If you’re a prepper planning to have your own survival garden or food forest to sustain you following a SHTF event, then you will likely need a good way to store harvested food without refrigeration.
Even if with solar or hydro powered refrigeration, you will have to use a smaller unit to avoid pulling excessive power from your battery storage.
One option for more storage is to build a root cellar yourself to extend the shelf life of your harvest so you can eat fresh food even through the winter months.
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Root Cellar 101
What is a Root Cellar?
A root cellar is a cool, dark storage area, typically at least partially underground. The purpose of a root cellar to keep food cool and to avoid exposure to humidity to keep it from spoiling.
For most families and especially for preppers, who are planning to bug in or can build one at their bug out location, the root cellar can not only extend the shelf life of your food but also help keep it hidden from potential looters.
Benefits of a Root Cellar
- Long-term storage for food harvested from your garden or orchard
- Increases your ability to reduce reliance on grocery stores and retail stores
- Can be used for seed starting to get an early start on a Spring garden
- Additional storage space can free up space in house pantry
- Use for temporary preservation of food until it can be further processed by dehydrating or home canning.
- Eliminate need for additional refrigerator, save on electricity costs
- Underground location is less visible to potential intruders
- Ideal for those who desire to be off-grid
What Can I Store in It?
Root vegetables are normally stored in the root cellar, which is partially or completely buried underground. Other things, such as fruits, greens, water, dairy products, bread, jams, and even fresh meat can be stored also but under varying conditions.
- Horseradish can last up to one year in a root cellar
- Onions and potatoes from five to eight months.
- Garlic also does well in a root cellar if humidity is around 65% it will last six to seven months.
- Carrots, sweet potatoes, turnips, cabbage, and winter squash typically last three to six months if humidity stays around 70%.
- Beets, pumpkins, artichokes, parsnips, leeks, pears, unripe tomatoes, winter radishes, and rutabaga need to be checked frequently as their shelf life varies anywhere from 1-4 months.
- Broccoli, cauliflower, cucumber, and Brussel sprouts can be stored for several weeks if prepared and monitored carefully.
- and more (see our full list here).
Additional details about storage conditions for fruits and vegetables as well as freezing points are available from The University of Maine.
A root cellar ideally should be built so that it is mostly submerged in well-drained soil. You will want to keep the heat of the sun out of the root cellar as much as possible so look for a shady location and if possible, build the door so it is facing North.
In most cases you will want to hire an excavator with a backhoe to create the hole for your root cellar. Expect to pay hourly for this service, up to as much as $100 an hour.
The entire excavation time depends on the site you’ve chosen and any unexpected obstacles, as well as the size of the object you’ve chosen to use for your root cellar.
Plan for as much as 4 hours, just to be safe. Whatever object you use, you will want to bed of crushed stone beneath the root cellar for drainage purposes.
The Pillars of Building a Root Cellar
The three crucial things to consider when building a root cellar are:
- and humidity
Make sure your root cellar is well ventilated.
Pears, tomatoes, and apples produce ethylene and should be stored close to ventilation and away from other vegetables, especially carrots and potatoes.
The more densely packed your root cellar is, the more ventilation you will need. Wrap vegetables with strong smells such as garlic, cabbages, and turnips in newspaper.
The temperature of a root cellar should stay above 32 and below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s between 0 and 10 degrees Celsius). The average shelf life for vegetables stored in a root cellar varies from 1-6 months. Invest in a good thermometer, which displays temperature in your root cellar.
The level of humidity in a root cellar is the third critical piece of your root cellar design. The majority of root crop vegetables store best in high humidity, at about 90-95%.
A root cellar with a dirt or gravel floor will retain more moisture than one with a concrete floor. Use a hygrometer to monitor the humidity levels. You can increase the humidity in your root cellar by hanging damp burlap bags over certain crops or by placing pans of water on the floor of the cellar.
For root cellars where maintaining high humidity is an issue, pack your root vegetables in sand, damp sawdust or even moss to reduce evaporation.
- The entrance should be wide enough for you to walk into. If you will need to use a wheelbarrow, cart, or wagon, make sure width makes getting in and out easy.
- Think about the weather in your area and whether ice, snow, flooding or high winds might keep you from getting into the entrance.
- Consider proximity of your root cellar to your house, especially your kitchen. If going to the root cellar is a long trek, you may be less likely to use it regularly.
- The size of your root cellar is something to consider in your planning. It needs to be large enough to store what you need to store but not more than you need. If your root cellar will double as a storm bunker, you may need additional space. Be sure to plan adequate ceiling height and separate your root cellar into separate rooms if needed.
- The type of materials you use to build your root cellar factor into what the conditions will be like inside. A hard dirt floor or gravel floor will retain moisture better than a cement floor. When planning the floor, be sure to plan for adequate drainage, especially if you live in a wet climate.
- Consider the shelves and storage containers you will use in your root cellar. You may need different containers or shelves, depending on the type of produce. Whenever possible, use containers with holes or open shelves to facilitate ventilation. As we mention below, ventilation is one the main pillars or root cellar storage.
- You will need a plan for lighting when you are working in the root cellar so you can see. Root cellars should stay dark most of the time, but if you have a window that can be kept covered and uncovered when you are working in the cellar, that works. If not, plan to use a headlamp or other hands-free lighting.
- You need to think about waterproofing your cellar. Think about the rainfall in your area, whether or not there have been floods, and more.
10 DIY Root Cellar Plans
Take a plastic or galvanized steel garbage can and punch holes in the bottom of it so any water that gets inside can drain out. Pick a spot to bury the can.
Layer your vegetables into the can, use wire racks if you can so they aren’t touching one another, wrap them in newspaper, or bury them in layers of sand. Put the lid on tight and cover with a bale of straw or some other marker.
You’ll need to pay special attention to temperature monitoring and drainage:
Old Refrigerators or Freezers
You can use an old broken freezer or refrigerator as a mini root cellar. Get an old one from a friend, relative, or even from an appliance store or the dump.
Make sure that the Freon gas inside has been safely removed so it doesn’t leak into the air or contaminate your food.
- Dig a hole to bury the freezer at least three to four feet deep so you are below the frost level. If you have one available or can afford to rent one, use a backhoe to make digging easier.
- Create a level layer of large rocks or ¾ inch gravel in the spot where the unit will sit to increase air flow.
- Remove all the mechanical parts from the unit and then punch holes into the backside. You want the holes to be flat against the ground when the unit is buried so the warm air from the ground comes into the unit to keep your produce from freezing.
- You will then punch holes on the top of the unit and the bottom and insert elbows and then straight pipes into each hole. This allows the air that comes in from the ground to be pulled out to the surface. The pipes need to be long enough that they will stick out of the ground once the fridge or freezer has been buried.
- Cover the top of each pipe with a vent to keep water and dirt from falling into the pipes.
- Use boards to create a box around the fridge so you can bury the fridge but won’t be knocking dirt inside every time you open it. Fill in the dirt around the box.
- Cut a piece of insulation to fit over the top of the unit for extra protection in the winter. If your climate experiences extremely low temperatures, invest in a light that turns on when temperatures drop. A simple halogen light will provide enough heat to keep things from freezing.
- If there is ANY chance, however slim, that children could get into the fridge to play hide and seek, make sure that you take this into account and add safety measures to prevent a tragedy.
Monitor your temperature regularly to ensure nothing freezes or becomes too warm. For an example of how to build a root cellar from an old refrigerator and create an upright root cellar into a hill, see this video:
In Your Garage
If your garage is insulated and you live in the colder climates, you can use old coolers or even heavy cardboard boxes to store your produce through the winter. Before storing any produce, make sure that any fruit or vegetables that have blemishes or soft spots have been removed.
If you are using boxes, elevate them as high as you can on racks to make it harder for rodents to get into. If you use coolers, leave the drainage spigot open or shut the lid but don’t seal it so that there is enough ventilation.
Check often for any signs of rotting and to ensure temperature is staying consistent, especially when weather is extremely hot or extremely cold outside.
In Your Basement
Depending on where you live, you may be able to simply store your vegetables in your basement on wire racks or even on one side of the stairway going down into your basement and keep them at a steady temperature.
The key is to make sure your temperature and humidity stay consistent at the levels needed for your vegetables and that you have adequate ventilation.
This video shows how to turn an existing old basement room into a great cold storage area, all you need to add is proper ventilation pipes, a thermometer, hygrometer, and to cover that window to keep the direct sunlight off your vegetables:
If you want to get even fancier, you can create a cold room in your basement like this one that even has its own thermostat and ceiling fan:
Using Cob and Earth Bags
Cob is a type of natural building material that is typically made by mixing straw with clay and crushed rock or sand. You can build blocks using “earth bags” which are typically bags of natural woven material such as feed bags or rice bags. You then use the cob to cover the bags to create a smooth finish.
In the same way you would build a home from earth bags and cob, you can build a root cellar pretty inexpensively as demonstrated in this video:
Our ancestors who were homesteaders knew that building their homes near running water such as creeks and streams was beneficial not only for drinking water and cleaning but also for keeping things cool by submerging them in water or storing them in shelves inside the naturally cooler structure.
A spring house can be a free-standing structure built over a natural spring, or next to a creek or stream. Ideally it is built into a hill so that at least some of the walls can be made of cool earth. If you cannot build into a hill, you can use brick, block, or stone for the walls.
Things that need very cool temperatures can be kept submerged in airtight containers in the water (milk, butter, etc.) and other items that just need cooler temperatures can be kept on shelves inside the structure.
Springhouses can become very damp so monitoring humidity levels and balancing those will be important for many vegetables.
Using a New Concrete Septic Tank
You can use a new concrete septic tank to make a nice sized root cellar. It’s okay if the tank is chipped or cracked so try to get a deal on one that can’t be used for septic because of a defect.
You don’t need the fittings or filter so ask for those to be removed. More common sizes are 1,000- and 1,200-gallon tanks but one that is 1,500 or more will pay off by providing you more storage space as well as increased headroom for moving about.
For a new 1,500 tank that is undamaged, you can plant to spend around $1,000. If you can find one, buy a 2,500-gallon tank, which will have 6 foot of headroom inside and new will be about $1,500. But don’t buy new until you’ve asked about damaged tanks, discounts for these can be as much as 50%.
Make sure to seal the top hatch to prevent roof leaks. You will need to enlist the help of construction professionals to ensure that you deal with pressure, condensation, and other issues during installation to adequately to prevent issues later.
Excavated Inside a Hill
Many people who have a hill available on their property in a good location, will use that hill to build their root cellar. Doing this means that you get the benefit of having the earth all around your root cellar, but you are at less risk for flooding since you are higher above the water table.
Using a hill for part of your root cellar also means a little less digging than if you dug the hole down into the ground.
For a demonstration of the work involved in building a root cellar into a hill, see this video:
Large Scale Root Cellar
Preppers have different ideas of how to deal with those people who haven’t adequately prepared for a SHTF scenario. For those who believe in helping their friends, loved ones and neighbors who haven’t prepared, a larger-scale root cellar could help achieve that.
With the technology that is available today, you can build a large modern root cellar that uses the earth home design principles and minimal electricity.
Since your modern root cellar would use very little electricity, it would even be possible to power it using solar power. If you’d like to build a more modern root cellar on a grander scale, look at what these folks are building:
When all is said and done, your root cellar can be as elaborate or as simple as it needs to be to meet your needs. Think carefully about how you will regulate temperature, humidity, and ventilation during the design phase of your root cellar construction.
Above all make sure that you follow safety guidelines and the local building regulations for your area to ensure that your root cellar is safe and will withstand the test of time and weather any storms that may come.
Honorable Mention: the Zeer Pot
This is actually at the opposite end of the large-scale cellar we mentioned. A Zeer pot, also known as a pot-in-pot refrigerator is a simple system consisting of two terracotta pots filled in-between with sand.
The amount of produce you can store is very limited and the temperature isn’t that low compared to a traditional root cellar, nevertheless it does work. read our article on how to DIY one.
What’s your favorite root cellar design idea? Did we miss one that you like? Let us know in the comments below.
updated 10/17/2019 by Megan Stewart