Rhode Island Off Grid Laws: An In-Depth Guide


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Last Updated: July 4, 2022

Are you tired of paying high utility bills in Rhode Island or want to live a more self-reliant life? Before you disconnect, make sure you know Rhode Island’s laws about off-grid living. It may be illegal to live the type of off grid life that you want in the State.

Is Living Off-Grid Legal in Rhode Island?

In many places in Rhode Island, it is illegal to live off grid because of local laws which require you to connect to the municipal water and sewer system. It is also illegal to live a primitive type of life in RI as state law requires dwellings to have potable water under pressure, flushing toilets, and electricity. 

If you don’t want to connect to the public utilities, it can be challenging and expensive to meet these requirements while living 100% off-grid.  

Building Codes in Rhode Island

With very few exceptions, all residential buildings in Rhode Island have to meet the following codes. If your home is used as a business, you may have to meet additional codes.

  • Rhode Island Building Code (Based on the International Building Code 2018, with amendments)
  • Rhode Island State One and Two Family Dwelling Code (Based on the International Residential Code 2018, with amendments)
  • Rhode Island Plumbing Code (Based on International Plumbing Code 2018, with amendments)
  • Rhode Island Mechanical Code (Based on the International Mechanical Code 2018, with amendments)
  • Rhode Island Electrical Code (Based on the National Electrical Code 2020, with amendments)
  • Rhode Island Property Maintenance Code (Based on the International Property Maintenance Code 2018, with amendments)
  • Rhode Island Energy Conservation Code (Based on the International Energy Conservation Code 2018, with amendments)
  • Rhode Island State Fuel Gas Code (Based on the International Fuel Gas Code 2018, with amendments)

See the complete list of RI building codes here.

Rhode Island Zoning Laws and Off-Grid Living

Rhode Island municipalities are incorporated as towns or cities. Each town and city has its own zoning laws, which ultimately decide what you can legally do on your property. 

In general, land zoned as “Agricultural” has fewer restrictions. In Ag zones, you’ll usually be able to do things like farm, raise animals or have a private sewer or water connection. The problem is that there are very few areas in Rhode Island with Ag zoning.   

It varies by town and city, but here are just some of the zoning laws you might come across:

  • Minimum lot sizes: These usually aren’t too large, but you may need to have at least 80,000 sq. feet in some zones.
  • Types of businesses allowed on property
  • Whether you can raise animals or not
  • Setbacks and maximum lot coverage
  • Whether accessory dwelling units are allowed

Exceptions for Cabins

There are no code exceptions in Rhode Island for hunting or fishing cabins, unlike in many other states. You even need a permit for some accessory buildings like sheds. If you want to build a primitive or rustic cabin, you’ll likely need to get a camping permit for your land.  

Living in a Mobile Home or Manufactured Home

Living in a mobile home is illegal almost everywhere in Rhode Island under zoning laws. It is only allowed in specific emergencies, such as if your main home was destroyed in a natural disaster.

It is legal to live in a manufactured home or modular home. You’ll have to meet the State’s requirements regarding construction.

Here are the parts of the Rhode Island State Building Code which deal with manufactured and modular homes:

MANUFACTURED HOMES (Section 425.1)

Manufactured homes are constructed in accordance with the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development Part 3280 Manufactured Home Construction and Safety Standards. Refer to Appendix E of SBC2-2013 the Rhode Island One and Two Family Dwelling Code for specific provisions regarding permitting, foundation systems, additions, site utility connections and foundation and anchorage details.

SECTION 426 MODULAR CONSTRUCTION (Section 422.1)

Buildings and structures partially or completely constructed off-site shall be constructed in conformance with this code or SBC-2-2013 the Rhode Island Residential One and Two Family Code as appropriate for the use and occupancy. Manufacturers shall be registered with the Interstate Industrialized Building Commission (IIBC) and submit for approvals and permits in accordance with RIGL 23-27.4 and IIBC Compact regulations.

Can You Camp on Your Own Property?

It is illegal to camp on your property in Rhode Island. The rules vary by town and city but expect a camping permit to be required. 

To get the permit, you’ll have to meet strict rules about bathroom facilities, waste removal, etc. Even if you can meet these requirements, there is no guarantee that you will get a camping permit, as it’s ultimately up to the zoning board.

Tiny Home Laws in Rhode Island

Like many states in the USA, Rhode Island isn’t very friendly to tiny houses. Under Title 45, all dwellings must contain at least 150 square feet of floor space for the first occupant and at least 130 square feet of floor space for every additional occupant.

In dwellings with two or more rooms, each bedroom must be at least 70 square feet for the first occupant and an additional 50 square feet for each additional occupant. Some local zoning codes may require even larger minimum dwelling sizes.

In early 2022, there was a House Bill that would require tiny houses to be allowed as Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). The bill was withdrawn. Even if it passed, it would still be subject to local zoning laws regarding ADUs.

Accessory Dwelling Unit Laws

Many places in Rhode Island have stringent zoning rules about accessory dwelling units. For example, under zoning laws in Providence, ADUs are only allowed for family members who are disabled or at least 62 years old. 

The law also states,

“The appearance of the structure shall remain that of a single-family residence and there shall be an internal means of egress between the principal unit and the accessory family dwelling unit. If possible, no additional exterior entrances should be added.”

Once the family member no longer lives there, you are no longer allowed to have the ADU. 

Under Bristol zoning, ADUs are only allowed if the main house is at least 1,200 square feet and the ADU is at least 300 square feet.

Primitive Living and Certificate of Occupancy in RI

In Rhode Island (and many parts of the USA), you cannot legally live in a building without first getting a Certificate of Occupancy. To get the Certificate, you must first undergo inspections of electrical, plumbing, etc.

Rhode Island laws are particularly strict. The Building Code requires you to have potable water, electrical fixtures, heating, and a water heater in your home: you won’t be able to get a Certificate of Occupancy without these. This essentially makes it illegal to live a primitive lifestyle in Rhode Island.

Off-Grid Electricity in Rhode Island

Off-grid electricity exists in a legal gray area in Rhode Island. 

Title 45 requires all dwellings within 300 feet of an available power line to have “electric service.”  If you live somewhere far away from a power line, you can legally have off-grid power. However, the State Building Codes require you to have some basic electrical fixtures, so you won’t be able to live without any power at all legally.

Title 45 Section 24.3 reads:

Where there is usable electric service available from power lines, not more than three hundred feet (300′) away from a dwelling, every dwelling unit, and all public and common areas, must be supplied with electric service, outlets and fixtures which are properly installed, maintained in good and safe working condition, and connected to the source of electric power in a manner prescribed by the ordinances, rules, and regulations of the corporate unit.  

Off-Grid Water Laws in Rhode Island

Off grid water is sometimes legal in Rhode Island. Some places in Rhode Island have zoning laws that require you to connect to the public water supply. In these areas, off-grid living is essentially illegal.

Under the RI Plumbing Code, you must have potable water under pressure inside your home. Under these rules, for example, it would be illegal to hand-carry well water into your home. It would also be illegal not to have any plumbing in your home.

The law states, (definitions here)

602.1 General: 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.

602.2 Potable Water Required
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.

601.6 Individual Water Supply: An individual water supply serving an occupied building shall be tested and certified potable prior to issuance of a temporary or permanent certificate of occupancy.

Read the full State Plumbing Code here. And you can find RI’s regulations for private wells here.

Rainwater Harvesting Laws in Rhode Island

Rainwater harvesting is legal in Rhode Island, and you do not need a permit for rainwater tanks that are less than 5,000 gallons. However, all rainwater harvesting systems in RI must meet the requirements laid out in Section 1303 of the State Plumbing Code.

Under the code, rainwater harvesting systems must meet specific requirements like having debris excluders and ways to keep vermin out of them. If you want to use rainwater for flushing toilets, you’ll have to meet the rules regarding nonpotable water or gray water reuse.

Sewage and Waste Removal Laws in Rhode Island

In many parts of Rhode Island, you must connect to the public sewer system. This essentially makes it illegal to go completely off grid in RI.   If you don’t connect to the sewer system, you’ll likely need to install septic.

Read more about RI Onsite Wastewater Treatment laws here.

Compost Toilets

Rhode Island does allow some alternative toilets, including compost toilets. However, the toilet must meet National Sanitation Foundation Standard 41. 

There are other restrictions, like having to file reports every two years. On top of that, you must have a way of treating graywater – which almost inevitably means having a septic system. In this sense, it is illegal to have just a compost toilet in RI. Read the full rules here.

Are Outhouses Legal in Rhode Island (Pit and Vault Privies)?

Outhouses are illegal in Rhode Island. Even campgrounds are generally required to have flush toilets and septic systems. The RI Cesspool Act of 2007 also made it illegal to use cesspools with virtually no exceptions.  

Graywater Recycling Laws

If you want to recycle graywater in Rhode Island, you will need to disinfect and/or filter it first, even for flushing toilets. There are also other regulations, like not being allowed to hold untreated gray water in collection reservoirs for more than 24 hours at a time. These regulations can make it very expensive to install a graywater recycling or reuse system, which is up to code.

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