto the ground and into the water. Sewage treatment laws exist for a reason!

For more information, see:

Compost Toilets

Composting toilets which meet the NSF Standard 41 design requirements are legal in Virginia.  However, they may only be used with an approved graywater treatment and disposal method.  You cannot dispose of compost toilet waste on the ground.

Note that there are a lot of local laws which may prohibit you from having just a compost toilet; you’ll most likely need a septic tank as well.

Outhouses/Latrines

Outhouses are still legal in some parts of Virginia, but there are stringent regulations.  For example, they are only allowed 20 feet away from dwellings, streams, establishments, and roadsides and within 10 feet of any property line.  If the home also has indoor plumbing, then there must be an approved gray water disposal system.  If your home doesn’t have indoor plumbing, you could have an outhouse and a leach trench.

On top of these regulations, many other local laws will probably make it illegal to have an outhouse in Virginia. Don’t expect to have an outhouse at your off-grid home unless it is in a very remote part of Virginia.

Incinerating Toilets

Incinerator toilets certified by the NSF under Standard 41 are legal in Virginia.  They are only permitted in cases where they are not “subjected to frequent use” and when there is also an approved gray water disposal system.

Because of the many local regulations against incinerator toilets, don’t expect to use one unless your property is very remote.

Graywater Recycling

Virginia allows Graywater recycling under Chapter 740 of the administrative code. Compared to other states (which often don’t have clear rules on greywater reuse), Virginia has very detailed regulations and requirements for systems.

You’ll still most likely need to have a septic system though might be exempt if you are also using a composting toilet.   You can read the Virginia plumbing codes for graywater systems here.

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

Leave a comment

  1. Will there be future articles regarding other states. You seemed to have done extensive research and legwork for Virginia. If you have no plans for other states, do you have tips on how to research another state. Steps, agencies, etc. to start with?

    Reply
    • I’ve already written guides to about 20 states. You can search the Primal Survivor webiste to find them. If you want to do the research on your own, I’d suggest starting with the state’s sewage laws. Do an onlinen search for “state name onsite sewage treatment laws”. You will also have better luck finding laws if you add “inurl:.gov” to your searches. For example, “well water laws Louisiana inurl:.gov”. Inurl:.edu also gets some good search results.

      Reply
  2. Hi Diane,

    Thank you for this. As far as living in an RV, most counties have ordinances against it. There are many cases where you legally cannot camp in your backyard. While county supervisors think this isn’t right, zoning offices step in and recite county code. It’s crazy.

    Reply

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