Digging a Root Cellar/Storm Cellar, by Marlene in Indiana

We decided that our family needed a root cellar for maintaining root crops, cold storage and for more extensive water storage, here is our story. Hopefully, others can learn from us and not make the same mistakes. One Sunday afternoon, we went out to the yard and sized up the area we wanted, and marked our spot. Our property borders Federal land that occasionally has people lingering around, we have even caught people in our other shelters on the back of our property, so I wanted to keep this one as close to the house as possible. When we purchased our property it was all woods and we bulldozed a small area for our home. We know where every well water, electric, cable and septic line runs, we knew the area we had chosen was clear. In the back of my mind, we had saved this spot from the beginning to bury a secondary propane tank or water cistern. However; in our state it is mandatory to call “Holy Moley” a specific number to locate underground lines and cables prior to digging anything, even a garden spot. So we called, and waited for them to come out and mark all existing underground elements. We were told we did not need a building permit because it was just a ‘root cellar’.

We have found over the years that there is a little magnetic anomaly on our property, so all the compasses and detectors in the world will be off anywhere from a little to a lot. A kid that looked like he should still be in high school came from the electric company and ended up marking three lines wide, saying “It could be here, or here, or here. It’s somewhere between these lines.” I thanked him and was thankful that I knew where they were. We also noticed others marked the location of the Texas pipeline almost six foot from where it is on the Federal land and across the very corner of our property.  On the opposite side of our land, about six feet from the property line, lies a forced sewer main from the hotel lodge two miles away. They marked it 7 feet off target–we know because we found it very unexpectedly when we planted new cedar trees five years ago. Bottom line, I’m glad we know where everything is located because those who are ‘supposed’ to know don’t always know, and their instruments are not always accurate. NOTE: Always know exactly where your utility lines are on your property, measure from a point that does not change.

Having worked some years of my professional life in architectural design, I had made notes on our set of blueprints exactly where everything is located, measured from the SE corner of the house. My personal notes let us know that the area we wanted to dig in was clear.   We knew the water table was low in our area, as years ago we had to go down 120 feet for our well.  NOTE: Know your local water table and local frost line. We figured we wouldn’t hit water when we were digging the root cellar, nor would there be a need for a perimeter drain as our soils type was good for drainage. Now that everything was officially marked, and materials were gathered, it was time to start digging. We chose to dig by hand as the area we were working in was in the woods, surrounded by mature trees close to our home. We weren’t sure we could get a backhoe in between the trees, and we didn’t want to disturb any tree trunk-roots. Our area was about 12 x 16 feet, hoping after the concrete was poured and the stairs were in, it would end up about 10 x 12 feet finished.

We squared off our area and started digging, all of us, but it seemed to go slowly, so we had a dig party, everyone brought shovels and we started in again. Then the kids shoveled daily after school and the next, and so forth. The ground was much harder than we had considered. NOTE: use a Bobcat or backhoe and pile extricated dirt in area out of the way if at all possible. So after the two weeks we were down about 16 inches on half of the area, so we brought in pickaxes, as we had broken three shovels. We could only work one at a time with the pickaxes so we didn’t hit each other in the head while we worked. Working one at a time slowed us down considerably. We intended to go down about 6 feet, and according to our plans, that would be about 5 feet below ground level and 2 feet above ground level. That would get us below the frost line and above the water table. We also had not planned where we were going to pile the dirt we took out, so initially we all started putting it on ‘our side’ as we were digging, till we realized what we were doing. Then we stopped and cleaned up our mess, and re-piled all the excess dirt in one area and all the rocks in another area.  Telling this makes us sound like  a segment of a ‘Three Stooges’ movie, but we did all have fun with this project and now have precious, priceless family memories. Note: family projects of any kind can strengthen family bonds.

We were coming in contact with some large stones we had not thought about, so we had to devise a way to remove them without giving us all hernias.  After about 6 weeks to 2 months we hit a snag, literally. We were about 3 foot to 4 foot down when we uncovered metal pieces and bones that looked like human remains. I will not desecrate a grave site because I am part Native American, and understand the Grave Repatriation Act, and we understand the historical significance of our area and what we had possibly found. So we called the State Archeologist, and waited another two weeks until he could come. Meanwhile, we were on a ‘stop work’ order. In my heart I knew I had saved that area for some reason. HINT: Obey federal laws, someone will find out, some way at sometime anyway, consequences are much worse after-the-fact. While we were stopped, we revised our plans and decided to use this as a tornado shelter also, since it would be easier to access in our older age than the one we currently had, that was if we could go ahead with our project. There are different requirements for tornado shelters than for root cellars, the concrete walls needed to be stronger, the entry door needed to be different, etc. We incorporated these changes into our plan, since it was only half dug.

After the State Archeologist finally came, he identified the metal parts as being from an early buckboard wagon, as were the wooden fibers. However; it took weeks to get the results of the tests on the bones that in the end tested out to be animal bones. So the ‘stop work’ order was lifted and we could get back to work. At this point we were considering revising our plans again so we could finish quickly as it was late in the fall and we wanted to have the root cellar in by winter. No such luck, an early snow and the seasonal flu knocked us all off schedule. So the deep square filled with fall leaves and snow. People who visited us over the winter could see our little experiment from the house, and constantly asked what we were doing. Our favorite answer was digging a ‘water feature’. When we told someone the truth, that we were building a root cellar/tornado shelter, everyone started laughing at us.

Come spring, we noticed the ground was so very hard that the sides had actually held up very well, even down to the squared off corners. Also it had never collected any water, so it was draining well, even though the ground was very hard. Looking back, it’s a good thing we left it over the late fall and winter into spring, as that gave us vital information about the ground performance that we needed. HINT: In retrospect; leaving the ground gaping open over the winter gave us vital information and hardened the ground. Come springtime we resumed our project, but changed our plans. Instead of pouring concrete for it all, we decided to lay brick for the steps, as we needed the steps to finish digging. Our initial plan called for poured concrete, but we did not wish to pay for poured concrete twice with two delivery charges. We needed the steps at that time, to be able to get down into the ‘hole’ to keep digging, so we used old bricks instead. We gathered together all our spare bricks and used them on the steps. It didn’t match, but it was cute and we made designs with the odd colored bricks in concrete. Our use of brick steps ended up working well, because in the dark you can feel the difference between the brick steps and the concrete flooring.

We put up our concrete wall-forms close to the smoothed dirt, arranged the supports and were ready to have the concrete poured. Then, with a site check from the concrete company, we found out the concrete trucks could not get close enough to the site to pour the concrete. This was like a punch in the gut. With everything in place and ready we decided to make our own concrete. Working with friends, we mixed and poured homemade quickcrete walls, we kept the concrete constantly coming and of consistent value. We had enough help to pour the walls all on the same day. We poured the floor last, then built shelves from 2 x 4 s and ½ inch plywood. We used ½ inch plywood for shelves to support the weight of glass jars without bowing. We put a 110 gallon water cistern in the corner. We realized we were very close to an outside water outlet so we ran a water line over to the inside of the root cellar to the water cistern. Being 32 feet from an electric pole, we had an electrician drop an electric line, so we could put electricity in our root cellar. HINT: We love our water and electric that was spur of the moment decisions, plan for them. Our neighbor is a brick mason, so he volunteered to lay the three rows of concrete brick on top of the concrete wall to bring it up above ground. We laid our beams to support the flat roof. As we replaced the dirt on top of the flat roof, and up the sides, we found since it had been almost two years since we started, that much of the pile of dirt we took out had washed away, even though we had it under tarps. We ended up having to haul two loads of dirt (and transfer it to our site in a wheelbarrow) to cover the sides and top. We had to chose an entry door and now set it in concrete. Our experience of shoveling the dirt out was not near as fun as shoveling it back, we even covered the sides with dirt too, till it was completely covered into a little ‘mound’ then we sowed grass seed. 

In the end we are very glad to see it finished, even though the grass is not growing yet. Our ‘bare minimum’ budget was stretched considerably as the finished cost was almost twice as much as what we had initially projected. The majority of that cost was in the steel reinforcing rods used in the concrete when we moved from plain root cellar to root cellar/tornado shelter, and in the type of door we used. We are glad we ran electricity, for a dehumidifier as well as lights. The running water came in handy for clean-up when we dropped some glass home canned jars of peaches. We have not yet put doors on our shelves as was suggested to us by someone who had been in a tornado. They suggested plywood doors over all the canned goods that lock so the cans and jars do not become airborne during a tornado. We are going to listen and install them over Thanksgiving when all the family is here. In the end we are pleased with our new little spot, but if you plan to do this yourself here are our suggestions; have friends willing to help, don’t modify your plans in mid-stream, double the cost your expect and be prepared for any surprise when you are digging.