Wisconsin Off Grid Laws: An In-Depth Guide

Wisconsin is primarily a rural state with a large population of Amish living off grid. 

Before you decide to buy property in Wisconsin and disconnect, make sure you check the off grid laws first. 

Some regulations may prevent you from living the type of off-grid life you want.

Is Living Off-Grid Legal in Wisconsin?

Off-grid living is completely legal in Wisconsin. As far as legalities go, Wisconsin is one of the best states for going off grid. 

The biggest issue you may have is getting a permit to use water for non-domestic use. Meeting certain building codes, such as for graywater reuse, can be difficult or expensive. But, otherwise, nothing is stopping you from living completely off grid in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Zoning Laws and Off-Grid Living

Local zoning laws in Wisconsin ultimately determine what is legal or not legal on your property. For example, zoning laws typically regulate setbacks, the size of accessory buildings, minimum home size, the animals you are allowed to have, and the types of business you can have on your property.

Wisconsin is very rural, and much of the land is zoned as “Agricultural.” Ag-zoned land tends to have the most relaxed laws. However, Ag land sometimes does have minimum lot sizes. For example, you may be required to have at least 5 acres of property to comply with zoning. 

An annoying downside about Wisconsin mostly being rural is this: small towns and counties in WI often have terrible websites. I had trouble finding zoning maps and ordinances in many places. When I did find them, they were often bad photocopies. You can’t search through them like a PDF document you’d find on the website of a larger county.

Areas without Zoning in Wisconsin

There are still a lot of areas in Wisconsin with no zoning at all.   For example, Tayor County still does not have countywide zoning. You can find a map of no-zoning land in WI here. The map might not be up-to-date, so you must double-check this info with the local county.

Shoreland and Floodplain Zoning

Note that there is usually special zoning for Shoreland and Floodplains. These zones can have much stricter rules. Shoreland is generally defined as land located within 300 feet of a river or stream and 1,000 feet within a lake.

Building Codes in Wisconsin

With few exceptions, all buildings in Wisconsin must meet the state’s building codes. These codes include:

  • International Building Code 2015, with amendments
  • International Existing Building Code 2015, with amendments
  • International Fuel Gas Code 2015, with amendments
  • International Energy Conservation Code 2015, with amendments
  • International Property Maintenance Code 2015, with amendments
  • National Electrical Code 2017, with amendments
  • National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code 72 2013, with amendments
  • International Fire Code 2012, with amendments
  • Wisconsin Uniform Dwelling Code (one and two-family dwellings built before June 1, 1980 are exempt)
  • Wisconsin Uniform Plumbing Code

There are also additional codes that apply to some commercial properties. So, if you plan on using your home as a business, you might have to meet these codes. Luckily, the state exempts agricultural buildings from the Commercial Building Code.

Exceptions for Rural Cabins

Wisconsin Stat. 101.61 exempts “primitive rural hunting cabins” from meeting the Uniform Dwelling Code. 

To qualify for the exemption, the cabin must meet ALL of these requirements:

  • (a)The structure is not used as a home or residence.
  • (b)The structure is used principally for recreational hunting activity.
  • (c)The structure does not exceed 2 stories in height.
  • (d)The structure satisfies any of the following:
    • The structure was constructed before December 31, 1997.
    • The structure results from alterations made to a structure described in subd. 1.
    • The structure replaces a structure described in subd. 1.

If you plan to live in the cabin, you won’t meet the exemption requirements. Likewise, all new cabins that aren’t replacing an older cabin won’t meet the exemption requirements. Read more here.

Religious Exemptions

There is a large Amish community of about 17,000 in Wisconsin. In 2017, the government updated the law to exempt certain persons with religious beliefs from meeting building codes. To get the exemption, you will need to apply for a waiver. The exemption doesn’t apply to plumbing outside the building or POWTS.

I’m not sure how easy it is for people to get the religious exemption in Wisconsin, such as whether you’d be able to get it if you aren’t Amish. Please let us know in the comments section below if anyone has info on this.

Related: Amish markets near me

Living in a Mobile Home or Manufactured Home

Wisconsin law defines mobile homes and manufactured homes as:

  • Mobile home: a vehicle manufactured or assembled before June 15, 1976, designed to be towed as a single unit or in sections upon a highway by a motor vehicle and equipped and used, or intended to be used, primarily for human habitation, with walls of rigid uncollapsible construction, which has an overall length over 45 feet
  • Manufactured home: A structure that is designed to be used as a dwelling with or without a permanent foundation and that is certified by the federal department of housing and urban development as complying with the standards established under 42 USC 5401 to 5425.

The laws vary slightly depending on zoning, but living in a mobile home in Wisconsin is generally illegal. Sometimes exemptions allow you to live in a mobile home but only in approved mobile home parks.

It’s usually even illegal to convert a mobile home into a permanent home. Likewise, living in newer campervans or RVs is illegal as this is considered camping.

You can live in a manufactured home – including one that isn’t on a permanent foundation – but you will usually need to meet all the same codes that apply to single-family dwellings.

Just note that there is a restriction for “Manufactured Home Communities.”  If 3 or more manufactured homes are in or next to a campground, you need a special license from the Safety and Buildings Division Manufactured Home Program.

Can You Camp on Your Own Property?

Wisconsin law defines a “campground” as a

“a parcel or tract of land owned by a person, state, or local government that is designed, maintained, intended, or used for the purpose of providing campsites offered with or without charge, for temporary overnight sleeping accommodations.”

Under the law, you will need a permit for camping units. The rules for plumbing and electrical inspections are much more relaxed than with dwellings. Read more about the law here (PDF).

Tiny Homes

Compared to the rest of the United States, Wisconsin is friendly towards tiny homes. Most counties don’t have minimum home sizes in their zoning laws (and there are plenty of places without zoning laws).  

Many tiny homes will have to meet the rules for manufactured homes, which require the same code standards as residential dwellings. Note that Wisconsin still uses the 2015 version of the International Building Code. This version of the code doesn’t have exemptions for tiny homes found in “Q” of the 2018 version.

Off-Grid Electricity in Wisconsin

Off-grid electricity is entirely legal in Wisconsin. The state makes getting a permit for solar panel systems reasonably easy. It’s not even that difficult to obtain a permit for wind turbines on your property. You will still have to meet all relevant building codes.

Under Wisconsin law, solar panels won’t increase your property taxes, even if they increase your property’s value.

Off-Grid Water Laws in Wisconsin

Wisconsin is water-rich, and drought isn’t usually a concern throughout the state. However, the state does regulate the water. In many cases, you’ll need a permit to use water; in other situations, it might be completely forbidden. 

Who Owns the Water in Wisconsin?

Under Wisconsin law, the state’s water is owned by the public. Private parties can only own the land along lakes and streams but not the water itself. However, Wisconsin practices riparian rights: landowners can use the water on or next to their property in reasonable amounts (usually for domestic use).

Because everyone in the state owns the water, the public can use “navigable” waters for recreation, fishing, boating, etc. However, the public cannot trespass on private property to access the water.  

So, you couldn’t stop someone from boating on a river next to your property, but you could prevent them from entering the riverbank at your property. Read more about Wisconsin’s stream and lake access laws here.

Water Rights Permits in Wisconsin

With some exceptions, you need a permit to withdraw water from the ground or surface in Wisconsin. There are two types of permits: 

  • Water Use General Permit – withdrawals that average 100,000 gallons per day or more in any 30-day period but do not equal at least 1,000,000 gallons per day for 30 days in a row.
  • Water Use Individual Permit – withdraws at least 1,000,000 gallons per day for 30 days in a row.

Read more about WI water use permits here.

Surface Water

It is legal in Wisconsin to use water from streams and rivers on or next to your property. However, you can only use the water for domestic use, lawn, or garden. If you use the water for commercial use – such as to water a garden and sell any of the produce – you will need to get a water use permit.

Dams and Ponds

It is usually legal to construct a pond on your property in Wisconsin. Small ponds for domestic use typically don’t need a permit unless the pond is:

  • connected to a waterway;
  • located within 500 ft. of a waterway
  • constructed within a wetland
  • located in Milwaukee County
  • for agricultural use

Read WI pond permit rules here.

Well Water Laws in Wisconsin

You do not need a permit to drill a domestic well in Wisconsin so long as the well does not have a capacity of more than 100,000 gallons per day (this amount includes all wells located on the property).

However, you are required to get a DNR Notification Number before constructing the well. In most cases, the well must be built by a licensed well driller, but some exemptions allow landowners to drill a nonpotable well on their own property without a license. Read more about WI well laws here.

Rainwater Harvesting Laws in Wisconsin

Rainwater harvesting is legal in Wisconsin, and the government actively promotes it. There currently aren’t any statewide laws in place that regulate rainwater harvesting. However, if you want to use rainwater indoors, you must follow the strict plumbing laws for nonpotable water. These rules can be very strict, even for things like flushing toilets.

Sewage and Waste Removal Laws in Wisconsin

As a primarily rural state, Wisconsin has very favorable laws for off-grid waste disposal. There are no statewide laws that require you to hook up to the municipal sewer system if one is located nearby. I also found no local laws requiring this (though it may be necessary in some larger towns or cities).

Wisconsin even allows alternative waste treatment solutions, such as incinerating toilets, compost toilets, and outhouses. In most cases, though, you’ll need a septic system installed. You’ll need to get a permit for your system. For some systems, the permit is issued by the state, whereas other systems require a permit from the local government.

The laws for Private Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems (POWTS) are outlined in SPS 383.

Compost Toilets

Compost toilets are legal in Wisconsin. However, liquids from the compost toilet must be disposed of in a public sewer system or approved POWTS. In this sense, it is illegal to only use a compost toilet. 

Are Outhouses Legal in Wisconsin (Pit and Vault Privies)?

Pit privies are legal under Wisconsin State law. Local counties may forbid them, but many rural counties specifically allow them in their laws and have exact rules about setbacks and design standards. Having these clear regulations is a good thing. You will know whether your pit privy falls within the rules and don’t have to worry about whether some local health inspector will arbitrarily grant your permit.

Graywater Recycling Laws

Even though Wisconsin encourages water reuse, the plumbing laws don’t make it easy to do so legally. Most graywater – including laundry water – must be disposed of in a wastewater system. To reuse the water, you’d need to treat it first, even for flushing toilets. Read the law about indirect piping here.

Wood Heaters and Stoves

Many places in Wisconsin require you to get a permit before installing a wood heater or stove in your home. You may even need to submit a lot of paperwork about the heater or stove with your application. New wood stoves will have to meet the federal EPA standards. More on that here.

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

Related: Best states for off grid living

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