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Why Your Home Needs a Root Cellar

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Oct 17, 2020

Winter is on the way, and soon the cold nighttime temperatures and frozen ground will lay waste to much of your garden. While a few kale and spinach plants will stubbornly resist the onslaught of cold weather, the majority of backyard gardeners will soon be resigned to looking through seed catalogs and patiently waiting for spring to thaw the ground.

Most of us would prefer local produce for as much of the year as possible. The more we can avoid relying on items like pesticide-treated tomatoes or apples flown to your supermarket shelves from far away places, the better. A root cellar is a "technology" used for hundreds (or thousands) of years to store harvests. Root cellars are a sustainable and common-sense method - and might be an excellent addition to your home.

Even if you aren't an avid gardener with a green thumb, a root cellar can be a useful upgrade for any household aiming to reduce its carbon footprint and maintain an autonomous supply of healthy and organic food sourced from local farmers.

Root Cellar Winter

What is a Root Cellar? 

Your grandmother's house might have had an unusual door attached to one side of the home or in the backyard that seemed to lead directly into the ground. Root cellars are simple structures buried either entirely or partially underground. Root cellars can store fruits, vegetables, root crops, and other types of food. Depending on the specific crop and climatic conditions, root cellars can successfully store food for several months. Before the advent of refrigerators, root cellars were an essential technology of agrarian civilizations that allowed families to keep crops for several months during the winter when fresh food wasn't available.

While many older homes may still have vestiges of root cellars that have gone out of use with the advent of modern refrigerators, root cellars today are again gaining in popularity due to increased interest and demand in organic and locally sourced food.

If you have ever walked into a cave during a hot afternoon in August, you probably immediately noticed the refreshingly cool temperature. Because soil is a poor conductor of heat, the temperature only a couple of feet underneath the ground generally remains cool and constant throughout the year. So, root cellars are great places to store food because of the stable, cool temperatures that essentially act like natural refrigerators.

Add to this that the soil beneath your feet is generally moist unless you live in an arid desert region. This natural moisture maintains a high humidity level for root cellars, which is another essential component of successfully storing foods.

Root Cellar

What Are The Sustainability Benefits of a Root Cellar?

Although modern-day refrigerators, such as those receiving Energy Star certification, are much more energy-efficient than older models, they still account for an enormous amount of total energy use. Almost 200 million refrigerators are sold each year worldwide, and 99.8% of US households own and use at least one refrigerator. With roughly 129 million households in the United States and the average annual energy consumption of a modern refrigerator using around 400-kilowatt hours (kWh), refrigerators across the country demand over 50 billion kWh of energy each year. 

Reducing household energy demands is a top priority for anyone interested in reducing their energy costs and the associated environmental impacts. Root cellars could potentially replace that extra refrigerator without using any energy.

Carbon Footprint of the Globalized Food Industry

Root cellars can also lower your home's carbon footprint by reducing your reliance on the globalized food industry. During the winter months, the fresh produce on the shelves of your local grocery store has most likely traveled thousands of miles before eventually making it to your table.

The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) estimates that meals in the United States travel about 1,500 miles to get from their origin to your dinner plate. Transporting those fresh Chilean apples or Argentinian-raised soybeans to your home in Washington State adds up to an enormous amount of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. Studies have also shown that food produces about 8 tons of emissions per household through transportation emissions and unsustainable agricultural practices of the industrial food system.

On the other hand, a root cellar will allow your family to secure a sustainable, local, and low-emission food source, even during the winter months, while simultaneously supporting local farmers and agricultural economies.

Industrial Agriculture

Local, Seasonal, and Organic…even During the Winter

From a health perspective, the globalized food system requires a large variety of chemicals to keep food fresh as it travels from one corner of the globe to the next. Some common chemicals utilized to keep fruits, vegetables, and other foodstuffs fresh include:

  • Sodium ortho-phenyl phenate (SOPP): A strong fungicide that stops the appearance of fungus and molds on produce.
  • Thiabendazole: A strong fungicide that is used on all different types of fruits and vegetables.
  • Maleic hydrazide: Inhibits sprouting and induces dormancy in certain citrus fruits. This potent chemical is banned in several European countries. 
  • Sulfuryl fluoride: This pesticide is sprayed on crops post-harvest to extend their shelf life. However, this spray leaves large amounts of fluoride on foods, which some families make an effort to avoid.

A root cellar is a great way to reduce your exposure to dozens of potentially dangerous health effects connected with the globalized food industry.

Root Cellar Construction Walden Labs
Root Cellar Construction. Photo Credit: Walden Labs

Getting Started With Root Cellars

Building a root cellar can be a do-it-yourself project that can be completed by even people with limited construction knowledge. Not every homeowner is up to the challenge of digging a hole, laying a foundation, and covering that hole so that you can store fresh produce throughout the winter.

Fortunately, the resurgence of interest in sustainable home design and technologies has allowed companies to design, make, and market pre-manufactured root cellars that only require installation. Below we look at one of the best-manufactured root cellars on the market today.

Weltevree Groundfridge
Photo Credit: Groundfridge

Prefabricated Root Cellars

One innovative example is the Groundfridgewhose name says it all: it is a fridge in the ground. This innovative version of the traditional root cellar from the Netherlands incorporates a unique spherical design. It includes a staircase that allows you to take advantage of the ground's insulating effect and groundwater's cooling effect. The Groundfridge is buried about a meter (three feet) beneath the soil. At this level, the temperature inside remains a constant 50 to 53 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year, making it a great option to store all different types of fresh fruits, vegetable produce, and even some dairy products. The Groundfridge even comes equipped with wooden shelves for storage.

Earth Bag Root Cellar Green Dream Project
Earth Bag Root Cellar. Photo Credit: The Green Dream Project

Bottom Line

Even if you do not grow food yourself, any homeowner wanting a more resilient home should seriously consider building a root cellar. It will reduce your carbon footprint and secure healthier, local sources of organic food during the long months of winter—even during power outages. 

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-06-18T03:29:24+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.