Thursday, January 7, 2010
Posted by Kate at 7:04 AM
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.