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How to Design Your Own Root Cellar

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Improve your self-sufficiency by storing and preserving food in your own root cellar. Here are some design considerations to keep in mind…

Whether you live off-the-grid or simply want a simple and low-cost way to store food and keep produce fresh for longer, a root cellar can be a great way to go. A root cellar is an underground (or partially underground) structure that is traditionally used for storing vegetables, fruits, canned goods, and other foods.

While this ancient storage method has become less popular in modern times since the advent of refrigeration, root cellars remain a viable way to preserve food for those who live off-grid or who simply want to become more self-sufficient. Once built, root cellars may last for decades with very little maintenance, and they are great for keeping produce and other foods at an evenly cool temperature year-round.

If you don’t already have a root cellar, building your own is a worthwhile undertaking. There are many different designs for building a root cellar, but before you get started, here are a few considerations you will want to keep in mind:

1.) Ventilation: Keep the Air Moving

One of the key features to add to your root cellar are vents that allow air to enter and exit. These vents allow for temperature adjustments. The air circulation also helps with the ethylene gases and odors produced by your stored fruits and vegetables.

You’ll want at least one intake vent and one outlet vent. That being said, there are many situations in which multiple vents would be even better. In general, place intake vents low to the ground and outlets close to the ceiling. The vents create a nice, passive air flow through your root cellar.

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2.) Earth Shelter: Keeping It Cool

The whole reason for a root cellar is to keep food cool. A well-insulated cellar should keep the food inside 40 degrees cooler than the average summertime temperatures outside. During the winter, the cool temperature maintains food at a temperature just above freezing, which slows deterioration and rot.

Temperatures in your basement are noticeably warmer, so food stored inside the house tends to spoil much more rapidly than food stored in an outdoor root cellar. Temperatures above 45°F cause toughness and sprouting, which leads to rapid spoiling.

A root cellar’s temperature is not uniform. The temperature near the ceiling is 10 degrees warmer than in the rest of the cellar. This makes the ceiling area perfect for onions, garlic, and shallots…

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3.) Darkness: Lights Out!

Except for the occasional artificial light you’ll need to search through stored food, your root cellar should be as dark as possible. Sunlight causes stored fruits and veggies to deteriorate. Potatoes especially start sprouting when exposed to light.

4,) Humidity

Humidity is an important factor in a typical root cellar. You’ll want to keep a humidity gauge, called a hygrometer, in your cellar. Most fruits and vegetables require high humidity to stay fresh. If your underground root cellar has an earthen floor, it will naturally maintain high humidity.

Keep in mind, though, that humidity in your root cellar can cause a lot of problems if you are storing canned goods, nuts, or dehydrated fruits there. Fruits can rot, and metal canning lids may rust.

Once you decide what you’ll be storing, you might find you need to design your cellar with both a humid chamber for fresh fruits and veggies and a dry chamber for other goods.

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Now that you know the basics, it’s time to design your root cellar! There are LOTS of root cellar designs out there (see this article for some modern ideas). It’s up to you and your site as to which design will work best for you…

The traditional style is dug into a hillside. Some of the modern versions are dug down into flat ground. Simple and inexpensive root cellars can be built from barrels, garbage cans, or refrigerators and freezers.

While you’re picking out a design, keep the following considerations in mind:

  • As little as one foot of earth above the cellar can create a temperature 20 degrees less than the average summertime temperatures above ground. Ideally, though, you’ll want a full 10 feet of soil above and beside the structure to ensure temperature stability.
  • During the day, keep the doorway and any exposed parts of the structure in the shade at all times. The north side of a hill is an ideal place to build a root cellar.
  • Next, you’ll want to make sure that your root cellar doesn’t suffer from leaks or drainage issues during rains. You may need a sloped door, drainage ditches outside, or gravel on the floor.
  • Now it’s time to plan the size of your root cellar. Generally speaking, an 8-ft. by 8-ft. space will give you plenty of storage for an average family. Smaller structures are easier to insulate and to keep at an even temperature.
  • Be sure to use waterproof and chemical-free wood in your construction. Your stored food may pick up the odors of weather-proofed and treated woods. Bricks or concrete blocks used in the construction will help you avoid this problem.
  • Remember that proper ventilation is a must! Run a smoke test to make sure the intake and outflow vents are moving the air through the cellar.
  • Finish off your root cellar with a thermometer and humidity gauge. This way, you’ll never have to wonder if it’s the right temperature or humidity.
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