Can You Live 100% Off the Grid in a City or Suburb?

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Photo: Simone Hogan (Shutterstock)

Modern city life is kind of amazing—we can have burritos biked to our door and (usually) have reliable internet. But cities are built on a delicate web of interconnected services and infrastructure, and maybe you don’t want to be dependent on its whims. If you’re the kind of person who is interested in living off the gridfor economic reasons, privacy and security, or because you suspect civilization is about to collapse—disconnecting will be a lot easier in a rural area.

That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible in a city—just more challenging. If you want to get off the grid but you also want to have a choice of 174 restaurants within walking distance, it can be done with a bit of research and some work-arounds. If you need to go beyond an apocalypse garden or an end-of-the-world pantry and go fully off-grid, here are some things to consider.

Taking your home off the grid is (mostly) legal, but…

Taking a home off-grid requires that you supply the basics yourself: Water, sewage, power, heat, and food. The good news is that taking your house off-grid is not, technically, illegal anywhere in the US … but “technically not illegal” doesn’t mean it’s simply allowed. There may very well be legal barriers to doing so.

Many off-gridders have glanced at their water bills and decided they’d rather use the water that falls from the sky for free, but some states make rainwater collection systems very difficult to install in your home, or have strict limits on how much rainwater can be harvested and how it can be used (for example, Colorado only allows certain properties to collect 110 gallons, which can only be used outdoors). For waste management, installing a septic system in a crowded urban neighborhood will be nearly impossible, and many states have extremely strict regulations surrounding the installation of composting toilets (not to mention extremely strict regulations about what you can do with all that waste once you’ve collected it).

Additionally, local municipalities might have laws that supersede or enhance statewide restrictions, and Home Owner Associations (HOAs) may have rules that prevent you from making the changes necessary to your home. These rules can be pretty comprehensive, too—some HOAs don’t allow clotheslines for drying clothes, for example, and can even forbid solar panels for aesthetic reasons.Condominium boards may also resist some of your off-grid choices. Bottom line: before you do anything, check the local laws and regulations that might apply to you.

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Finally, while installing solar panels on your property is more or less legal in every state (and many states encourage it), not all states or local municipalities will allow you to actually disconnect from the power grid. If you feel it’s important to literally be off-grid, you’ll need to do some digging before you assume anything; and in multi-family structures like condominiums it might even be physically impossible to accomplish. Of course, the flip side to remaining connected is that in many cases you can sell excess electricity back to the grid—and if your solar rig fails at halftime during the Super Bowl, you’ll still have power.

Consider the type of property you have

Something else to consider with your dream of living off-grid in the city is your choice of property. Taking a condo off-grid might be impossible, because you share so much infrastructure with your neighbors and likely won’t get permission to do anything radical—for example, your condo board might resist rainwater collection schemes or composting toilets, even if your state and local area allow them. Some states also have minimum square footage requirements when disconnecting a property from the grid, so a shoebox condo near all those restaurants and museums might not qualify.

Of course, if you’re going to grow your own food in the city, you’ll need enough space for that, too. It’s not impossible to find city homes with yards or large outdoor spaces where you might be able to grow your apocalypse garden (and even raise chickens!), but those houses will obviously be more expensive. And your property deed or local regulations might limit your ability to have “livestock” of any kind on your property (and your neighbors may or may not be excited about those chickens).

Bottom line

Living off-grid has a lot of advantages, both short-term (lower—or zero!—energy bills) and long-term (when the zombies come, you’ll harvest your zucchini while the world burns). The closer you are to a city center, the more challenging it can be—but it can be done if you do your due diligence first.

 

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