7 things to remember about cooking in SHTF scenario

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Just about every prepper has stored some food and water in case of a major disaster. That’s one of the first things you began to stockpile right? But did you ever stop to consider ways and means of cooking your food in a serious SHTF scenario? Unless you have a month’s (or more) worth of […]

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Why coffee should be a part of your preps

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Editor’s note: Please welcome Liz Thornton to Planandprepared.com! I’m stockpiling coffee in case of a looming SHTF scenario. It’s something I’m taking very seriously and treating as a high priority. If coffee is part of your daily life, here’s why you shouldn’t take it for granted either. Let me take a few steps back and introduce […]

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Priorities for prepping on a tight budget

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A while back, I wrote an article for folks that are brand new to prepping. If you missed it, click here to read it. Anyway, I got some positive feedback on that article, but I also received a few emails asking me to be a bit more specific. They wanted to know where and what […]

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Prepper Food Storage Review – Valley Foods

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When outside companies ask me to do a review of their products, I sometimes have just a little bit of trepidation. For example, what happens if the company sends me their product and I do not like it? That could lead to some awkward moments. So I have tried to be selective of what products I […]

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How to start prepping in 5 easy steps

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I receive emails quite often from people who are new to prepping. A few says they have thought about it for a while, but haven’t really got started. I’m sure it can feel like a daunting and overwhelming process to the beginner. But it does not have to be. Being prepared is really not hard if […]

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Bugging in vs Bugging out – Which is for you?

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When the proverbial “poop” hits the fan, should you ride out the SHTF event at home? Or should you hit the open road for safer areas? This question has perplexed preppers for years. Many preppers prefer the safety and comfort of home, and make their plans accordingly. Others have a sense of adventure and excitement, and […]

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9 false survival myths and other things that can get you dead!

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A while back, I wrote an article on my friend Graywolf’s site about false knowledge. I noted some “TV survival shows” and commented that doing some of what they prescribed was foolish. I am pleased that these shows are making people more aware that their own safety and security is ultimately up to them. But […]

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What you NEED to know about long term water storage!

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Having clean drinking water is the third most important aspect of being prepared and ready in the event of a disaster. (Your need for oxygen is first, and keeping your core body temperature at 98.6 degrees is second!) Unfortunately, when it comes to water, many people will either a) not store any water at all, […]

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Long term power outage? What to eat first

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I’m sure that every single person who lives with electricity has, at one time or another experienced a power outage. Or at the very least woke up some morning with all of their clocks flashing 88:88. The occasional power outage is just a fact of life. Now some folks, like myself, may have experienced even longer […]

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Japanese Govt Urges Citizens to Stockpile One Month Toilet Paper Supply

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A bizarre approach to dispensing toilet paper.

A bizarre approach to dispensing toilet paper – sighted at a rest stop somewhere between SD and MN.

A little known side effect of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant problems in Japan was a shortage of toilet paper that affected the entire country.

Japan has had toilet paper shortages before, back in the oil crisis of 1973 (you never thought that expensive and scarce oil would create a toilet paper shortage, did you!) and so the nation has become particularly sensitized to the potential of future shortages.  As a result, the Japanese government is now urging the public to stockpile toilet paper, and has even arranged for a special type of toilet paper roll (without the inner cardboard sleeve) that allows more toilet paper to be stored in less space.  You can read more about their public promotional campaign here.

We see two interesting things about this.  The first is the government’s determination that it could take a month for any disruption in supply to be resolved, either due to factories returning to production or by way of importing supplies from other countries, and so they are recommending everyone keeps at least a one month supply in their homes.

Depending on your point of view, a one month supply is either a generous amount or woefully inadequate.  A lot would rest on the type of disruption to local manufacturing, of course, and if it was a broader global disruption (such as another oil shock) then even a one month supply might be exhausted long before new supplies were on hand.  Of course, this is a Level 1 type preparation only, not a Level 2 or 3.

The second interesting thing is the focus on stockpiling a month of toilet paper.  We don’t disagree with this at all, of course, but how about other things, too?  Like, ummm, water and food?  If toilet paper is liable to disruptions in supply, surely food supplies too have to be considered as being at risk of some future disruptions, and if we had to choose between no toilet paper and no food, well, that’s an easy choice, isn’t it!

Don’t get us wrong.  It is great to see a national government advocate a one month stockpile of anything, but we see this as begging the question – why do we need to maintain a one month supply of toilet paper, but not a one month supply of everything else, too?

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Water Wells and Planning for Problems

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A backup hand operated water pump is a great reassurance, but note that hand pumps can also fail.

A backup hand-operated water pump is a great reassurance, but note that hand pumps can also fail.

Many of us rely on wells for our water supply, and in such cases, we have an electric pump that lifts the water up and into a supply tank.

These pumps are usually long-lived and reliable, and draw little power (at least by present day standards where we have access to virtually unlimited electrical power at comparatively low cost).

But what happens in a future adverse scenario where first our power fails and then secondly our pump fails?  The obvious answers are backups and spares, but there are also some design issues that should be considered well before any such problems occur.

Operating Electric Pumps When Electricity is Scarce

The first problem – power failing – will hopefully be addressed by your on-site power generation needs.  One of the ‘good’ things about needing power for a water pump is that – assuming you have a reasonably sized holding tank above the well, the power your water pump needs can be time-shifted to those times of day when you have a surplus of (eg solar) power – use the power at those times to pump up water and to fill your above ground storage tank, and use the water from the storage tank at those times of day (eg night-time) when you have no free power.

Water pumps vary in terms of how much power they require, depending on the lifting height they need to bring the water, and the number of gallons per minute of water desired.  Obviously, greater heights and greater gpm rates require more power.  Fortunately, assuming moderate lifting heights and gpm requirements, you can get a lot of water from a pump that uses only 1000 or 2000 watts of power.  From an energy management point of view, you would probably prefer to have a less powerful pump running for longer, than a more powerful pump running for a shorter time.

This also allows you to get good use from a well with a low replenishment rate.  When specifying your well and water needs in the first place, you should give more importance to assured continuity of water supply at a low instantaneous flow rate but with sufficient total flow each day to meet your needs, rather than limiting yourself only to wells that can support rapid draws down of water via a high-capacity pump.

Chances are you can get the better part of a gallon of water lifted up your well and into your holding tank for every watt-hour of power – 1000 gallons per kWh if you prefer to think in those terms.

We discuss the energy costs of pumping water in this article.

So the first problem – loss of utility sourced electricity – is hopefully not a huge problem (and see below for a discussion on hand pumps).

Planning for Pump Problems

However, the second problem – pump failure – quite likely may be a big problem, and so we offer several solutions to consider.

The first solution is a very simple one.  If your water pump fails, simply replace it with a spare one that you’ve kept in storage, in anticipation of just such an event occurring, as it undoubtedly will, sooner or later.

Water pumps aren’t very expensive (probably under $500) and are fairly long-lived.  You’re unlikely to need to be replacing pumps every year, indeed, assuming that the duty cycle for the pump is moderate and appropriate, it is realistic to at least 10 – 15 years of trouble-free life.  With clean water and a light cycling rate, some pumps give up to 40 years of service.

When you do have a water pump problem, it is probably something you could – at least in theory – repair rather than fix by a complete replacement, and many of the problems actually relate to the fixtures and fittings and tanks outside the well, not the pump inside the well.  But, if it is a pump problem, and to keep things really simple, obviously a total replacement should work (assuming the problem isn’t somewhere above ground, outside of the well, in particular the electrical and control wiring that goes to the pump to turn it on and off as needed).

Depending on your level of skill, your supply of spare parts, and how long you can manage with the pump system down, repair would always be preferable to replacement, of course.  It would be a good strategy to talk to whoever installed and/or maintains your pump currently to find out what the likely failure points may be and to keep those appropriate spare parts, as well as a complete second pump assembly too.

For many of us, having a complete spare water pump would be all the protection and preparing we feel we need.

Here’s a useful but slightly muddled website with a lot of information about troubleshooting and repairing well based water systems.

A Large Temporary Holding Tank

These considerations point to a related point.  You should have a larger than normal above ground temporary tank, and keep it full to half full all the time.  Your choice of above ground holding tank should be such that you can live off the remaining half of its capacity for a reasonable number of days, if the pump does fail.  That gives you the luxury of some time in which to respond to the failed pump and get it fixed, before the toilets stop flushing and the taps stop running.

There’s a related benefit to a large temporary tank.  It means your pump doesn’t cycle as frequently.  It is the starting part of the pump’s operation that is most stressful; you’ll get much more life out of the pump by reducing its frequency of cycling on and off.

It is common for the well water to be pumped to a small pressure reservoir, and then to travel from there to the taps as needed, primarily by the force of the pressure in the reservoir.  In such cases, we suggest adding a temporary holding tank between the well and the pressure reservoir (rather than creating an enormous pressure reservoir).  We also suggest locating the holding tank as high above ground as possible, so as to reduce your dependence on the pressure reservoir.  A gravity fed system from the reservoir to your taps would be much more reliable.

Typical domestic water supplies have pressures in the order of 40 – 60 psi, sometimes a little less, and sometimes going up as high as 80 psi.

Yes, there is such a thing as too much water pressure.  We’d recommend keeping the water pressure to around the 40 – 50 psi point so as to minimize stress on taps and pipes.  Each foot of water height creates 0.43 lbs/sq in of water pressure.  So even a 40 psi service would require the water level at the top of the holding tank to be 93 ft above the tap level – this is almost certainly impractical.

There are two workarounds.  The first is to have large diameter piping and high flow rate taps.  This will compensate for the lower pressure in all situations except showers.  If you want to have good showers, you’ll need to have a pressure booster of some type, either just for the shower, or perhaps for the entire house.

The problem with holding tanks appreciably above ground level is that they are insecure.  A vandal or attacker will see the tank, and almost certainly, rifle rounds will penetrate through the tank wall and while the holes might be readily repairable, the water you lose may or may not be so easily replaceable.  Without wishing to over-engineer a solution, our preference sometimes is for two holding tanks.  A large one that is mainly underground, and then a smaller ‘day tank’ type tank that is above ground at a high up point.  That way your main holding tank is relatively secure, and your vulnerability reduced; indeed, you could even have your day tank built into the attic/inside the roof of your retreat.

Adding a Hand Pump to the Well

So far, we’ve recommended adding a large temporary holding tank, set into the ground, and a smaller ‘day tank’ located in the ceiling/attic of your retreat.  We’ve also suggested keeping a complete spare pump and some replacement spares for those parts most likely to wear out.

But wait.  There’s still more!  We’d feel more comfortable if we also had some type of hand pump, so that pretty much no matter what else happens, we can always get water.  It goes without saying that if we can’t get water to our retreat, everything else becomes irrelevant and our entire retreat becomes unlivable.  Water is an essential part of any retreat, and abundant water allows our lifestyle to move massively up the scale.

Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind our water needs probably extend way beyond what we directly personally use in our retreat.  We have agricultural needs too, for our crops and livestock.  We might even have ‘industrial’ type needs if we have any sort of manufacturing processes.  You’ll probably find a hand pump, while able to provide the essential water for living, would be inadequate to provide all the other water you might need over and above your domestic and personal needs.  Perhaps better to say – the pump may be adequate, but your supply of pumping manpower may be inadequate!

Hand pumps come in many different shapes and sizes, and come with various types of claims and promises about being easy to operate and providing so many gallons per minute of water from your pumping actions.

There are, however, two main types of hand pump (and many other types of less relevant ways of raising water too, starting with a traditional well and bucket that is lowered down to the water level and then lifted up again).

Pumps that are designed to lift water only a short height are probably suction pumps (also called pitcher pumps) – their piston is above ground, directly connected to the pump’s operating handle, and simply sucks the water up the pipe and eject it out the other end of the piston.

But suction pumps quickly become less effective when the distance the water needs to be lifted increases.  A sometimes cited rule of thumb is that suction pumps are good for about 25 ft of lifting.  At that point, a totally different type of pump comes into its own, the lift or piston pump.

pumpoperationdiagThese pumps have their operating mechanism at the far end of the pipe, down where the water is.  Each stroke of the pump handle causes the cylinder to lift another measure of water up into the pipe.  Eventually, the water has been lifted all the way to the top and comes out the spout.

These pumps can lift water hundreds of feet, but the greater the lift height, the more effort is required to lift the water, and the more stress on the cylinder’s seals and the tubing in general.

Treat all the claims of gallon per minute (gpm) outputs and ease of use of hand pumps with a grain of salt.  There are unavoidable physical laws of nature which dictate how much energy is required to lift water from your well to your holding tank, and while a hand pump can operate with a greater or lesser degree of efficiency, thereby influencing how easy/hard it is to pump the water, it can never be more than 100% efficient (and more likely, never more than perhaps 70% efficient) so you’re always going to have to put some effort into the pumping.

Adding a hand pump to your current well system is probably much easier than you’d think.  Well, it is easy now while society is still functioning; it would be much harder subsequently!

The good news is that your current well comprises a pipe that is probably 6″ in diameter, and the pipe for the electrically powered pump water that comes up is probably only 1″ – 1 1/4″ in diameter.  This leaves lots of room for more pipes, so you simply lower down an extra pipe, and mount a hand pump on the well head.

Now for a clever extra idea.  You can have the output of the hand pump go to a valve, which can direct the water either to an outlet/tap or to feed into the water line from the electric pump (through a check-valve of course).  That way, if your electric pump fails for any reason, you can still feed water into your holding tank, your pressure tank, and your household water system.  This is a bit like having a distribution panel for your electricity, allowing your house wiring to be fed from utility power, a generator, batteries, or whatever other power source you wished to use.

What sort of hand pump do you need?  Our first point is one of warning.  Hand pumps are not necessarily long-lasting just because they operate by hand rather than by electricity.  We’ve heard of people having their hand pumps fail on them after less than a year of moderately light use.  In alphabetical order, we’re aware of Baker Monitor, Bison, Flojak, Simple Pump and Waterbuck Pump brands.  You might also find used Hitzer pumps out there, but after some years of struggling, the company finally liquidated a short while ago this year (2014).

There are other brands as well, but we’ve not uncovered as much information on them so hesitate to mention them.  We’ve not experimented with all the different makes and models of hand pumps, and hesitate to make a recommendation.  We suggest you speak to a couple of different well digging and maintaining companies and see what they recommend, and roam around online user forums and see what type of feedback the different makes and models of pumps are getting from bona fide users.

The Waterbuck product seems impressive, but we don’t fully understand exactly what it is or how it has the apparent advantage and extra efficiency it claims.  It seems to still be a fairly new to market product – maybe by the time you read this there is more feedback from people who have been using it for a while and who can comment accordingly.

aermotorbWindmill Powered Pumps

If you are fortunate enough to be somewhere with a reasonable amount of wind, maybe you can supplement your water supply with a windmill.

The classic American windmill can provide a reliable regular supply of water, ideally into a reasonably sized holding tank so as to buffer the differences in supply and demand as between the vagaries of wind powered pumping and the water draws for your various requirements.

Windmill powered pumps can lift water up to almost 1000 ft, and the more powerful pumps can lift up to 1000 gallons per hour (albeit more moderate heights).

Windmills can therefore work well, even as primary water supply pumps, just as long as there is a reasonable amount of wind to drive them.

Well Depth Issues

There’s no avoiding gravity.  The deeper you have to drill for water, the more hassle it becomes to then lift the water up to the surface and on into your retreat, the more energy it requires, and the more stressed every part of the pumping process becomes.

It would be time and money very well spent to explore widely around your retreat property to find the best location for the shallowest well.  A well digger can probably tell you fairly quickly, based on logs from past drilling projects in your area, what the typical well depths might be and if there’s likely to be much variation in the distance down to the water table around your property.

It is massively less costly, from an energy point of view, to run a water line horizontally across your property than it is to dig down in the first place.  Our point here is that if you had to choose between a 50 ft well, half a mile away, and a 200 ft well, right next to your retreat, we’d probably choose the 50 ft well (assuming there were no other risks or negative factors associated with then running half a mile of pipe from the well head to your retreat).

Best of all, of course, would be to do both wells, giving you another element of redundancy and assuredness of water supply.


Typical well water supplies have water feeding from a well to a relatively small and pressurized reservoir and then from there to the household plumbing.

We suggest a better design for a prepper has the well feeding to a holding tank, of sufficient size to store several days of water.  The well pump should be configured to deliver water infrequently with fewer starts and stops, making it less stressed and therefore more reliable and longer lived.  A second system then feeds from the holding tank to a pressurized reservoir and into the house.  This makes it easier to troubleshoot your water supply system and, in the event of the well pump failure, gives you some time to fix the pump before running low on pumped water on hand.

In addition to the electric well pump, you should have a second pump line going down your well tube, with a hand-operated pump at the top.  The pump should also feed into your main holding tank supply, plus have the ability to have water drawn direct from the pump itself.

Lastly, a backup system to feed water from the holding tank to your retreat would make sense also.

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Does Your Retreat Need Two – or Even Three – Root Cellars?

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This lovely large root cellar dates back to the mid 1800s and is underneath a farmhouse in Lancaster, PA.

This lovely large root cellar dates back to the mid 1800s and is underneath a farmhouse in Lancaster, PA.

Many people add a root cellar to their retreat.  This is good, but if you are not careful with what you store in your root cellar, the gases (notably ethylene) given off by some stored fruit and vegetables may interfere with the longevity of other stored fruit and vegetable items.

In addition, some items give off strong odors which could contaminate other stored produce.  And some produce prefers warmer or cooler temperatures, and greater or lesser amounts of humidity, than others.

So maybe you potentially need multiple root cellars – or at least some barriers or partitions across your single root cellar.

Let’s first consider root cellars in general, then look at why you should have more than one – and/or how to avoid needing to have multiple cellars.

What is a Root Cellar

Root cellars have been used in the US pretty much from the days of the first settlers, and are thought to date back to the 1600s in Britain (in the ‘modern’ form of being a walk in cellar).  They are not experimental or innovative – they have truly withstood the test of time over many centuries.

A root cellar doesn’t actually need to be underground.   Many are actually above ground.  And the term ‘root’ doesn’t necessarily mean either something down among the tree roots (that would be a mistake, keep well away from tree roots) nor does it mean a cellar only intended for root vegetables.  So it is a bit of a misnomer.

If we had to come up with the absolute essence of what a root cellar is, the answer would probably be ‘a naturally cooled dark space with stable low temperature and high humidity for storing food in an optimum environment to enhance its storage life’.

More specifically, root cellars aim for a temperature range ideally between 32º and 40º F, and a humidity in the range of 85% – 95%.  The cool temperature and high humidity greatly reduces the moisture loss from stored food items, and the low temperature also slows down the rate of micro-organism growth and related decomposition processes.  Not all root cellars manage to get down to these temperatures (or up to these humidities), nor maintain them for much of the year, but that doesn’t completely matter.  The cooler the better, and even if you are ‘only’ in the low 50s, you are still getting longer life than if you had your produce in your main retreat at room temperature.

Root cellars went out of fashion when at-home refrigerators became widely used, and as part of a general trend to city living with nearby supermarkets that carried fresh food year-round.  In that context, there’s little need for a root cellar any more, but if the assumptions of convenient home refrigeration and ever-present fresh food in a nearby supermarket start to fail, then a low-tech way to store food becomes helpful once more.

Note that while most people associate root cellars with the storage of fruit and vegetables, there is no reason not to use your cellar to store anything else that likes a cool dark environment.  Cured meats, cheeses, fresh milk, and beverages in general could also be kept in a root cellar if space allowed, as can dried goods such as grains and nuts.

Three Types of Root Cellar

There are basically three ways to build a root cellar.  The first is the most obvious.  Dig.  Start in the basement of your current house or retreat, and just dig down and out until you’ve created sufficient cellar space.  Note that the classic size for a root cellar seems to be about 8′ x 8′ x 8′, but there’s no reason not to make a cellar larger or smaller, but note that the larger you make a cellar, the more the ratio between the volume of the cellar and the surface area of its sides will change, affecting the cellar’s ability to naturally heat/cool the cellar contents.

So, perhaps, it is best not to build a huge cavernous cellar, although the chances are you weren’t planning to do that anyway!

The second approach can sometimes be easier.  Instead of digging down vertically, you dig ‘in’ horizontally, going into the side of a hill.  The net result is the same, while the excavation process might be simpler.

The third approach involves some lateral thinking.  Instead of going down into the ground, bring the ground up to you.  Create an above ground structure, or perhaps a slightly sunken structure, then layer sod over the top of it.

If you are building an external above ground cellar, you want to have it as much as possible in the shade – ie with little direct southerly exposure, and in particular, you don’t want the doorway (which is probably the least insulated part of the structure) to be in direct view of the sun.

How to Create and Maintain the Cellar Environment Needed

Depending on where you live, you’ll probably need your cellar to do two opposite things.  In the summer, you want it to be cooler than the warm/hot outside temperatures, but in the winter, you want it to be warmer than the below-freezing temperatures outside.

The best way to do this is by either digging deep into the ground, or covering an above ground structure with a lot of sod.  Even a foot of dirt provides substantial insulation and will allow for as much as a 20º temperature differential between the cellar and the outside, but the chances are you’ll want more than this, so you need both more dirt ‘insulation’ and also the ability to ‘suck heat’ out of the cellar if too hot, and ‘pour heat’ into the cellar if too cold.  This requires a lot more dirt, and the dirt changes from merely being insulation to becoming a ‘heat sink’.

The first few feet of soil tend to seasonally vary a bit in temperature, but by the time you get down 10 ft or so (or ‘in’ a similar distance if digging into a hillside) you are then in a region where the soil temperature remains more or less unchanging, year-round and there’s no point in going any deeper.  As long as you don’t stress the soil around your cellar by introducing too much heat or cold – more than the soil can absorb/conduct away – the walls, floor and even ceiling of your cellar will all act as ‘automatic’ heat sinks, helping maintain a reasonably steady temperature inside the cellar.

Having said that, although the walls will stay much the same in temperature, it is probable there will be some variations in temperature inside the cellar itself, because the ability of the walls to soak up or give off heat is not very great, and outside factors such as the air temperature coming in can overwhelm the natural heat stabilizing of the walls.  A good cellar will keep temperatures above freezing in the winter, and perhaps 40º below outside temperatures in the summer.

The air flow in the summer will obviously have much warmer air coming in from outside than in winter.  You can moderate this a bit by having a ‘solar heater’ that you can attach to the air intake during the winter (nothing fancier than simply using a black painted inlet that the sun can shine on and warm up) and take off during the summer.  During the winter, have most of your airflow when the sun is shining on the inlet, and least during the cold of the night.  The opposite would apply for the summer, with little air flow in the hottest times of the day and more airflow in the coolest times of the evening.

You can also use evaporative cooling in the summer, with the air flow into the cellar passing over a wet cloth.  This helps to cool the air down and also increase its humidity at the same time.

In an ’emergency’ some people provide some gentle heating by simply leaving an incandescent light on in the cellar, while making sure that its light doesn’t harm any of the stored produce.  An incandescent light converts nearly all its rated power to heat, so if you wanted a mild 60 – 100 watt heating element, a light bulb would be the easiest approach.

One more thing about temperature.  By the time midsummer and the hottest temperatures come along, you’ll probably have emptied your root cellar from the last season’s stored foods, and so it won’t matter so much if it warms up a bit then, although you want to always keep temperatures as close to optimum as possible so as not to cause a gradual build-up of heat in the dirt walls.

You also want to have a high humidity.  Again, the ‘magic’ of a root cellar is that the water contained within the dirt walls and floor and ceiling will ‘automatically’ release moisture to keep a high humidity – assuming you don’t overload the ability of the cellar to maintain its humidity by creating too many air changes and therefore removals of moisture/humidity as part of that.

If you need to increase the humidity, you can simply spray water onto the walls, floor and perhaps ceiling of your cellar.  If you need to decrease the humidity, the usual solution is to increase the air flow, but that may cause other problems if the outside air is very hot or very cold, so don’t get too carried away with spraying extra water.

So as to get the most direct impact from the dirt, it is best not to line your cellar any more than might be essential, although it seems that most of the cellars we see these days are at least partially lined – perhaps because it looks ‘cleaner’ and ‘nicer’, even if it harms the cellar’s functionality!  If you are lining the cellar at all, make sure to use materials that won’t be harmed by the moisture – the moisture in the soil and the moisture within the cellar.

Shelving in the cellar is traditionally made of wood rather than metal.  The wood itself changes temperature slowly, adding further to the thermal inertia.  If you are using wood, we recommend you do not use treated wood (due to the poisonous chemicals in it) but rather choose wood that is least likely to rot in moist conditions (such as cedar).  Bricks and concrete blocks can also be used for part of your shelf construction – these are odorless and last a long time in damp conditions.

Shelving should be as open as possible, and set back from the walls, so as to allow for air flow everywhere.  This will keep down the growth of mold.  Be careful also when stacking produce so as to allow air to flow through the produce, and generally it is best not to store anything directly on the ground.

One other aspect of your cellar – you want it to be normally dark.  Light is an energy source which variously activates the sprouting of some produce and encourages the growth of undesirable organisms.  Keep the cellar dark except for when you visit it.

The cellar does need some fresh air flow, however.  There’s a trick to this to create a natural air flow without needing as much machinery.  You should have an air entry on one side of the cellar and an air exit on the other side, so air flows between them.

Now for the clever part.  Your air entry inlet should come in from outside and open at close to the floor level.  The air exit outlet should start at a point close to the ceiling.  This means the hotter air in the cellar will naturally rise up and out the exit, sucking in replacement fresh air from outside, where it will land in the cooler lower parts of the cellar, before gradually warming and then exiting again.

Of course, both the inlet and outlet need to have dampers on them so you can regulate the flow of air.  They also need screens so that rodents can’t enter your cellar through the air vents.

There is always a temperature gradient within your cellar, perhaps of 5º, maybe even 10º, as between its floor and ceiling.  You should keep that in mind when deciding where in the cellar to locate the various different produce items you’ll be storing.  Onions, garlic and shallots are probably the most temperature tolerant things you might be storing, so put them on upper shelves.

Visiting Your Cellar

We suggest you limit your visits to your cellar to no more than one a day.  If you’re struggling to keep the temperature optimized, you might even cut back on your visits to once every two or three days.  The less you stress your cellar with unwanted adverse changes of air and introduction/escape of heat and moisture, then of course the better it will perform.

This should not be a problem if you accept the discipline and requirement of moving things in/out of the cellar no more than once a day.  Surely it is easy to transfer produce from the cellar to a convenient at-hand storage facility elsewhere in your retreat on an occasional basis, and then whenever needed, take from the at-hand facility.  And, when replenishing, you can build up a pile of new produce immediately outside the cellar, and at the end of a day’s harvesting, then move everything in to the cellar all together.

If this is a problem, and if you’re struggling with maintaining a suitable cellar temperature, you might want to consider making the entrance into an ‘airlock’ type double door arrangement so as to cut down further on the environmental impact in the cellar every time you open the door.

You should carefully monitor your cellar’s temperature and humidity, and you will need to adjust the ventilation going in/out of the cellar to keep the temperature optimized.  We suggest you either have thermometers and hygrometers visible through an inspection window, or alternatively, if using electronic sensors, of course these can display remotely, anywhere in your retreat you wish.

The vent adjusters should either be routed mechanically to a point outside the cellar where you can open/close them, or else be operated by remote-controlled servo-motors.

Oh yes, please also remember to keep the light switched off in the cellar when you’re not present.

Do You Need Multiple Cellars?

There are two major concerns that some people feel can justify either the creation of multiple cellars or at least partitioning off one single cellar.

The first of these is that some things – apples, peaches, pears, plums, cabbage and tomatoes in particular – emit ethylene gas while stored.  Unfortunately, the released ethylene harms produce – even the produce that releases the ethylene in the first place!  So you need to keep the ethylene releasing produce as separate as possible from other produce, especially the root veges, and well ventilated to protect it from itself.

That’s the hint that can suggest how you could manage with one cellar instead of two.  Put the ethylene emitting items close to the exit vent so the ethylene mainly gets swept up and exhausted out of the cellar, while keeping the root vegetables in the other corner, and closer to the air inlet.  This keeps the ethylene away from other produce, and also vents it away from the emitting produce too.

The other main issue is odor control.  Some things – turnips, for example, or cabbage – give off odors that would get absorbed into other items if stored close to each other.  One solution is not to grow and store turnips and cabbage!

Another solution is again to put the smelly stuff closer to the air exhaust outlet, and to keep the more sensitive produce far away.

So you are probably correctly now sensing that managing ventilation is an essential part of having a successful root cellar.

There is another consideration as well that might influence whether you have one or two root cellars.  Different produce items are best stored at different temperatures, and if you had sufficient fine control over your root cellar temperature as to be able to ensure one cellar was (say) 10º different to the other, and if you had a range of produce items that could benefit from this temperature differential, then having multiple cellars might make sense.

But unless you’re going to be supplementing your natural heating/cooling with artificial heating/cooling, you’d probably find that two root cellars would have very close to the same temperature.  The better approach to temperature management is simply to stratify the location of your produce, keeping in mind that the higher up in your cellar, the warmer it will be.

So, for most of us, we can probably get by with ‘just’ a single root cellar, but keep these issues in mind when deciding where to locate the produce within it.

For Further Information

This article, although spanning over 3000 words, only lightly touches on the topic of root cellars.

Unless there is a reason why a root cellar would be impossible (ie, you are an apartment dweller with no plans to have any sort of land or rural retreat) you should definitely add a root cellar to your retreat and so it is an important topic to understand and get right.  A root cellar is a wonderful and energy-efficient way to store many different types of produce, giving you well-preserved food long out of season, without any need for the hassle and energy costs of boiling, blanching, bottling, canning or freezing.

To learn more, you can certainly roam via Google to other articles on root cellars, but can we modestly say that you’re not likely to find much more than you’ve already read here.  The best thing to do is to get a copy of the definitive book on the subject – Root Cellaring :  Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables, by Mike and Nancy Bubel.  This 320 page book not only covers cellar design and construction, it also guides you in the choice of produce to store in your root cellar, and even tells you when to harvest and store the items you grow.

Amazon sells the book both as a Kindle eBook and in regular print.  It is better, if buying the regular print edition, to ensure you are getting the latest edition – not the original 1979, but the second 1991 edition.  For about $10, this is an excellent investment.

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