Thinking of moving to Utah to live off grid? Before you start looking for land, make sure you understand Utah laws about off grid living. Here’s what you need to know about zoning, power, waste treatment and water rights laws.
Is Living Off-Grid Legal in Utah?
Living off grid is usually legal in remote parts of Utah. However, some areas of Utah require you to connect to the municipal sewer system, effectively making it illegal to live completely off grid. In addition to that, it is impossible to get water rights in some parts of Utah, which can limit your ability to live off grid.
Utah Zoning Laws and Off-Grid Living
Zoning laws in Utah will ultimately determine what is legal or illegal on your property.
It is common, for example, to find zoning laws minimum dwelling sizes – thus making tiny homes and mobile homes illegal. You’ll also find zoning laws about the number of allowed farm animals, landscaping requirements, setbacks, and which types of businesses are allowed.
Land zoned as agricultural in Utah tends to have the least restrictions. However, agricultural land often has minimum parcel sizes. This can make it expensive to go off grid since you will have to buy a large plot of land.
Building Codes in Utah
All properties in Utah must meet the State building codes. In particular, the fire codes can be pretty strict and make some types of off-grid structures or systems illegal. Even if your county doesn’t enforce codes, they still exist. The county could always decide to start enforcing codes later on, thus creating a legal nightmare for you – so disobey building codes at your own risk.
- 2018 IBC with amendments
- 2020 National Electrical Code with amendments
- 2015 International Residential Code with amendments
- 2018 International Existing Building Code with amendments
- 2018 Fire Code with amendments
- 2018 International Plumbing Code with amendments
- 2018 International Mechanical Code with amendments
- 2018 International Fuel Gas Code with amendments
- 2015 International Energy Conservation Code with amendments
- 2018 Swimming Pool and Spa Code with amendments
- 2009 Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities Code with amendments
- 2014 Building Code Requirements for Structural Concrete with amendments
Off-Grid Electricity in Utah
Off-grid electricity is legal in Utah. You need a permit to install solar panels but the permitting process is generally fairly simple. It is generally illegal to install your own solar panels and will have to get a licensed electrician to do it. You will also need to have an inspection after the solar power system is installed.
Using wind power legally in Utah is often much more difficult. Many areas have zoning ordinances that prohibit wind turbines over 35 feet, establish setbacks, and have noise limits. Some counties also have other restrictions, such as requiring property owners to have insurance for their wind turbines.
Off-Grid Water Laws in Utah
Almost all of Utah is under severe drought and many water reservoirs are dangerously low. As a result, it is difficult or even impossible to get a water-use permit in many parts of the state. This could make it impossible to go off grid legally in Utah.
Who owns the water in Utah?
All water in Utah is owned by the public but regulated by the state.
To determine who can use water, Utah uses the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation: whoever put the water to beneficial use first has the right to use the water.
In situations where multiple people have claims to a limited water supply, the senior water rights holder gets priority use. In order to keep a water right, the water must be put to beneficial use (“use it or lose it”).
How to get water rights in Utah
Before using any water in Utah – including water on your property – you must apply for a right to appropriate the water through the Utah State Engineer. The process involves filling out a form, providing details about how you intend to use the water, and paying fees. The next step is filing a public notification about your intent to appropriate water. If anyone files a protest, a public hearing will be held.
Areas closed to new water appropriations in Utah
Because of drought conditions and overuse, some areas of Utah are completely closed off to new appropriations of water. You won’t be able to legally use water in these areas, even for small appropriations like domestic wells. There were even cases where towns had to stop construction projects that required water connections – the towns simply didn’t have enough water available.
It’s also worth noting that the law allows the government to take away water rights. So, even if you get a water right and are a senior rights holder, you might not be allowed to use that water in times of drought.
For more, see this Utah drought monitor map. Also this map of special water permitting areas.
Surface Water Laws
Because Utah uses the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation, you do not automatically have the legal right to use water on or next to your property. You must first apply for a right to appropriate the water. Don’t be surprised if someone else already has rights to that water, making it illegal for you to use.
Digging a Pond on Your Property
Under Utah law, even small ponds are considered dams. You must get a permit from the State Engineer before beginning construction. You must have a right to appropriate water before applying for the dam permit.
Read more about the laws for digging small dams in Utah here.
Well Water Laws in Utah
Under Utah law, you must have a right to appropriate water before constructing a well. In some parts of the state, it is impossible to get a water right – even for small domestic wells – because of water scarcity.
All wells deeper than 30 feet must be constructed by a Utah Licensed Well Driller. Pumps must be installed by a Licensed Pump Installer. However, there is a loophole that allows you to install and repair a pump on your own property.
Rainwater Harvesting Laws in Utah
Utah is notorious for having some of the strictest rainwater harvesting laws in the country. Under the law (Utah Code 73-3-1.5):
- You are allowed to have rainwater storage of up to 2,500 gallons.
- If you have more than two covered rain containers with a maximum capacity of 100 gallons each, you do not need to register your containers.
- Systems larger 2×100 gallons must be registered. Registration is free.
- Only one underground storage container is allowed.
Read the full law here. Also read: Is rainwater harvesting legal?
Sewage and Waste Removal Laws
As is the case in most states in America, Utah has very strict laws about sewage and wastewater disposal. In many counties, you are even required to connect to the municipal sewer system if one is located nearby (even if you have an approved septic system) – essentially making it illegal to go completely off grid.
The law rarely allows outhouses and does not make provisions for alternative off-grid systems such as compost toilets.
Can find the full Utah onsite wastewater rules here.
If you are not connected to the municipal sewer system in Utah, you will most likely be required to install a septic tank. With few exceptions, all septic tanks must be installed and pumped by licensed professionals. The minimum septic size in Utah is 1,000 gallons for residential homes with up to 3 bedrooms. Add an additional 250 gallons for each bedroom.
Utah’s onsite sewage treatment law currently does not mention compost toilets. The law does allow “alternative systems” – but you must get a permit first and have the system installed by someone with Level 3 certification. Even then, the law is written in a way that prohibits alternative systems unless all wastewater regulations are met. This essentially makes it illegal to use just a compost toilet. If you want to use a compost toilet, you will have to dispose of the waste in an approved manner, which usually means septic.
Are Outhouses Legal in Utah (Pit and Vault Privies)?
Under Utah State law, vault and pit privies are legal. However, they are only allowed for “temporary or limited use in remote locations where provisions for water supply or wastewater disposal pose a significant problem.”
It is up to the local health officer to determine whether to issue a permit for a privy and, unless the privy is for temporary use or a recreational camp, it’s unlikely that you will get a permit. Strict rules about setbacks and design must also be met.
You can read the full Utah law about outhouses here.
In 2020, Utah revised its laws on greywater recycling systems. Under the old law, greywater systems had to use a surge tank and pump and the permit cost $350. The new law allows for simpler, cheaper systems where it is legal to use gravity-fed branched drain systems to directly pump greywater onto landscaping. The permit now costs just $100 in most areas.
The new law does not allow you to discharge laundry waste. There are also stricter rules for multi-family and commercial properties (Tier 2).
For more details on the law, see the USU guide here or read the full law here.