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So I  know this is a bit random and I am reading as much as I can find on the subject, but I wanted to pick your brains to see if you thought a root cellar would be feasible here in the desert? Anyone on here have a basement or root cellar? I'd appreciate any websites, personal experience, or other knowledge sharing on the subject.

I suppose I'm also curious to know if it's silly for me to think of using a root cellar to store other long term food storage items i.e. food grade buckets with grains? Please excuse my ignorance, this is a newer idea I've had as my pantry is full and I'm starting to think of ways I could utilize other space on my property.

Thanks for your feedback in advance- I love reading on this website, I learn so much!

Kristin

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As long as you don't get irrigation it will be quite feasible.  Don't know what the temp drop will be in the summer.

I've wondered the exact same thing in the last couple of weeks. We are either reading the same websites or the food storage bug has bitten us both.

I'll keep watching the post.

-cricket

It is a valid question, Kristin.

I have looked at the feasibility of a root cellar in the desert and it is not as easy as it is in the areas where they get a lot of cold and ice.  To begin with (and this is if you do not have a basement - which is not common in the desert) you have to think in terms of temperature control aspects of the ground.  To make it work properly you would need to sink water-tight bins or cans a couple of feet down so the summer surface temperatures do not 'get' to the food.  A traditional root cellar is like a dark cold frame, sunk part-way in the ground to utilize the frozen/cold ground for cooling - obviously that is not possible here.  The best temperature you could achieve would be the 'mean' temperature of 2-3 foot deep soil - I believe that is about 55 degrees, and the cover and soil over the container would have to help insulate from sun and heat.

You would also need to chose an area with superior drainage or high to avoid rain water from accumulating around the container.

Grains in particular can be tricky to keep fresh from air and temperatures.   You would want to store each Grain in glass if possible - like quarter or gallon size mason jars.  Freezing is an option if you have extra space in your home you might consider a standup frost-free freezer.

Storing root vegetables, as another example, is best if you 1) leave them in the ground, or 2) pull them and store them for several weeks in damp sand in the coolest part of the house, garage or shed.

FYI  Pioneer Living Museum used to have an example of a "spring house" which literally has to be placed over moving water, and was used to keep perishables like milk, butter and eggs longer than in the home with no refrigeration. (I have not been there in a while so I do not know if they kept that exhibit.)

Hope some of that is helpful.

Thanks Catherine!  Getting time for a road trip.

http://www.pioneeraz.org/vp.aspx?pn=PIC_0035.jpg&pf=p1

http://www.pioneeraz.org/vp.aspx?pn=PIC_0040.jpg&pf=p1

http://www.pioneeraz.org/vp.aspx?pn=PIC_0032.jpg&pf=p1

Now all i NEED IS WATER RUNNING UNDER MY LAND.  Maybe build over the sewer ;-D

Thanks everyone for the replies and great discussion! Sorry I was out of town over the holiday weekend and so I'm just reading and catching up. I just recently got engaged (woo hoo!) and my husband-to-be and I have begun talking about getting a house together once we are married, and we were putting together our "top 5" and other wish list items for a house, and of course the top of my wish list was a big irrigated lot, so if I was going to try and have any underground space, I'd imagine I'd have to treat it like a basement and pour concrete and have a raised entry area to keep the water out. I'd love to have a basement for the extra cooler storage space for food, but the basement homes really are rare here so I'm guessing that if I'd want something, I'd have to build it myself. (not a huge hurdle as I'm an architect by trade.) but with my desire to have a lot of fruit trees I'd really want an irrigated lot so it does provide a challenge with regards to any underground food storage. I am excited to continue my research. with regards to the food, I have been purchasing the 5 gallon food grade buckets for the staple items like grains and salt and sugar- so that I could store them in an air tight and bug-free manner...but of course I'd also have canned items and other items from my garden and fruit trees that would need to be stored as well, and I do have a chest freezer but I don't want to rely on it too much ;)  Thanks again everyone for the feedback and I will continue with the updates if I ever get to  building one!

Kristin, I would certainly be interested in your experiments with cellaring and storage of grains.  Congratulations on your engagement :-)

Heck yeah. Keep us posted, also. Congratulations on your engagement! We too are buying our first home and my fiancee was teasing me for wanting a root cellar in the desert on an irrigated lot. ;) I still hope to figure out a solution. I like the idea of evaporative cooling, but that might involve too much depth and/or water to be useful in the summer. Or diverting irrigation around a segment of the lot which would be left to desert and drought tolerant plants (and potentially some underground food storage!). Though, he says the ground temperature here is not 55, but 70 in the summer (he also provided no source, so I'm still hopeful). That is still significantly cooler than the mean temperature of summer air temps, but not so awesome for food storage and the like. I went so far as to suggest that we could plan to utilize the the root cellar seasonally. I think it's possible and look forward to hearing more from the group.

Laura, if you were able to devise a way to use your irrigation that would be very creative.  On the soil temperature, you would have to stick a probe down 2-3 feet to be sure :-), but I can tell you the 3 inches or so of exposed dry hard surface soil on a summer afternoon is about 180 degrees.  The real challenge as you say is what temperature you are trying for to store things, and 'what' specifically you want to store.  If you are looking to keep some 'things' cool in the summer, you might have fun looking into building a Pioneer Refrigerator - basically a box with burlap and a way to keep a very slow drip of water to continually moisten the material.  Evaporative Cooling 101.

I was hired to clean out a root cellar of an acquaintance who lives near US-MX border.  Summer temps to 110, winter temps to 10 degrees. 

1.  BASIC DESIGN.  A 9' high x 20' long used cargo container buried in sand.  3 food of sand place over the top.  A greenhouse deck placed over the top of that.  Cement ante-room built.  Cement stairs, walls, ceiling.  Entrance to stairs was thru a 3/4" plywood floor entrance from the greenhouse.  

2.  TEMPERATURE RESULTS:  Greenhouse above was not properly designed.  Temps in the greenhouse reached 140 degrees in the summer.  Improper ventilation.  Therefore the temperature above the root cellar was higher than it would have been with just a deck above.  On the hottest daytime temperature (110) the temperature in the container stayed pretty constant at 68 degrees.  During the coldest part of winter the temperature was in the mid to low 50s.

3.  HUMIDITY:  Was not measured.  However, there were some fiberboard items stored there that were affected by an increase in humidity.

4.  OTHER OBSERVATIONS:  Overall, the construction of the anteroom was poor.  It was not completed in terms of no openings for critters to enter.  Within 6 months mice were digging down through the sand and entering the ante room.  They did not get into the cargo container as long as it was shut tight.  There was nothing for them to eat in the ante/stairwell room.  However, the owner did not properly shut the cargo doors. The small gap allowed the mice to get in.  Any food that was not in glass or canned was ripped open by the mice.  The mice peed on everything.  This started a rust problem on commercially canned goods as well as the metal lids on home canned items.  Mice poop everywhere.  Feral cats eventually dug larger holes through the sand and munched on the mice.  The feral cats and mice traps didn't make a dent in the population.  Eventually multiple rattlesnakes moved in to much on feral kittens and mice.

5.  CLEAN-OUT OBSERVATIONS:  The mice/rattlesnake infestation had been ongoing for about 18 months or so.

If the root cellar isn't 100% mice proof, make sure to enter using a very long stick.  Pound the ground and move items with the stick first.  Often, but not always, as found out the hard way, the rattlesnakes will shake their tail and reveal where they are hiding.  Be armed with a snake shot pistol load and a very bright flashlight even if the container has electrical lighting, which this one did.  A long shovel will not necessarily reach where the rattlesnakes are hiding under shelves and behind items.  The clean-out was done on the coldest days when the rattlesnakes were more sluggish in movement.

Wear protective breathing masks and gloves to prevent illness from mice born diseases. Do not stir up the dust.  Decontaminate everything with a bleach solution.  Search the internet for more detailed instructions and safety concerns.  

Every can/jar was decontaminated.

Nearly every boxed item of food had to be discarded.  Mice went for flour based items first, and high sugar  and dried fruit items last.  Their favorite item seemed to be flour, Ramon noodles, macaroni & cheese.

The mice shredded the labels off of canned goods.  Contents of some were unknown.  Some had partial labels.  The rustiest ones were taken to the kitchen to be eaten first.

Mice did not chew thru 5 gallon buckets, but they might have if the clean-out hadn't occurred. They did run across and piss all over them.

There were open buckets of harvested potatoes and jerusalem artichokes and garlic waiting to be eaten and/or planted the following year.  Prior to the infestation, these items stored very well over the winter.  The potatoes did sprout in early spring, even though it was dark inside.  The jerusalem artichokes also wintered quite well.  The top layer in a bucket did dry out a bit.  Not sure why he stored them in a bucket (no lid).  Garlic wasn't in a bucket and also stored well.  After the infestation the mice did eat some of the potatoes, but not many.

Mice tore into the case of toilet paper and used that to make nests.  

Over time, the mice/cat entrances allowed a lot of sand to slide into the ante-room and created a big mess.

After the snakes were killed over several days, removal of all items started.  There were items with wet mice piss on them, which is thought to be the most dangerous.  Those were set aside to dry out before decontamination.  Once everything was removed, sweeping and decontamination of everything with a bleach solution was not started for two weeks to make sure all mice piss was dry.  Mice traps were left in place to catch the stragglers.  Mice did leave after the food was removed, and the stragglers were trapped.  

6.  CONCLUSION:  The temperature was considerably cooler than the surface temperature even with the poor design.  The humidity wasn't noticeable, but there is some.  Potatoes, etc. stored well.  With better construction techniques to make the cellar 100% mice proof, a cool area can be achieved.

Another person I know built a root cellar similar to the way they would be made on a hillside. Most of his home was below ground level (alternative type construction).  The "front yard" was below ground level and open air - a pit.  The root cellar was on the opposite side of the pit, door facing east. He only had about 8" of sand on top of the root cellar. The door was not "mice proof".  He also had a mice problem.  And he thought the temp was incorrect.  He died shortly after and I didn't ask any further questions about it. 

3 foot of sand over (typo above)

Also he stored pumpkins and other winter squash with no problem until he didn't close the door and the mice invaded.............

Thanks for posting, Desert Rat.

Even with all the flaws it showed that under 3 foot of dirt / sand, the temperatures could be adequately controlled for storage, even in our extreme summer temps.  68 degrees is certainly a benchmark temp in the summer.

Not only the 3' of sand, but I think part of the key that made it work was there was no sun hitting the sand to super heat the sand.  The wood trap door wasn't airtight, so some of that super hot air had to have worked its way into the anteroom.  But the anteroom where the stairs are was only slightly warmer.  

I saw a youtube that had a better construction technique for burying a cargo container.  I'm not sure what year but the guy that made the video stated the cost was about 
$12k at that time.  I could tell from the layout it was a much better design in terms of being able to keep mice out.  

Talked to another acquaintance who has a so called root cellar.  It is only about halfwayunderground and doesn't have as much sand on top.  It is not as cool in the hottest part of summer, but it is cooler than his non-A/C house.  His design has about a 24" vent in the ceiling  He doesn't store things like potatoes in it.  It is mice proof though.  He had some kind of small hardwire over the vent, and a solid metal door built in a way you would think of in terms of a tornado shelter type door.

Somebody else I met made something like a mostly underground "yurt" - a round living area, made with sand packed tire walls.  I dont' remember the roof construction.  I've lost touch and can't ask about the temp.  I know he, wife & two kids lived in it for over 3 years, down near the border also, Same type of summer heat.  Completely off-grid, not even solar panels.

Anyway - if 68 degrees works, then shaded 3' of sand should do the trick.  Make sure the interior roof is BRACED before pouring sand - otherwise a bowed ceiling problem.  Forgot to mention that.... :-)

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