Vermont Off Grid Laws: An In-Depth Guide


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Last Updated: December 1, 2021

With almost all of its land covered by forest, Vermont is a popular place for people who want to get away from it all and live self-sufficiently.  There are already many off-grid homes and communities established in Vermont.

Before you start looking for property, though, make sure you read through these off-grid laws.  It might be illegal to live the type of off-grid life you want in Vermont.

Want to more about living off grid? Read:

Is Living Off-Grid Legal in Vermont?

Living off grid in Vermont is not only legal but very common.  The laws are very favorable towards people who want to set up their own electric and water systems. Sewage laws are a bit stricter but still allow many off-grid and alternative systems.

However, you’ll still have to meet building codes, local zoning laws and get permits for virtually everything you want to build.

Vermont Building Codes

Contrary to common belief, Vermont does have state-wide building codes (even if they are not always enforced on a local level).  These codes include:

The codes are based on:

  • NFPA 1 Fire Code, 2015 edition
  • NFPA 101 Life Safety Code, 2015 edition
  • The International Building Code, IBC, 2015 edition
  • NFPA 70 National Electrical Code, 2017 edition
  • ICC International Plumbing Code, 2018 edition
  • The National Board Inspection Code, National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors,  2015

None of these codes make it illegal to live off grid in Vermont.  They do, however, set specific rules for how off-grid systems and homes must be designed.  For example, if you want to build a straw bale home in Vermont, you’ll need to meet the standards set in the IBC 2015.

Tiny Homes Laws in Vermont

In most rural areas of Vermont, it is legal to live in a tiny home. In towns and cities, though, there are often zoning laws that make it illegal to live in a tiny home.  For example, Wilmington, Vermont requires all 1-floor homes to have a minimum square footage of 650 feet and 2-floor dwellings to have at least 500 square feet.

There is a loophole, though: you can generally build an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) on a lot that already has a home.  State zoning law even makes it illegal for local areas to prohibit ADUs.  However, localities can still require you to have two on-site parking spaces for each new residence – and the lot might not be large enough for that.

Vermont has this helpful guide to ADUs.

Vermont Primitive Camp Definition

Under Vermont law, primitive camps are exempt from many legal requirements, such as having a septic system.  The law defines a primitive camp as dwellings with:

“No interior plumbing consisting of more than a sink with water, that are used no more than three consecutive weeks per year and no more than a total of 60 days per year.”

Off-Grid Electricity in Vermont

Off-grid electricity systems, including wind and solar, are legal in Vermont.  PV solar systems under 15 kW AC do not need a permit.  Rather, they must be “registered” under the Certificate of Public Good system.

Getting a permit for a wind energy system in Vermont is more complex.  You’ll need to check local zoning ordinances.  Most areas in Vermont restrict wind turbines to 35 feet, and there are rules about setbacks and noise levels.  See this guide and this guide for more info on wind power in Vermont.

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Off-Grid Water Laws in Vermont

All water in Vermont is owned by the state and held in trust for the public to use.  Everyone has the right to use “navigable” waters for boating, fishing, and other reasonable recreational uses.

Vermont also follows riparian law: if you have water on or touching your land, you are entitled to use it so long as your use doesn’t encroach on the rights of other riparian owners.

Surface Water Laws in Vermont

Vermont law allows landowners to use water on or next to their property, including for drinking water.  However, large withdrawals of surface water will require a permit, even if it is on your property.

While you can use water on your property, you cannot necessarily alter the body of water. For example, you cannot remove or move more than 10 cubic yards of instream material without getting a permit.   Diverting surface waters for irrigation or other purposes requires a permit, even if the water will return to the same source.  You’ll need to prove that the project doesn’t harm the environment.

Vermont is also very strict about conservation.  If you want to build within 250 meters of a lake which is 10 acres or more, you’ll need to get a Lake Encroachment Permit.

Building a Pond on Your Property

If you want to build a pond on your property in Vermont, you will likely need to get a permit.  Because Vermont is so environmentally conscious, the state rarely issues permits for ponds that will dam streams; most permits are for off-stream ponds.

You can read Vermont’s pond permitting rules here.

Well Water Laws in Vermont

You must get a permit for a well in Vermont and have it drilled by a licensed driller.  As of 2019, there is also a law that requires single-family residences to test their well water.

Other than these requirements, the well water laws in Vermont are fairly relaxed.  There are no withdrawal reporting requirements for domestic wells or even most farm wells.  The state also has laws that protect homeowners if their wells go dry from businesses making large withdrawals.

Rainwater Harvesting Laws in Vermont

Rainwater harvesting is legal in Vermont.  You generally do not need a permit for rain barrels or aboveground cisterns when the water is used outdoors. However, Vermont has adopted the 2018 International Plumbing Code (2018 IPC).  Section 1303 of the code sets standards for how rainwater harvesting systems must be designed.

For example, there are rules about where the inlets and outlets on rain barrels must be located. If you use a conveyance system for your rainwater harvesting system in Vermont, you will need to mark the pipes with “CAUTION: NONPOTABLE WATER – DO NOT DRINK.”  If you want to use the water indoors or for potable purposes, you’ll have to meet the stricter regulations for “nonpotable water systems.  Read the full 2018 IPC here.

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Sewage and Waste Removal Laws in Vermont

Vermont has some of the most progressive wastewater laws in the country.  There are currently no laws requiring you to connect to the municipal sewer system if one is nearby.  However, you will need to get a permit for your wastewater system from the regional office, and it may need to be designed by an engineer.

Vermont even allows numerous types of alternative sewage systems.  The downside of using an alternative system in Vermont is that the permits must be renewed frequently, and you may need to have a licensed designer design your system.  You can find more info at Vermont’s Wastewater Systems and Potable Water Supplies page.

Notes:

Are Compost Toilets Legal in Vermont?

Compost toilets are legal in Vermont.  Unlike many other states, Vermont law specifically addresses compost toilets and sets rules about using them.  The rules about disposing of waste from compost toilets are fairly relaxed: you can even bury the waste onsite (you’ll need a permit) or dispose of the waste as an approved landfill.

If your home has running water, you probably won’t be able to use just a compost toilet for disposing of wastewater.  You will likely also need a septic system.  There are some exceptions from the rules for primitive camps, defined as a “lot with a single-family residence but no other buildings or structures and no campground.”

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Are Outhouses Legal in Vermont?

Outhouses are legal in Vermont.  You’ll need to get a permit from the sewage officer.  However, there’s no guarantee that you will get a permit for a pit privy as they are considered on a case-by-case basis.

Even if you live in a remote area, you might still be denied. It seems to be easier to get a permit for a sealed vault privy, but then you will need to have the contents regularly pumped out.

Even if you have an outhouse, you’ll still need a way of treating greywater from the home. This will probably mean septic.

Permits are only valid for two years. You’ll need to have the construction designed by a certified Site B-technician, or Vermont certified engineer.

Greywater Recycling Systems

Greywater recycling is one area where Vermont fails.  The current wastewater laws do not address greywater recycling systems.  The 2018 IPC does set standards for greywater systems.  However, even if you have a greywater system that meets code and a waterless system for black water (outhouse or compost toilet), you will probably still need to have septic.

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Do you live off grid in Vermont? Let us know about your experiences in the comments section below.

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