Living Off Grid In Hawai’i, Is It Even Legal?


off grid

The dream of going off grid has never been more popular.  With sky-high housing prices, pandemics and all the political chaos sweeping the globe, heading off to a quiet, simple home away from all of that is pretty tempting.  Lucky for us, the state of Hawaii makes it pretty easy to go off grid, 100% legal.

As long as you follow the codes and regulations, living on an off grid homestead in Hawaii is completely legal.  Your home must be permitted and built to code. Off Grid Solar is easy to get approved.  Water Catchment Systems are readily available for installation and both greywater and compost toilets are allowed as long as you follow regulations.

Not many states allow as much as Hawai’i does when it comes to what it takes to go fully off grid.  However, it does come with a price. Navigating Hawai’i’s bureaucracy is enough to try anybody’s patience, but hang in there and you’ll be able to develop your own fully legal, off grid homestead on your own little slice of paradise.


Related: A lot of us want to go Off Grid, but don’t think we have enough land to do it. I’m here to tell you that that’s all wrong. Sometimes we got to start where we are at! Here is a great book from Amazon about starting a Homestead even on a small urban lot.

THE BACKYARD HOMESTEADOpens in a new tab.



The Legalities of Building a Home in Hawaii

CONVENTIONAL CONSTRUCTION

As with almost every state in the country, Hawai’i has adopted the International Building Codes as their go-to when enforcing construction in Hawai’i.  Each county is allowed to amend the code for specific usage, so please double check with your local building officials before you begin any project.

Conventional stick frame construction is easily permitted in all Hawai’i counties.  Some lumber companies offer kit homes that are predesigned and approved to build on your lot.  They can actually be quite affordable. The local building officials are most familiar with this style of construction and quickly approve these projects.

YURTS
Yurts are permitted to be permanent residences, but the only ones to ever receive stamps of approval have been located on Hawai’i Island, even though all Islands have yurts.  If the property already has a permitted primary residence, Hawai’i Island has recently made an amendment to the building code that allows accessory buildings with “No Permits Needed.”

“(18) One-story detached accessory structures used as tool and storage sheds, playhouses and similar uses, provided the floor area does not exceed a) 120 square feet; b) does not exceed 600 square feet for agriculturally zoned lands. (Building cannot be located within building setback as required by the Zoning, Chapter 25 of Hawaii County Code. Verify setback requirements with the Planning Department).”

If you already have a home and want to include a guest room, yoga studio, or art studio then you can construct a Yurt without having to get it cleared by the Building Department.

BAMBOO

Bamboo would be the perfect building material for homes in Hawai’i.  It grows locally, could provide hundreds of jobs and could revolutionize our economy.  The homes are relatively easy to build and thrive in our tropical climate.

The only drawback is the only bamboo homes that are currently being permitted in Hawai’i are produced by a company called Bamboo Living Homes.  Don’t get me wrong, they make amazing bamboo homes, but they are kits imported from Asia.

We are losing out on a valuable local resource and until the building codes change locally to allow for Bamboo Homes, bamboo will never be a viable material for construction in Hawai’i.

Related: Drying and Preserving BambooOpens in a new tab.

SHIPPING CONTAINER HOMES

Being on an island, there are many shipping containers out here.  Amazingly enough, it is legal to build a home out of one of them.

Shipping container homes are legal in every county in the state of Hawai’i, but rules made up by a specific neighborhood or homeowners association may have their own ideas on what is allowed, so be sure to check.

There are many cool shipping container home ideas, from super extravagant to just living out of a shipping container.  The important thing about building a home out these would be to consider placing the container where it could catch the tradewinds and can be out of the sun.  The metal of the containers can heat up your home real quick out here in the tropics.

The Rules Behind Solar Power in Hawaii

With all the warm tropical sunshine, there should be little wonder why Hawai’i is leading the nation in Solar Energy projects.  There are numerous large scale energy projects all over the state as well as many individuals deciding to go solar as well.

The City and County of Honolulu have been offering free permits for residents converting their homes to solar.  However, you must be able to get that project approved by Hawaii Electric if you are currently tied to the grid, and that can be a little difficult.

According to Hawai’i Electric, having too many people disconnect from the “grid” poses a problem for the health of the electrical grid as a whole, so it must be controlled.  Thankfully, they have been getting these issues resolved and are moving towards approving solar projects more quickly.

If you are not yet connected to the grid, it is much easier to get approved for installing a solar energy system.  Each county has its own rules, which you can learn more about in this Guide to Renewable Energy PermitsOpens in a new tab. put out by the State of Hawai’i.

Decentralizing the power grid is much better than being plugged into the centralized grid.  You are in control or what you produce and are dependant on no one else when you have your own alternative energy system.

Harvesting the Rain is Completely Legal

Not only is rainwater harvesting in Hawai’i legal, in some areas, EVERYONE is harvesting rainwater.  Where I live in rural Puna on Hawai’i Island, we don’t have any other choice. The water pipes do not connect to many places on the island so catching rain is it.

With over 100” of rain annually in many places, it makes total sense to allow the widespread use of water catchment to provide the water needs of many residences.  It is even possible to filter the water to the point where it can be drinkable, through UV filters or other high efficiency filters. 

 I do not know of many other states that would allow such use of water in a residence without hard to get permits and costly over engineering.  

When I first moved to the islands, I found a publication in the county office put out by the local Ag Extention at the University of Hawai’i.  Over 20 years later, it is still the gold standard on harvesting water in Hawai’i. Be sure to give it a read here.Opens in a new tab.

Related: Off Grid Water Harvesting: How To Install Rainwater CatchmentOpens in a new tab.

You Can Use Greywater in Hawaii

Greywater is the disposal of household water coming from the bathroom sinks, shower and laundry.  Kitchen water is considered blackwater. A lot of people believe that using greywater is not legal in Hawai’i, but that is not in fact the case.  

Greywater is legal to use in Hawai’i.  Hawai’i follows the guidelines set in Chapter 16 of the 2006 Universal Plumbing Code (UPC)Opens in a new tab. which allows for the use of greywater.  Hawai’i has decided to make it easy for residents that are in areas not served by the public wastewater treatment systems to be able to utilize greywater as a wastewater solution.

You can still utilize greywater if you are in an area serviced by public utilities, there are just more regulations and permitting loopholes that you have to jump through.

As long as greywater is sent straight to the garden with subsurface irrigation you should be fine.  Do not send it into sprinklers or try and store the greywater, that is a recipe for spreading pathogens.

Essentially what you have to do is run a pipe from your water source to a pit filled with mulch in your garden.  Have the pipe lead into an in ground valve box that is located in the mulch basin so that the water can spill out of the pipe and into the mulch.  If you have a lot of water you may need a few mulch basins.

Greywater systems are pretty simple to understand and install.  I used to install them professionally in CA. If you can use greywater, you should consider it.  It is a much more eco-friendly option than running that water into a cesspool or septic.

Related: Is Greywater Legal In Hawai’i?

Compost Toilets are Even Legal in Hawaii

This is not something you see very often, compost toilets are legally accepted in Hawai’i!  As it states in  Hawai’i State Senate Bill 2583Opens in a new tab., Compost toilets are legal in places not serviced by the public wastewater utilities.  Once again it pays to be rural.

As long as you install an NSF certified compost toilet, then you will be able to get a permit for your compost toilet.  Not many jurisdictions allow for compost toilets yet, so this is very forward thinking on the part of the Hawai’i state government.  I already covered the legalities of compost toilets and the best legally available toilets out there in this articleOpens in a new tab..

One Important Thing That’s Not Legal

Now for the elephant in the room.  The Hawai’i State Government has pretty much legalized off grid living for many parts of the Hawai’i Islands.  However, the Hawai’i State Government is not exactly legal.

Anyone thinking of moving to Hawai’i must consider the fact that the Hawai’i monarchy was bitterly and illegally overthrown over 100 years ago by mainland businessmen.  It has left bitterness amongst the local people to this day, and rightly so.

If you plan on moving to Hawai’i you must familiarize yourself with these issues and recognize that you may be seen as a colonizer.  Come to Hawai’i with your hat in hand, learn respect and be open to learning new things. Do not come to Hawai’i and try to impose your ways.  Capitalism at all costs is not the way things are done in Hawai’i.

As for those of you local to Hawai’i, use the laws set forth by the state of Hawai’i and free yourself from reliance on their services.  Go off grid where you can, grow your own food and tell the state that you can take care of yourself. Freedom starts at home. Aloha!

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Sean Jennings

Sean has been living simply Off-Grid in Hawai'i for over 18 years. He lives debt free on Hawai'i Island with his family and over 40 chickens. When he's not tinkering around the homestead, he's off exploring the shorelines for fish & surf.

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