Tennessee Off-Grid Laws: An In Depth Guide


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Last Updated: March 8, 2021

A lot of people who want to live the off-grid dream are drawn to Tennessee because of its long growing season, moderately-priced land and beautiful nature.

But, before you look for land in Tennessee, it’s important to understand what laws might get in the way of off-grid living.


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Is Living Off-Grid Legal in Tennessee?

With the exception of some urban places where building codes might make it illegal, going off-grid is completely legal in Tennessee.

The biggest legal hurdles you are likely to encounter while going off-grid in TN is sewage hookup requirements and alternative waste disposal systems.

Best Places for Off-Grid Living in Tennessee

Outside of urban areas, it’s fairly easy to go off-grid in any area of Tennessee.  However, many areas of Tennessee have big issues with poverty, drug use (meth especially), and crime.

There are also occasional floods and tornadoes in Tennessee.  Because of these issues, the Eastern part of Tennessee is considered best for going off-grid. You’ll find many people living off-grid and laws friendly to the lifestyle.

Some good places to go off-grid in TN include:

  • Morgan County
  • Cannon County
  • Polk County
  • Chester County
  • Lawrence County (home to this eco community)

If you are looking for land in TN, you might want to check out the Knoxville Permaculture Guild and Homesteaders in Middle TN Facebook group for advice.

Tennessee Zoning Laws and Off-Grid Living

Zoning laws are local rules which dictate how you can use land.  The rules typically regulate things like minimum plot sizes, whether you are allowed to farm, and what type of structures you can put on your land. Compared to other states, Tennessee has very relaxed zoning laws.

Many areas of Tennessee don’t have any zoning at all, which essentially means you are free to use the land how you want.

When it is in zoning, much of Tennessee land is zoned as “Agricultural” or “Rural.” There are very few restrictions on how you can use this land.  The only times you are likely to encounter problems with zoning laws while trying to go off-grid is in urban areas or conservation areas.

Building Codes and Permits in Tennessee

One pleasant surprise about Tennessee is that many areas don’t require building permits.  For example, Morgan County doesn’t require building permits for any structure (you always need a permit in TN for septic and grid-tied electric). Chester County also doesn’t require building permits outside of cities.

Note, however, that you will still be required to follow building codes even if a permit is not required. Tennessee uses the International Building Code which outlines basic rules (most common sense safety measures) for plumbing, electric, etc.

In areas of Tennessee where no building permits are required, you could always take a risk and build a structure which isn’t up to code.  However, it’s a big risk: Local laws could change and suddenly you end up with inspectors at your door and facing steep fines if you don’t get your building up to code.

Qualifying As a Farm in Tennessee

The Agricultural, Forest and Open Space Land Act of 1976 (aka Greenbelt Law) allows certain lands to be taxed at their use value instead of market value.  This can save you considerable amounts on property taxes.

To qualify as a farmer under the Greenbelt Law, you must have:

  • At least 15 acres of land being put to agricultural use
  • A minimum gross income of $1,500 from farming per year over any three consecutive year period

Forest and open-space land can also qualify under the Greenbelt Law.

In addition to this, Tennessee farmers also get a sales tax exemption. You can read about the requirements here.

Also read: How to Protect Your Property with a Homestead Declaration

Off-Grid Electricity in Tennessee

There are no laws in Tennessee which prevent you from disconnecting from the electric grid.

However, Tennessee laws don’t do much in encouraging people to go off-grid either!

There are currently no state tax incentives or rebates for installing solar power. Solar panels are usually exempt from property taxes in most states but this isn’t the case in Tennessee: you’ll be stuck paying higher property taxes if your solar panels increase your home value.

There are some benefits for installing grid-tied solar panels, such as the rebate and net-metering offered by Tennessee Valley Association.

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Off-Grid Water in Tennessee

Under Tennessee law, you do not own the water on your land. Every drop of water – whether from the ground, surface or rain — belongs to the state.  Despite this law, you can generally use the water on your property with very few restrictions.

Tennessee is considered a water-rich state, so the fact that you don’t own the water usually doesn’t matter. However, droughts are becoming more common in Tennessee.  While it hasn’t happened yet, it is possible that the government might set water-use restrictions during times of drought.  There’s also a longstanding battle about water rights between Tennessee and neighboring states.

You can read details about Tennessee water rights laws here, here and here.  

Surface Water

Even though the state of Tennessee owns the water, they still follow the rules of Riparian rights. You are legally allowed to use the water on your property or its boundary, so long as the water is put to “beneficial use.”

You are even allowed to alter the course of the water so long as you do not hinder the water rights of other property owners.  When two properties are bordered by a body of water such as a stream, their rights go to the center of the stream.

What does this mean?

You could divert a small amount of water to create a pond on your property, irrigate crops, for hydropower, etc.  But, if diverting the water caused your downstream neighbors to have less water, it would be prohibited.  Basically, what would be considered a “reasonable diversion” depends on how large the body of water is and how many other people are using it.

If a dispute with your neighbors occurred over water-use, you’d likely have to settle it in court.  In times of drought or when there isn’t enough water, “domestic use withdrawals” have priority under the law: the court could rule you and your neighbors can use the water for drinking/bathing/flushing toilets but not for irrigating commercial crops.

Navigable Waters

Surface water rights get more complicated when it’s a navigable water. All navigable waters are considered “public highways” under Tennessee law.  They can be used by anyone for fishing, boating, commerce, etc.  This means you may not be allowed to put up a fence on your property next to the waterway.

Instead of having riparian rights to the center of the waterway, you only have right to the water down to its low watermark on your property.

Well Water

You are allowed to drill a well on your property in Tennessee.  Water sampling is not required by the state. There are only a few restrictions:

  • The water must be put to “beneficial use”
  • You must use a licensed well-driller
  • A permit is required for withdrawals of more than 10,000 gallons per day

Rainwater

Rainwater harvesting in Tennessee is completely legal, even for potable use. Even the Nashville Music City Convention Center uses rainwater to flush toilets in the building.  Note that, in many areas, you’ll be required to follow building codes pertaining to potable water if you want to use rainwater indoors or for drinking water.   You can find TN codes about rainwater systems here.

There currently aren’t any statewide incentives for installing rainwater harvesting systems in TN. However, Chattanooga city does offer incentives (see here) and Nashville has some green building incentives which could apply (see here). Let us know in the comments section if you know of any other incentives for rainwater harvesting in TN!

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Sewage and Waste Removal

Tennessee laws states that,

On any lot or premise accessible to the sewer, no other method of sewage disposal shall be employed.

This law means that, if you live somewhere near a sewer hookup, you will not legally be able to go completely off-grid.  In some places, the sewer bill is connected to the water bill.  So, you might be required to pay monthly water utility fees too – even if you are not using municipal water.  You can see Tennessee sewage disposal law here.

Graywater Recycling

Graywater recycling is legal in Tennessee.  It is regulated under Tennessee plumbing code (see the section here).  The law allows you to use graywater for irrigation.  You can even use graywater from urinals and toilets, but it must be disinfected first.

Compost Toilets

Compost toilets are legal in Tennessee so long as they are an approved model. However, the law states that they “shall not be permitted for a facility where the facility has running water available unless there is an acceptable means to dispose of wastewater.”

Unless you are hauling buckets of well-water into your home (or some other way to keep running water out of your home), this law means you won’t legally be able to use a compost toilet without also installing septic or a complex graywater disposal system.

Outhouses/Latrines

Outhouses are usually not legal in Tennessee. Like with composting toilets, they are only allowed as the sole means of waste disposal when the home has no running water.  You’ll still need to get a permit and approval for the outhouse, which ultimately is up to local inspectors.

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RVs and Tiny Homes

Living in an RV or tiny home is somewhat legal in Tennessee.  To be legal, the home usually must be on a permanent foundation and have an approved septic system.  However, the rules are less strict in places without zoning.

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