South Dakota is definitely not an easy place to go off grid with its harsh climate. But, with plenty of cheap land available and beautiful nature, the state is becoming more popular with people who want to disconnect.
Before you buy property, here is what you need to know about the legalities of living off-grid in South Dakota.
Is Living Off-Grid Legal in South Dakota?
Living off-grid in South Dakota is usually legal. The main issues you might come up against are requirements to connect to the municipal sewage and water systems. There are rules which prohibit certain off-grid systems, such as compost toilets.
It can also be challenging to get water rights, even for using water on your own property. The laws vary by county, so you’ll have to check local laws before buying property.
South Dakota Zoning Laws and Off-Grid Living
Like everywhere else in the USA, what you are ultimately allowed to do on your property depends on local zoning laws. Luckily, much of South Dakota land is zoned as “Agriculture.” The rules in Agriculture zones tend to be very relaxed, such as allowing you to have livestock and build sheds without needing a permit.
One potential issue with agricultural zoning is that there may be a large minimum parcel size. For example, Yankon requires a minimum of 10 acres per dwelling in Ag zones. However, Spearfish only requires 1 acre in Ag zones. Do your research before buying!
Areas without Zoning in South Dakota
There are still some places in South Dakota without any zoning at all.
For example, Butte County (with “some exceptions”) does not have zoning ordinances. While this may seem great, no zoning comes with the risk that your neighbors could open a strip club, pig farm, or other nuisance next door, and there would be nothing you could do about it.
Building Codes in South Dakota
All buildings in South Dakota must meet the State building codes listed below. Compared to other states, South Dakota doesn’t have nearly as many codes – and some types of buildings may be exempted (see this).
- 2015 International Building Code (IBC), with amendments
- 2015 International Fire Code (IFC), with amendments
- 2015 International Mechanical Code (IMC)
- 2020 National Electrical Code (NFPA), with amendments
- South Dakota Codified Law (which includes plumbing laws)
Note that these are state codes. Your local county may have stricter codes. Even if your county doesn’t inspect or enforce codes, you still have to follow them.
The county could always start doing inspections later on, meaning you end up in a nightmare where your home isn’t legal, and you have to suddenly get it up to code or face massive fines.
Off-Grid Electricity in South Dakota
It is entirely legal to have off-grid electricity in South Dakota. You are still required to meet the State’s electrical codes for whatever system you have and get the proper permits for it (it varies depending on the county).
As for incentives, South Dakota has a property tax exemption for renewable energy systems less than 5 megawatts in size. There currently are no other statewide incentives, though.
Off-Grid Water Laws in South Dakota
Because South Dakota frequently suffers from drought, it can be difficult to get off-grid water legally. You will need a permit to use water in many situations.
There is also a weird law that states,
“Each building in which plumbing fixtures are installed shall connect to a public water supply system if available. A public water system is available to a premise used for human occupancy if the property line of the premise is within two hundred feet of the system.”
I haven’t heard any stories of counties forcing people to hook up to the city water supply, and the law doesn’t prohibit you from also having an off-grid water supply. However, it effectively makes it illegal to only have an off-grid system.
Who Owns the Water in South Dakota?
The people of the state own all water in South Dakota. With some exceptions, you must get a water rights permit before using water – even water located on your property.
Water rights are based on the system of prior appropriations: whoever obtained water rights first has priority over other water rights users, except for individual domestic rights. In times of drought, domestic use takes precedent over all other water uses.
Water Rights Permits in South Dakota
You need water rights before using any water in South Dakota, including groundwater and surface water. The only exception is for domestic use of fewer than 25,920 gallons per day or a 25 gallons per minute peak pump rate.
Domestic use includes:
- Irrigating non-commercial gardens, crops, trees, etc. of less than 1 acre in size
- Stock watering
- Drinking, washing, sanitary use
For all other uses, you will need water rights. You must apply through the South Dakota Department of Agriculture & Natural Resources to get rights. Your permit will only be granted if it is considered for beneficial use and does not infringe on existing water rights.
Some laws prohibit new water rights if the withdrawal would dry out aquifers. It can take several months to get water rights, so you must plan in advance.
Read more about South Dakota water rights permits here.
Dams and Ponds
It is legal to dig a pond and create dams on your property. You do not need a water rights permit if:
- Storing up to 25 acre-feet of water on a dry draw or a non-navigable watercourse
- The dam cannot change the course of the water
- You file a location notice with the county register
Read more details of the law here.
Well Water Laws in South Dakota
South Dakota has very relaxed laws for domestic water wells. You can even legally dig your own well so long as you meet the state’s well construction standards. However, if not digging it yourself, you need to use a licensed well driller.
Read more about well-drilling laws in SD here.
Also, see our guides about off-grid wells and well pumps:
- How much does it cost to dig a well?
- Best manual well pump
- Best solar well pump
- Types of well pump
- How to prime a well pump after a power outage
- How to install a shallow well pump
Rainwater Harvesting Laws in South Dakota
It is legal to harvest rainwater in South Dakota. In some places, you may even be able to legally use rainwater indoors as your primary potable water source.
A lot of states have adopted the Uniform Plumbing Code (UPC). Under the UPC, you must keep potable and nonpotable water sources separate. Some states have even stricter codes requiring you to treat rainwater before using it to flush toilets! This makes it impossible or very difficult to legally use rainwater in your house.
Luckily, South Dakota has not adopted the UPC statewide (some counties have, though). Because of this, you might even be able to use rainwater indoors for things like washing clothes legally, or it will be much easier to use rainwater inside and outside. SD even makes it legal to install your own plumbing systems (more on that here).
If you want to install sizeable underground water cisterns, you may need an excavation permit. You’ll have to check with your local county.
Read more about rainwater harvesting.
Sewage and Waste Removal Laws in South Dakota
As is the case in many states, sewage treatment laws might make it illegal for you to live completely off-grid in South Dakota. SDCL 9-48-53 requires all buildings in which plumbing fixtures are installed to connect to a public wastewater collection system if one is located within 200 feet of the property. Thus, if you live near a municipal sewer system, it would be illegal to use septic.
Note that some cities in South Dakota have even stricter requirements. Under Rapid City law, for example, you must connect to the sewer system if it is located within 400 feet of the building. Check the local sewage laws if you want to live completely off-grid!
If you are allowed to have off-grid sewage treatment in South Dakota, it will likely be septic. Alternative systems are usually not allowed or have strict rules, making them difficult to use legally. Certified professionals must install septic systems. You must have at least 1 acre of property for septic and meet setback requirements.
Note that you will not be able to get a residential building permit until you have gotten your wastewater disposal permit. If buying property for an off-grid home, make sure the soil is suitable for septic before purchase, or you could end up with useless land that you can’t legally build on.
Compost toilets are technically legal in South Dakota. Still, the law is written to make it almost impossible to use a compost toilet as your primary waste treatment method.
Under the law, composting toilets are only legal if water or electrical systems are not available. They are treated as experimental systems under the law, and you must submit plans and specifications for approval before installing the compost toilet.
The process is incredibly complex and confusing, so be prepared for a lot of paperwork if you wish to use a compost toilet in SD legally!
Are Outhouses Legal in South Dakota (Pit and Vault Privies)?
South Dakota law states,
“The construction of a cesspool or a pit privy is prohibited. The operation of a cesspool or a pit privy constructed after February 28, 1975, is prohibited.”
Thus, it is illegal to use an outhouse unless constructed before 1975. However, there is a loophole in the law that makes vault privies legal when a “water or electrical system is not available.” You’ll still need a permit. Read the requirements for vault privies in SD here.
Compared to other states, South Dakota has very relaxed rules about graywater. It varies by county, but many places allow you to reuse graywater for flushing toilets or irrigating non-food crops. There may be some storage requirements. Minnehaha County, for example, requires graywater to be stored in a holding tank and allowed to settle for at least three days before using it.
Do you live off grid in South Dakota? Let us know about your experiences in the comments section below.