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Root Cellar Construction, by George T.

To begin with my first root cellar (RC) was built in 1998, in anticipation of Y2K. I used a John Deere front loader to dig/excavate the area for a root cellar. I had worked as a Temp for a local business and they were retrofitting a former work area. They were disposing of some nice wood beams (4 x 12 x 20 fir) and they were going to haul them off to the dump. I offered to take them for free. So I was able to take about 16 – 18 of them, 1” plywood flooring and was able also to get two sets of stairs made out of 4 x 12 fir one was 8’ long and the other 4 foot long. I used the 8” for this RC and saved the other for posterity; with this I had my ceiling joists, stairs, ceiling tiles (ceiling insulation) and roofing/ceiling material. I ran 120 volts to the RC. I used pine logs for the vertical supports. I covered it with 30” of dirt. In the end I had built a 16′ x 20′ RC and had four lights inside.

The problems I later encountered, were:

  1. The walls were not thick enough and reinforced enough. I had used 7/16” OSB sheathing on the walls, and metal wall studs for horizontal support but they were few and far between. A few years later the walls started cracking and breaking inward from the pressure of earth and from freezing winters.
  2. The first two years I had considerable amount of moisture to contend with. I had metal cans of food rusting and other steel items that rusted as well and mold started to form on the wood posts and wooden walls.
  3. Dirt floor
  4. Not enough lights or power outlets
  5. Ceiling wasn’t high enough

After about 10 years of thinking and pondering my mistakes of the first RC and wanting to build another one. I set out on paper to rethink and to design a RC. It wasn’t until 2009 that I a real plan.

My New Plan

I decided that I wanted a hidden room within the cellar, 8 foot high ceiling, 110 electricity, phone, water, drain, 4” venting for a composting toilet, 4” intake and exhaust venting with blast gates with 2- 12 volt marine blower/exhaust fans (gel type batteries no gases emitted), escape hatch, wood floors, 110 volt lights & outlets, 12 volt lights, & two 2” pipe penetrations, one for water in/out (future for an outside water storage tank). The other for wiring i.e.: outside generator, and solar/wind power.

I began in 2010 using a borrowed John Deere tractor with a front loader to dig/excavate the area for a root cellar. After going as far as I could with it I stopped work of the area as time and money wasn’t available to me at the time. And frustrated that the area that I had worked on wasn’t deep enough and level enough for what I wanted to do.

The following year 2011, everything fell into place, the time, money and resources. I feel that I was lead to do this. I thank everyone in the spirit world who helped out and thanks to God, without theirs and God’s guidance this wouldn’t have been possible and to my loving wife who supported me in my efforts.

So excavating began:  I had dug out 2010 a spot 21’ x 20’.

I thought long and hard as to how to construct and what to construct the RC out of. I wanted it to be strong and yet inexpensive. I was led to using metal pallet racks. I researched the Internet for pallet racks most were fairly expensive even used. I went to the local steel salvage yard and was able to get qty. 43 – 44” x 19’ long pallet racks and paid about $1,450. Some were straight and some were crooked. Out of the 43 racks I used 41 of them. With a 16’ car hauler trailer I made two trips in taking them all home.

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After acquiring the pallet racks, I was finally able to figure out how big to make the RC. I wanted to build approximately a 20’ x 20’ RC. I had a length of 19’ on the racks so with them being 44” wide, I ended up building a 19’ x 23’ RC with 97 1/2” walls with a 6’ x 8’ outside entry way, one door into the entry, one door to go into the outside room and another door to the hidden area. I cut some of the 19’ racks to 97 ½” long, giving me 27 vertical wall sections; 22 for the outside walls and 5 for the small cellar room. I reinforced each wall section with additional steel that I had or used from the racks themselves. Each wall section ended up weighing about 155 lbs. or more.

With the size of RC in mind, I rented a small crawler excavator. With it I was able to get deeper and bigger but placement of the excavated dirt was a problem, I was only able to get 4-5 feet deep into the earth. I also used it to dig a trench for a 1” water line and 1-1/2 “ PVC conduit for power/phone to the RC, after using the excavator for two days. I returned it and ended up hand shoveling the earth to level out the RC area.

I designed the RC to have two rooms: an entry room (approx. 8’ x 8’) for the entry hiding the main entrance door. And the rest was the main room to be separated by the entrance (hidden) door. I had a steel escape ladder that I had bought several years before, I installed that and installed an escape hatch.

I hand-dug the perimeter for footings and footings for the small RC area, framed it in with old lumber and used #4 rebar, 4 per footing the entire length of each footing. I used in all 66 bags of sacked concrete that each weighed 60 lbs. Why 60 lb. bags and not 80 lb. bags? 80 lbs. is more than I can handle at one time. I had a cheap Chinese electric concrete mixer that I used, it could handle up to 4 bags of concrete but I usually mixed 3 bags at a time. When I poured the concrete I embedded steel angle iron into the wet concrete so that I could later weld the steel frames (racks) to the angle iron keep them in place.

Forms & Rebar

To get the concrete into the area I used my fork truck and an extendable boom lift that I had made the year before. Because of the length of the boom and the weight of the concrete I could only move 6 bags at a time. The weight plus the length of the boom would lift up the back end of the fork truck if I exceeded the weight limit.

In the shop, welding the wall panels together I spent several days and pounds or welding wire (2 spools) welding the sections together. I cut some of the 19 foot pallet racks to 97 1/2“in length. Then I added 6 horizontal supports every 16” for support for the wood (7/8” thick for the outside walls). In all, there 22 vertical outside supports (for the perimeter of the RC and 5 inner vertical support walls the entry that were welded up and installed. I ended up welding flat bars across the facing of the joining vertical walls so that they would not bow inwardly from the outward pressures.

I built the new RC in the late summer and fire was a hazard with the welding that I was doing. I ended up sprinkling/watering the surrounding areas quite heavily so that no fires were started from the welding. I used a Hobart gas driven portable welder, In the RC area I ended up putting 14 hours on the welder in welding the pallet racks and wall sections together.

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After the sections were fabricated, on the far Northwestern corner for the RC, a hole was dug about 3-1/2 feet deep for a 2” drain and a pipe was run from the Southwestern end of the NW hole. With the depth of the RC and with the hole that was dug the drain hole was about7-8 deep. Then 10 mil plastic sheeting was laid down over the concrete footings and piping. The sheeting was cut whereever each of the steel angle iron was imbedded into the concrete, to ease the location of them when I was ready to weld the “flooring “ pallet racks into place. With the fork truck I then lowered the 6-19’ steel frames of the flooring support into place.

After the pallet racks were laid in place; then they were welded to the footings (embedded angle iron and to themselves). One of the problems of welding with plastic in place is that the sparks and slag would burn holes into the plastic and sometimes the plastic itself would catch on fire. Though there weren’t that many holes, later in the construction before the wooden 1 1/8” T&G plywood flooring was laid another layer of 6 mil plastic sheeting was put down ensuring a proper vapor barrier.

After the base was set into place the wall sections were set on the base. Two sheets of 7/16” sheathing were placed onto the outside of the wall sections, giving a wall thickness of 7/8” thick. I coated each sheet in RV antifreeze and Borax mixture (one for bug deterrent and the other for weather preservation) and a cover of heavy visqueen. Looking back it would have been cheaper to have used ¾” flooring but it would have been 1/8” less in thickness. I tried using liquid nails to adhere the wood to the metal, the test piece that I had in the shop worked, but later keeping the wood adhered the metal frames. Later, self-drilling/tapping screws were used and that kept the wood adhered to the steel frames.

After the walls were in place I set in the overhead frames, to get away from posts in the RC area I used I-beams to support some of the overhead frames. The entry way was built and the entry door installed and the main hidden entrance door was installed. So actually there are 3 doors that a person goes through in order to get into the main room.

I covered the roof area as I did the walls, but used foam panels on top of wood and used visqueen to cover the top and then soil, later I found using visqueen was an error and I went with a heavy pond liner material instead.

Using Kilz for a primer on the inside metals and painted everything white so it would be brighter and lighter. We have been using this RC for several years now. What I have written so far is pretty much the basis of what I built with a little help from the wife.

Humidity in the RC usually runs about 75%, temperatures range from about 45-70 degrees, there is a phone line in there, sink with water and a drain line, improvised toilet, wood stove, 120 volts & LED lights, and a secondary escaped route if needed. There is a small area for seating and eating, and if need be cots for sleeping. There are lots of lights and storage racks to place the items to be stored.

It a humble place but far far better than what was before. I wanted the outside to look old and unassuming, like an old mine shaft or well house.

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