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Root cellars are typically underground structures used to store food supplies at controlled temperatures and humidity levels. Root cellars used to be vital in places with long and cold winters, but modern-day food circulation systems and technology have reduced the need for root cellars almost entirely. However, there are still people out there who place a strong emphasis on self-sufficiency and who gain peace of mind by knowing that, should something happen to make life as they know it obsolete, they have a food supply and maintenance system in place. If you’re one of those people, you may be in interested in learning how to build a root cellar.
7 Steps to a Root Cellar
A root cellar, when done right, should be able to keep foods at a cool 30 degrees in the winter and a tepid 50 degrees during the summer. In essence, it should act as a natural, underground refrigerator. While there are dozens of root cellar designs to base your own structure off of, the following instructions are simple and easy to follow. If you’re ready to build a root cellar, here’s what you need to know.
Dig Your Hole
You can do this yourself with a shovel, or you can hire someone who is skilled with a backhoe to do it for you. Either way, a hole must be dug. At about 10 feet deep, you will reach complete temperature stability. How big or small you want to make your cellar all depends on how much food you plan on storing. Just bear in mind that your shelves should stand at least one to three inches away from the walls to allow for air circulation and minimize airborne mold.
Pour a Footer
Your floor doesn’t necessarily have to be concrete (in fact, it shouldn’t be), but your walls need to be. You don’t want to lay concrete blocks on dirt, as doing so essentially guarantees that the whole structure will sink, both when you install the roof and over time. To prevent sinking, pour a concrete base of about one foot in width along the perimeter. This is the base upon which you will place the blocks.
Lay the Bricks
Once the footer has dried, begin to lay the cement blocks or bricks along the path. Assuming your cellar is about 8’x 8′, you will need 320 cement blocks. Lay bricks all the way up to the top of the hole, leaving about a foot of space for the roof form.
Build the Roof Form
A single, flat slab of concrete is not an ideal roof. A flat room will collect condensation and is guaranteed to crack. Additionally, a flat roof won’t be nearly as sturdy as a curved roof. Strength is key considering the roof will be at ground level, right where people can step on it.
Use plywood to create an arched roof. Once you’re satisfied with the form, disassemble it.
Re-Assemble the Roof Form Over the Cellar
Disassembly and reassembly are necessary if you want to guarantee a snug fit. Once you’re satisfied with your roof’s form, assemble it directly onto the root cellar walls.
Rebar the Roof
You cannot just pour concrete directly onto your plywood form. Once it dried, it would go crashing to the ground. You need to rebar it. Talk to your local hardware store about load ratings and how much rebar you need for your particular structure. To give your roof extra strength, frame the roof with cement blocks, bend the ends of the rebar into them, and pour cement into the openings. This will cement the rebar into place. Pour the remaining cement all across the roof until you can no longer see any of the rebars. The roof should require about 5,000 pounds of cement for an 8′ x 8′ cellar. Wait for the cement to dry completely before going into your cellar to remove the wood form.
Put On the Finishing Touches
Dig out an entry wherever you think is best. Add stairs leading down to your cellar, and doors at both the top and bottom. Put some vents inside to ensure adequate circulation, and start filling the cellar with shelves. Remember, keep the shelves one to three inches away from the walls to prevent mold build up.
Types of Root Cellars
There are dozens of different root cellar designs for you to consider, but the seven-step cellar is fairly simple to make and requires little materials—just plywood, cement blocks, rebar and cement. That said, there are four types of root cellars you can create:
- Earth root cellar
- Earth Berm (partial or fully above ground)
- Entry Root Cellar
- Barrel in the ground
Earth Root Cellar
The traditional earth root cellar is what most people think of when they think of root cellars. The cellar described in the seven-steps is a traditional earth root cellar. These cellars are dug fully underground and are composed of walls and something that can support a roof. While you can attempt to design the roof yourself, it would be best to discuss roof form, capacity and formation with a trained engineer. Cement blocks are ideal for root cellar walls, but you can get creative with old tires or some other supportive material.
Earth Berm Root Cellar
This type of cellar is above ground and only partially sunken on three sides. The third side is where the door goes and should be facing away from the sun. You can learn more about above ground root cellars at Common Sense Home.
Entry Root Cellar
If you are in the middle of building or remodeling your home, consider adding an entry root cellar under your porch. You can save both time and money, as the builders are on your property anyways. Even if you’re not sure if you’ll use it in the future, it doesn’t hurt to have a concrete room directly beneath your porch. If you don’t end up using it to store food, you could always use it as a wine cellar or a safe room.
Barrel Root Cellar
You can still have a root cellar without having to invest a bunch of money into concrete and rebar, or without having to spend months building a complete structure. All you need is a bucket and some hay. Drill holes into the bottom of the bucket or barrel, bury level with the soil and cover the top with hay, which acts as a natural insulator. This type of setup works in areas that are not prone to extreme temperatures.
If you live in an area prone to extreme heat or cold, the bucket and hay trick won’t work. That doesn’t mean, however, that you need to build a full-blown root cellar. Instead, find two trashcans—one large and heavy-duty and one small enough to sit inside it while still leaving a two-inch gap. Drill holes into the bottoms of each. Equip the smaller trash can with a lid with vents and cover exterior holes with rodent-resistant screens.
Dig a hole that is deeper than the larger garbage can, and line that hole with rocks and gravel. How much rock and gravel you use all depends on how well the soil near your home drains. If it drains well, you won’t need a thick layer. However, if it drains poorly, you should go deeper and wider to compensate for the amount of rocks and gravel you’ll need.
Once you prepare the hold, lower the larger garbage can into the ground and secure it. Store food in the smaller barrel, which you can access easily from the ground. Cover the top with hay to ensure adequate insulation.
Elements All Root Cellars Need
Whether you opted for the traditional root cellar, a berm root cellar, an entry root cellar or a barrel root cellar, you must make sure that your structure has all of the essential elements of a root cellar. Those include:
If your structure has those above five elements, it should work to store your food in the winter or extreme heat.
Why Build a Root Cellar
Most people today don’t even think twice about having access to fresh fruits, veggies, nuts and other natural staples on a year-round basis, mostly because grocery stores and modern technology afford us the luxury of NOT having to think about that. However, for some people, the only reason they can enjoy fresh produce year-round is their root cellar. If you live in a region prone to extreme temperatures, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to invest in a root cellar. Not only can you learn to live sustainably by creating one, but also, it can come in handy in the event of a disaster, economic crisis or some other life-altering event. Though the likelihood of an apocalypse type event actually occurring are slim, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared. At the very least, a root cellar can give you peace of mind that should something strange happen, you and your family will be able to eat well and fend for yourselves.