Many 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.
Table Of Contents
- Is Living Off-Grid Legal in Tennessee?
- Best Places for Off-Grid Living in Tennessee
- Off-Grid Electricity in Tennessee
- Off-Grid Water in Tennessee
- Sewage and Waste Removal
- RVs and Tiny Homes
Is Living Off-Grid Legal in Tennessee?
It is completely legal to live off grid in Tennessee, except for some urban places where building codes might make it illegal.
The biggest legal hurdles you are likely to encounter while going off-grid in TN are 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 that 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.
- Things You Learn by Living Without Electricity
- Off-Gridder’s Guide to Solar Power
- Off Grid Refrigerators
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
- How to Get Water When Living Off Grid
- Rainwater Harvesting: Intro Guide
- Choosing Rainwater Barrels 101
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 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 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 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.
- Off-Grid Waste Removal Systems Explained
- Modern Outhouse Designs
- How Composting Toilets Work
- DIY Composting Toilet Instructions
- Reviewed: Best Composting Toilets
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.
Leave a comment
Thanks for sharing such a great post. It is very useful and informative. Valuable information you have shared.
This was very helpful. Thank you so much…
You quoted TN law from 0400-48-01-.17 “Privies and Composting toilets” and used the definition of “facility” to mean the actual dwelling place of the individual(s). It isn’t covered in State definitions but nowhere have i ever seen a residence referred to as a facility. I have seen businesses and equipment used for a specific purpose called a “facility” but never a household or dwelling place. I have seen a restroom or bathroom referred to as a facility.
The intent here, seems to me, means you can have no running water that could be in the toilet area that could cause water to be introduced such that wastewater would have to be treated as such.
Tennessee allows compost toilets that are certified by NSF standard 41 (I can only find 2 companies with products that meet this certification: Sun-Mar and Clivus Multrum. ) These are allowed by Tennessee law.
To then state you can’t wash your hands as a sanitary practice by stepping out of the facility into an area where there is running water seems ludicrous to me.
Do you have any other references that show this “facility” to mean something different than what facitlity means in our natural use of the language? I DO live offgrid in Tennessee. I DO compost my excretmemt. I do NOT have running water in said facility but have it near by for proper sanitation reasons. I am a private landowner managing my own solid waste in a legal manner on my own property as is also referenced by the TN Department of Environment and Conservation when referencing “Illegal Dumping”.
More clarity on this subject would be greatly appreciated.
I enjoyed your article.
I’m not a lawyer so these articles are really meant as a starting point for people to get an idea of what the laws are and what they might be in for when going off-grid. A lot of laws also use intentionally ambigous language — basically meaning that it is up to the local health inspector/authority to decide what is “legal” and what isn’t. For more clarity, I’d recommend checking with the local inspectors. Though that could backfire by putting you on their radar. :/
The very last part of the article says it best! Investigate the dept first no real name no real address just ask questions. Let’s face it most state or county employees did not earn the position! You know nepotism. Never worked for what they have so they are better than you. And just say no had one tell me it was illegal in Tn to live on an RV that is a lie.
Looking to go off grid in TN. Would you care to elaborate on how you handle all this crazy stuff about wastewater, waste management, etc.? Its all so confusing.
I’m currently in the process of purchasing land in TN to be off grid. Can you explain a little more about the compost system you are using?
kelly could i ask you for advice on these matters? just bought 15 acres unrestricted and iam being told i cannot do what you are doing
Great Article and wonderful comments! I’m currently building on my property and have future plans and this gave me a great starting point with the idea I can divert a bit of water for agriculture. I’m going to get deeper into that law thanks to this Article! Much appreciated
Very Informative. Currently looking for at least 5 acres in Polk or McMinn county to put up a yurt. It will be our full time residence. Will get a permit to dig a well and septic. Ensuring the yurt isn’t visible from the road, and we are on unrestricted land, do you think we will have problems with code enforcement/ zoning? Thanks!
I don’t know where yurts fit into the building codes, especially energy efficiency requirements for things like insulation. This site has some good info though: https://www.yurtinfo.org/yurts-and-building-codes
Someone will probably notice a yurt eventually, so I wouldn’t count on it going unnoticed. It might be worth hiring a lawyer who understands building code to help you navigate the laws and find loopholes.
I just wanted to add a note with regard to the Tennessee greenbelt law. The $1500 yearly income is not a requirement to qualify as agricultural land.
(Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-1004(1))
For land to qualify as agricultural, it must be at least 15 acres, including woodlands and wastelands, and either:
(1) constitute a farm unit engaged in the production or growing of agricultural products; or
(2) have been farmed by the owner or the owner’s parent or spouse for at least 25 years and is used as the residence of the owner and not used for any purpose inconsistent with an agricultural use.
Classification as agricultural (Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-1005(a)(3))
In determining whether any land is agricultural land, the assessor of property shall take into account, among other things, the acreage of the land, the productivity of the land, and the portion of land in actual use for farming or agricultural operation.
If land classified as agricultural produces gross agricultural income averaging at least $1,500 per year over any three-year period, then the assessor may presume that a tract of land is agricultural. This presumption is rebuttable. In other words, it is not a requirement that an owner prove this income. It is only an aid for the assessor to use. Even if the land does not produce any income, it can still qualify, as long as the land is being actively farmed.
I am interested in understanding why you selected Cannon County as a good place to go off-grid in TN? Thank you.
Lots of natural resources nearby and zoning laws are fairly relaxed. It also isn’t very dense but the minimum lot sizes are reasonable.
People, Tennessee is s terrible place, it’s full of shoeless hillbillies and packs of wild dogs. The summers here are very hot and humid, and everyone is armed to the teeth. Please , for your own safety, don’t move to TN.
I agree ! But most of the shoeless hillbillies are in the zoning departments. Haha
Yes I was kidding (mostly), but seriously, we’re full lol
Burner is right!!!! We are full to the brim! Kentucky needs more people, and West Virginia! So many people are moving to Eastern TN that it won’t be very rural for much longer. Also, the article referred to the Tennessee Valley Association. It is the Tennessee Valley Authority, not Association. Immaterial to the article I know, but thought I would mention it before it causes someone confusion.
I have 3 acres in carroll county. I am planning on building a pre-cut kit home myself. According to what I can find every 2yrs a property owner can build on their own land without needing to be a licensed contractor.
I’m getting mixed answers on whether or not that means I need a building permit and/or inspections.
Carroll county does not have building codes and I’m not within any city limits (out in the boonies)
I currently live in washington state where there are rules, regulations and people breathing down your neck about everything (we can’t even have rain barrels here without a permit) So the idea that I’m basically free to do as I please is a very foreign (but pleasant) concept.
Can someone confirm and point me in the right direction for the rules on whether or not a building permit is required. Thank you
Hello. I was wondering if anyone has experience in off grid solar in Greene county Tn. I am trying to purchase an off grid 13 KWH system for a DIY install. In speaking to the Greene county power company this morning, they said I had to have the system professionally installed, and buy a 1 Million dollar insurance plan, plus they had to inspect and approve all features of the system and that they would install a new meter for their own purposes? What the heck. I told the moron several times it was a Off Grid System not connected to their lines at all. He said I had to do an Interconnect plan. Then I said well that’s ridiculous and What if I cancelled all services from their power company and discontinued usage at all which Is what I had planned on doing anyways, he said no one has ever had their lines and meters removed? Really? So any help would be appreciated. Thanks.
Tn. Does not require you connect to the grid for any reason.
Hey Dan Weber,
We have 50+ acres in East TN. Been here….well before Tennessee became a state.
Our 18th century log home is off grid.
The only reason for a power company to insist on inspecting your solar system or installing a meter (on a pole or your living structure) is if you request your solar system be connected to their grid.
Some folks install a solar system and connect it to the grid to get paid for power they generate into the grid. This comes with inspections, permits, fees, rules and regs. Plus basic meter costs, taxes, and line maintenance costs. Don’t forget their right to enter your property at will to maintain their lines and equipment. Also, the funds returned for electric power sent to the grid is reduced by the power company. So you won’t get back what they charge you for the same power.
Bottom line. It counters everything for going OFF GRID!
Hi. I own some property on a fast running creek in Unicoi County Tennessee. There’s only a thin strip (maybe 100 ft at the widest) between road and the creek. I want to put a small one-room (plus bathroom) on stilts on that strip but water table is less than one foot down. I can’t put a septic system there, and according to your information, can’t put a composting toilet there either. Any ideas? Or who would I contact for more information? A builder? Plumber? Thank you.
I’d start by writing or calling the TN Department of Environment and Conservation (https://www.tn.gov/environment/permit-permits-home.html) and seeing what they say. Some local plumbers might also know the codes and loopholes.
Call the local guys before ever involving Gov.