Pennsylvania Off Grid Laws: An In-Depth Guide


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Last Updated: July 18, 2021

Pennsylvania is one of the most popular places to go off-grid and there are already many off-grid communities in the state.

However, don’t assume that you can just buy property in PA and use it however you want.  There are many laws regulating off-grid living that you need to be aware of.

Want to more about living off grid? Read:

Is Living Off-Grid Legal in Pennsylvania?

Off-grid living is legal in Pennsylvania.  However, unless you have a religious exemption or your home is classified as a recreational cabin, it is surprisingly difficult to go completely off-grid.

Sewage laws and regulations are particularly tough in Pennsylvania. You might also come across restrictions in zoning laws, easements, or natural resource rights.

Permits When Living Off-Grid in PA

In Pennsylvania, you will need a permit for virtually all aspects of your off-grid home and property.  Even rural areas often require a permit for mundane things which typically don’t require permits in other rural areas of the USA.

For example, Ross Township in Monroe County requires residents to fill out a moving permit when they move in or out of the township.  The permit only costs $1 but is still an annoying permit that you have to deal with.

Building Codes in PA

All construction work in PA that requires a permit will need to follow the State’s building code.   The code is called the Uniform Construction Code (UCC) and standards are based on the International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC) and International Building Code (IBC).

Many PA counties use third-party companies to do inspections and ensure codes are met.  If you do not get a permit for follow codes, you can get fines of up to $1,000 per day per violation.

To find your local Building Code Official, go to the DLI website, choose the “Local Enforcement” tab and then select the “Municipal Elections and Contact Information” link.

Best Counties for Off Grid Living in PA

York, Lancaster, Dauphin and Lebanon Counties are mostly rural but still have a lot of restrictions when it comes to off-grid living.  You’ll probably have an easier time of going off-grid in these counties:

  • Elk
  • Cameron
  • Potter
  • McKean
  • Tioga
  • Sullivan
  • Montour
  • Columbia

Zoning Laws and Off-Grid Living in PA

Local zoning laws are what ultimately determine how you can use your property in Pennsylvania.  In more populous areas, you can expect many zoning regulations which restrict farming, home types and sizes, and what businesses you can do from your home.  There are also many areas zoned as Conservation which have lots of restrictions designed to protect the environment.

There is still a lot of land in Pennsylvania which does not have any zoning laws.  For example, Westmoreland County still does not have a zoning ordinance.

While this does mean you have more freedom to use your land how you want, it also means that your neighbors can also do what they want.  In the absence of zoning laws, you also could end up with a subdivision built next to your dream property. So, be sure to check with the county about any development plans.

You can read more about PA zoning laws here.

Legal Issues When Buying Off-Grid Property in Pennsylvania

Buying land in Pennsylvania for an off-grid property can be much more complicated than it seems.  Here are just some of the issues you might encounter.

  • Shared Utilities: A lot of affordable land in Pennsylvania is located in small rural communities. It is common in these areas for neighbors to have some shared utilities, such as a shared septic system or well.  This can really complicate your attempts to go off grid, especially if you want to get out of the shared agreement or use an alternative system instead.
  • Don’t own the land underneath your property: Someone else might own the land under your property for its oil, gas, coal, or mineral rights. This could prevent you from doing things like drilling a well.  You’ll need to check subsurface land deeds.
  • Deed covenants: Some land has covenants that restrict how you are able to use it.
  • Easements: The property may have water, sewer, driveway, or other easements. Sometimes the easement is owned by the government and requires the landowner to use the land in a specific way, such as for farming.
  • Wetlands: If you want to build on wetlands, you’ll need a special permit and to meet more stringent requirements.

Recreational Cabin Exemption in PA

Under Pennsylvania law, recreational cabins do not have to meet the state building codes.  There are strict rules about what qualifies as a recreational cabin though.

For example, you cannot live in the cabin, use it for commercial purposes, and cannot use it as a mailing address.

You’ll have to file a sworn affidavit with the local municipality in order to get the exemption. Some places (such as Jones Township) require you to have the cabin inspected before you can use it.

If you want to use the cabin for any other purposes, then you will need to get it up to code and inspected.  This can be complicated as you may need to expose the wiring or plumbing systems so they can be inspected.

Clean and Green (10 Acre Law)

Under the Clean and Green law, property owners are taxed at the Agricultural-Use value of their property instead of the Fair Market Value.  This can drastically reduce property taxes.

To get tax reductions under Clean and Green:

  • The property must be at least 10 acres or earn at least $2,000 annually from farming activities
  • The land must be used for agriculture, as an agricultural reserve or forest reserve
  • The landowner must apply and be approved

Once the property is approved under Clean and Green, it will stay approved.  It is the property owner’s responsibility to notify the county of any changes in how the land is used which would disqualify it from the program.  You can read more here.

Off-Grid Electricity in Pennsylvania

It is completely legal to use off-grid electricity in Pennsylvania. However, figuring out what permits are required can be tricky.

Currently, State building code does not address alternative energy systems, which means permit requirements are up for interpretation. Because off-grid electricity is becoming so popular, many counties have set their own requirements.  You will probably need to get an electrical permit and it’s likely you’ll need a building permit too.

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Off-Grid Water in Pennsylvania

Surface Water

Pennsylvania follows the riparian rights doctrine.  This essentially means that landowners have the right to use water on or next to their property, so long as the water is put to “beneficial use” and usage doesn’t affect the rights of other riparian rights holders.

For example, it would be legal to use water from a stream on your property to wash clothes.  It would not be legal to dam the stream as this would affect your downstream neighbors.

When water quantity is limited (such as in smaller lakes or times of drought), the law gives priority to domestic water use.  You may be forbidden from using water for “extraordinary” uses, such as irrigating a large farm.

Prescriptive Water Rights

There is a loophole in the PA water rights laws.  If you use water in a certain way for 21 years without any complaint (even if the use negatively affects neighbors or depletes the water source), you are given the right to continue using the water.

Can I Build a Pond on My Property?

It is usually legal to build a small pond on your property, so long as the pond is fed by rainwater.  However, you’ll likely need a permit from the DEP if your pond will be fed by surface water or will be particularly large.  You can find more info here.

Well Water

Compared to many other states, Pennsylvania has very relaxed rules about well drilling. There are no set standards for well construction.  Well drilling companies must be licensed. However, you don’t need a license to drill a well on your own property or leased land.

Wells which withdraw more than 10,000 gallons of water per day must register their well with the state and report water usage. Small residential wells are not expected to register.  Read more here.

Rainwater

Under Pennsylvania law, rainwater is considered “diffused surface water.” It is completely legal to catch rainwater in PA and the state even encourages it as a way to control storm runoff.

If you want to use rain barrels outside for irrigating, you will not need a permit or to meet any codes.  If you want to use rainwater indoors though, your system will likely need to meet the requirements for non-potable plumbing systems.

This includes keeping the potable and non-potable systems separate and using a system for identifying the non-potable system.

Also Read:

Sewage and Waste Removal

Pennsylvania has very strict rules about sewage and waste removal.  Many counties require you to connect to the municipal sewer system if it is available, thus making it illegal to go completely off-grid.  While the state does allow alternative sewage systems, you’ll most likely be required to install a septic system.

Septic

Septic systems are highly regulated by Sewage Enforcement Officers (SEOs) in Pennsylvania.

You will first need to apply for a permit. The SESO will examine the site and do a soil test to determine if the site is suitable for septic. If approved, the SEO can oversee the construction and will perform an inspection before the septic system can be used.

Expect a new septic system in PA to cost at least $15,000.

Many areas of PA have soil that is unsuitable for conventional septic systems. In these cases, the SEO may recommend an alternative system.  There is a list of alternative systems on their website here.

You May Not Own Your Septic System in PA

Some Pennsylvania counties have weird laws which say that you don’t actually own the septic system on your property.  For example, Broad Top Township law says that the property owner is responsible for getting all permits, construction, and costs of a new septic system but,

The new system will be owned and maintained by the Broad Top Township Supervisors in perpetuity through a designated and recorded easement on the property.  The property owner will be required to pay the Township a monthly service fee.

Compost Toilets

Compost toilets exist in a legal gray area in Pennsylvania. While they are technically legal, they are not mentioned in the State’s list of alternate systems.

Thus, it will probably be very difficult to get a permit for a compost toilet. Even if the local SEO does permit your compost toilet, you’ll likely still need to have septic for dealing with wastewater in the home.

The good news is that an approved compost toilet could reduce your septic requirements, especially if your property has soil unsuitable for conventional septic systems.

Also Read:

Outhouses/Latrines

Outhouses are called pit privies under Pennsylvania law.  They are almost always illegal.  However, many counties have an exception that allows pit privies in homes that don’t have water under pressure.

You will still need to get a permit for the pit privy, which involves a site inspection and soil test.  If you ever get pressurized water to the home, you’ll have to discontinue using the pit privy.

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Garbage Removal

Many rural areas in PA do not require you to sign up for trash collection services.  However, be warned that you will probably need a burn permit if you plan on burning trash.

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

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