DIY Root Cellars

How to build a root cellar that fits your home and your needs to save money.

| May/June 2017

When I built a big root cellar back in 1989, I thought I was the only one still interested in old-fashioned things like this. I realized I was wrong when a publisher approached me with an invitation to write The Complete Root Cellar Book in 2010. Since then, I’ve heard from many people eager to learn more about building their own root cellar for storing and preserving food at home.

Why bother? Some folks want a cellar to save money, stocking up on fruits and vegetables at low harvest prices. Others use a root cellar to store their homegrown garden produce and maybe even protect them and loved ones from storms. Still others build root cellars as protection against social or economic collapse that would cut off the steady supply of supermarket food we’ve come to depend on. Regardless of your motivation, the three root cellar designs you’ll find here cover the needs of most people looking to become more self-reliant when it comes to food.

What is a root cellar?

Traditionally speaking, any cool, moist, underground space set aside for long-term storage of vegetables, fruits, and even meats and cheeses, is a root cellar. Although root cellars have been used since prehistoric times, people these days are renovating their homes or building new root cellars from scratch in ways not seen before. Some people with no access to underground spaces are even making electrically assisted root cellars.

The under-steps root cellar

Millions of homes across America have a small “cold room” off the basement, located under the concrete front porch of the house. While it’s nice that home builders have made at least a small attempt at allowing for home food storage, most under-the-steps cold rooms don’t work. If you’ve lived with one, you’ll know why. Temperatures usually get too warm in summer to keep foods from spoiling, and too cold in winter to prevent freezing that ruins fruits and vegetables. So why don’t cold rooms hold a more even temperature? Two reasons: Not enough soil cover, and not enough protection from basement heat.

The plans show how extruded polystyrene insulation can be applied to the inside of the cold room down to about 12 inches below the level of the soil to moderate cold room temperatures. The same goes for the underside of a cold cellar ceiling. In most houses it’s only a few inches of concrete, and that’s way too thin to keep out the cold and heat. Foam insulation like this needs to be covered with some kind of sheet material to protect against fire and damage, so don’t skip that step. Tapcon screws driven into holes drilled through the cement board and into the underlying masonry is one option.

As you plan your cold room retrofit, pay attention to these details:

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