Thursday, January 7, 2010

We Now Have a Root Cellar


The root cellar project took shape as a twinkle in my eye about the time we had an energy audit for our home, last April. In the course of discussing insulation for our basement, it occurred to me that, left uninsulated and then sealed off, one small room at the northwest end of the basement could be turned into a root cellar. So when the house was air sealed and foamed, that part of the basement was left alone, to let the heat continue to leak out through the walls. We consulted the Bubels' excellent guide, Root Cellaring, for pointers on design. My husband tackled the messy and difficult job of drilling two seriously large holes through the ceiling of this room and up through the cement slab of our front porch, in order to provide ventilation. He got this done in an afternoon with a rented impact drill.

The last pieces of the puzzle were a custom built and professionally installed door to create a good air seal from the rest of the basement, plus running a light for the room. Given the weird dimensions and lack of square or plumb doorway openings so typical to old farmhouses in this area, no off-the-shelf door was going to work. In the end this project cost us quite a bit more out of pocket than we imagined it would. On the other hand, it's a pretty big room for storing food, and the root cellar cost a lot less than a new refrigerator. I'm looking at it from this perspective: now that the root cellar is built, it will require no further energy or monetary inputs to function as long as the house exists and someone is around to use it. We spent now so that we have this valuable resource later, whether we have money or not.

I know that picture up there looks like there should be bloody streaks on every surface and manacles mortared into the stone walls. What can I say? Old farmhouse basements can be kinda creepy. The room measures about 4' by 9' (1.2 m by 2.7 m). Undoubtedly, it and the adjacent room of similar size once held coal for the original furnace of the house. At 5' 7" (170 cm) I can stand up in this room comfortably, but my 6' 2" (188 cm) husband cannot. No matter. It'll be mostly me going in there. We'll still need shelving before this year's harvest. In the meantime, my husband has promptly taken advantage of the free cooling for his beer, using scavenged wooden pallets to keep the boxes from the dampness of the unsealed floor. This room is naturally humid, and sometimes even has a little standing water in it after heavy rains. For the most part, dampness is not a problem in root cellars. Many crops hold better with plenty of humidity in the air. We may need to add moisture at times if the air is too dry.

I've been watching the temperature in the root cellar since the door was installed. Outside daytime temperatures have been below freezing for about a week now. The basement temperature, just outside the root cellar and very near to the furnace, has been around 63 F/17 C. Over the last week the root cellar's temperature has dropped slowly from the high 40's to 39 F/<4 C. That's pretty cold! I'll be very curious to see how the temperature changes over the year.

I'm planning to experiment with keeping ice in the root cellar. I started with a few plastic jugs, but found that they are thawing fairly quickly at current temperatures. I am waiting on the collection of plastic soda and juice bottles from relatives. When I have a bunch I'll fill them with water and let them freeze on the porch, then put them together in the root cellar. I'm curious to see how long ice can be kept in there. I would like to try to get a sufficiently large number of containers packed together in an insulated box of some sort. In earlier times, people kept massive quantities of ice all year long, even in warm climates, just packed in sawdust or other insulating materials. Of course, I can only fit so much ice into this root cellar, so I won't have the advantage of a large thermal mass. But it's a wintertime experiment to keep myself occupied.

26 comments:

The Mom said...

That is so great! I've been trying to figure a way to make a root cellar in part of my basement as well. I don't have any little rooms though. I can't wait to see how you use it.

Chile said...

Oh, I'm so envious! I've wanted a root cellar forever. Well, since seeing one built into a hill at a friend's house back when I was just a teenager.

Not too many basements in this corner of the world thanks to caliche, a super-hard clay layer in the soil that makes digging a real challenge.

Jody M said...

The picture is almost identical to the root cellar that was built off our garage. We tore down the garage and are rebuilding it...and we are keeping and renovating the root cellar to make it more user-friendly. I can't wait to be able to use it.

el said...

Ah! Root cellar, ah!

I would have that thing stacked to the gills in no time.

Actually, that's not quite true. Our cellar, which is actually just the back stairway to the basement, stores our 200# of potatoes, and that's it. I used to store my apples and beets and carrots there too but with time I realized the apples like life on the back porch (where it's consistently colder) and the beets, carrots, etc. like life better in the ground and pulled as needed.

Do you have a high/low thermometer, Kate? You know, those ones that have a solenoid to find out the outside temp.? I have one in my cellar that tells me how cold it gets; it was helpful, as I could figure out over a long period the extremes (which weren't too extreme; the point, really, of the cellar...).

Chile said...

El, if you don't mind me asking, how do you store your potatoes in your root cellar? Are they bagged together, separated for air circulation, packed in something insulating?

Tree Huggin Momma said...

You and I are on the same path. While I would love a root cellar (we are not working on the porch just yet, and I haven't put in my gardens). But I have been contemplating a cold box on my porch. The temps in the winter are pretty cold and if just recycling ice buckets I can keep the temp inside an insulated box cold enough it will be my winter fridge. DH isn't excited about it, because he loves the convenience of the fridge in the kitchen, but I would love to be able to shut down the fridge for a week or two at a time and give it a good deep clean. Same with the freezer. If I can keep the temps low enough I could shut off the freezer in the winter and have it only on in the Spring-Fall.

Laryssa Herbert said...

I would really like to have a root cellar! So happy for you. :-)

eatclosetohome said...

Oh, hooray! What a lovely dungeon, er, root cellar you have! This is on my project list for winter, too. I've spent a couple years experimenting with veggies in the garage and barely-heated breezeway, and though it works, I have determined that if I'm going to keep more than about 30 pounds of vegetables, I need someplace colder than the breezeway that doesn't freeze (like the garage does). Hauling veggies in when the temp gets below zero is a pain in the neck.

I'm especially interested to see that yours is down to 39 degrees with no fuss - our setup will be very similar to yours and I'm hoping it works as well.

Emily

el said...

Hi Chile: they're in old wood fruit boxes that are lined with burlap (some of the spuds are small so they'd slip through the slats of the boxes). I cover them with burlap too just to keep the light out. I try to eat the small ones first then move on to the beautiful big ones. They don't all look pretty by March, though! I just don't consider them a year-round crop. AND: it does freeze in my cellar, just not consistently. I've just had better success storing them in the root cellar than in the basement itself, where it's consistently 55*...they're all sprouty and gross by mid-Feb. then.

Amy Blogs @ River Rock Cottage said...

I'm so excited for you! Found space for a root cellar! I find this totally fascinating and loved reading every minute of your post! Unfortunately, I live in CA where a root cellar would be a death trap with all the earthquakes - or would it? I really need to talk to some people around here and find out what can be done about this. I know there are wine cellars around here. Aren't they on the same premise? I certainly hope so!

Chile said...

Thanks, el. At my CSA, we sometimes have surplus red potatoes and have mixed success with keeping them for several weeks. The storage area is cool in the winter but not as cold or humid as a root cellar. The potatoes are in plastic crates but I'm not sure whether they're normally covered with burlap. I'll suggest it.

As the one that has to go through them the next session, I'd prefer not to pick up the ones that squish in my hands. And nothing smells worse than a rotted potato!

At home, I store mine (up to 5 lbs) in an old burlap basmati rice bag hanging in the coolest closet in the house. They keep fairly well for a month or so.

sharon parquette nimtz said...

Yep, my cellar is warm now that we have the pellet stove down there, but there is a small room, a cistern or coal bin, that could be closed up. Now just to do it!

Crunchy Chicken said...

Aha! This gives me an idea. We have a large room in the basement under the stairs with a very narrow doorway where we store all our surplus food and stuff. It doesn't get cold enough to use as a root cellar because it's located close to the furnace and the doorway isn't exactly sealed so it's warmish.

But, since it's always a good 10 degrees cooler in there than the rest of the basement (which is always 10 degrees cooler than upstairs), I wonder if I properly sealed it off, if it would work as a root cellar? It's unfinished and uninsulated.

Anonymous said...

One reason we bought our old house is that it came WITH a root cellar! It didn't take long for it to be filled either. We store lots of potatoes, winter squash, turnips, onions and celeriac, from late fall to early spring. Year round we store our home-brewed wine and mead in it too. My main concern is that it gets humid, warm and stuffy in the summer and I worry about mold. It's not an easy little space to bleach well. Sometimes we even have to run a dehumidifier in there, and you know how much energy THOSE use. I still love having it though! Laurie

Ryan said...

check out the second to last picture at http://eclecticculturefarm.blogspot.com/2010/01/7-day-journal-of-living-off-grid-at_07.html for a working root cellar.

The 4 Bushel Farmgal said...

Looks very promising! I'm sure you'll have it stocked with next summer's bounty. Please remember to post photos!
I keep asking my mother about how HER mother kept vegetables through the winter. I daydream about having a root cellar the way some folks think about fancy cars! lol

Cowgirl in the City said...

Awesome! I'm very excited for you. I read the Root Cellaring book took, and despite our crawl space that has potential, I haven't pursued it... maybe next year!

Julie said...

Ooooh, jealous! Definitely no basements in my parts of the world, and the house sits on a concrete slab, sigh.

Jim Walker said...

If you don't mind me asking, what beers do you have there chilling in your root cellar? They look like they might be local craft brews. I love to find good beers on sale and cellar them away for a few months. Great way to save a few bucks for us beers lovers.

Kate said...

Wow, I had no idea the root cellar post would be of interest to so many people! I'll have to do another post or two as we fill it up with this year's harvest and to follow up the ice experiment. I hope all of you who are working on natural cold storage projects will post about them on your respective blogs, and let me know about them too. I'd be happy to link to other root cellar projects.

El, sounds like you're using Bilco doors, no? If we'd had those for our basement, I probably wouldn't have bothered with the effort and expense of this project. I do not have a high/low thermometer, but I would very much appreciate your recommendations for brand/model. It sounds like something very useful for a number of locations around the homestead.

THM, I've thought about cold boxes outside in winter too. I have to say I like the root cellar better because I don't have to let much cold air into the house in order to add or retrieve stuff from the root cellar. But definitely work with whatever you've got.

Amy, I suppose it depends on how the root cellar were situated and constructed. Being underground, a root cellar's walls are less susceptible to shearing, since they move *with* the earth as it moves, unlike above-ground walls. It might be a safe place if the roof were solid and to be relied upon.

Crunchy, I couldn't say for sure how well your space would work. I do know that the Bubels emphasized the importance of air circulation - both intake and outflow. Do check out their book; it's invaluable.

Jim, I'm not the beer drinker in this house, but yes, my husband is into specialty beers. I think it's fair to call him a beer snob. I know he's got Weyerbacher and Sly Fox down there, both local to us. At the moment he's limiting his beer purchases to 35 miles of our home, both for sustainability reasons and because he knows that fresh beer is best. I know he's talked about wanting to cellar high alcohol beers in the past for longer periods of time. Now that we have the root cellar, I'm guessing I'll be fighting his beers for space for the cabbages.

Sandy said...

I have a stairway from my unfinished basement to the backyard, with a plywood door on the outside and an insulated locking door on the inside. It's mostly cinderblock, with concrete steps, uninsulated. I'm going to put a thermometer down there and see what gives. Next year, I may be storing the fall bounty down there instead of cooking it up and freezing it. Thanks for the tip, Kate!

Cheap Like Me said...

How great! We have a root cellar going on in a closet under our front porch. I have a thermometer in there, and it has been hovering around 40-45 degrees (or a bit below in the past weeks, when temperatures were below freezing). It is great so far for beer and apples ... we also have a lot of stuff stored there, like camping gear and Christmas lights and old boxes. The humidity is around 75% with melting snow outside today, which is high for our neck of the woods.

I hadn't absorbed the part about ventilation ... that is interesting. Ours doesn't have any, or any special door.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Kate -- There may be periods of time (summer, I'm thinking) where conditions in your cellar will be just right for mushrooms. Oysters, maybe?

And if you ever get a dragon, you can keep him there!

Kate said...

Sandy, stairways between basements and the outdoors usually work fine as root cellars, though it can be problematic if the doors get lots of sun in winter. You can cope by insulating loosely in that case. If we had some of those, I for sure would have used them.

Cheap, most likely your space is adequately ventilated if it's under the porch and not particularly air tight. It's thoroughly closed in spaces that need to be modified for ventilation. If stuff is keeping well for you in your space, why mess with it?

Tamar, good thought! If I ever got a dragon, though, I'd want the residual heat for the rest of the house, so perhaps the rest of the basement would suit better.

Vince said...

I seen on discovery channel a show it was a expermental(they were trying to make ships) if you mix saw dust with the water it will not thaw as quik. The saw dust acts as insulation so if you mix the saw dust in with water and put it in the soda bottles like you were thinking.

Kate said...

Vince, thanks for the tip. I love those tricks they came up with in the "old days."