Potato Storage Cellars

Earth-sheltered potato storage cellars are common in Idaho and San Luis Valley in Colorado
Earth-sheltered potato storage cellars are common in Idaho and San Luis Valley in Colorado

Underground homes and earth-sheltered homes are among the most popular types of alternative homes. Almost everyone knows the earth will moderate the inside temperature and reduce energy costs. That’s why potato storage cellars are common. These structures will “assure the grower that potatoes will be held at the proper temperature from harvest time to shipping time, anywhere from March to May.” Of course, the same principle can be used to build energy efficient homes, storm shelters and rootcellars.

According to the image description, the photo above is a “Quonset hut potato storage cellar in southeastern Idaho. Cellars built for the storage of large amounts of potatoes came into use in the early 1900s. Loose or baled straw was laid on top of pole rafters, and the roofing material on top of that. Roofing material could be wood shingles or tin. Dirt was piled up on the sides and even on top as in the case of a sod roof. There are several different roof types in cellars that have developed since 1900. Today, the Quonset hut dominates the industry.”

Image source: Flickr

21 thoughts on “Potato Storage Cellars”

  1. During the cold war, that storage cellar was probably targeted by Soviet forces because it was an underground bunker storing “Spud Missiles.” Clearly a dangerous weapon of “Mashed Destruction.” That was until we signed the “S.A.L.T.” treaty.

    okaaaaaaayyyyy then. On that note…

    I’ve long been aware of storing potatoes in root cellars, but I’ve never heard of these industrial sized ones before. Fascinating.

    Your blog post inspired me to do a little more google searching, just to see what else might be out there on the interwebs.

    It seems that the old potato cellars are now somewhat popular as artistic subjects.

    Here is a very old abandoned cellar.


    Here is an old one apparently still in use showing the interior.

    Take note that one of those photos appears to be a pile of distillery remnants. Potato Moonshiners?

    And… it may not be much in the way of Natural Building, but here is a modern cellar and how it is used. Interesting nonetheless.


    And another video describing the ventilation system of another cellar.


    Interesting blog post. Thanks for posting.

    • I’ll look at these links soon. The main reason for this blog post is to segue into tomorrow’s blog post. You’ll see what I mean.

  2. If you were to build a small one close to your earthbag home; would you finish the outside in stucco and fill the crevices inside and just leave the rest un-finished? I’m thinking this would keep it cooler in colder areas. I once had one in Colorado that was about 2 foot thick concrete with 2 x 6’s, plywood, tar paper, shingle roof and a wooden door. Not much to it but, it kept those “taters” good for a long time. This was built back in the late 40’s or early 50’s. The roof had been rebuilt sometime in the 70’s.

    • There are different ways of doing things and the answer depends on the value/purpose of the building (nice home versus say a rootcellar). For instance, you could use scoria bags or gravel bags with 6 mil plastic sheeting on the outside and no plaster on either side for a rootcellar. Rootcellars are low value structures, so there’s not much point in spending a lot of time and effort on plaster work. On the other hand, you would take much greater care protecting a nice home.

      • Insulating the walls of root cellars would be somewhat defeating the principle of building one. Assuming we are discussing a real root cellar, and not some type of underground or earth sheltered home.

        Generally speaking it is desirable for the the stored produce reach the temperature of the surrounding soil.

        Depending upon what produce or crops are stored inside, it may be necessary to properly ventilate to help prevent buildup of moisture which will reduce mold growth.

        It is very common to create “microclimates” inside a root cellar to optimize conditions for various items that might require different storage needs. Drawing cold fresh winter air through a root crop may be beneficial in many cases, then covering the crop with straw or other organic insulation during the summer months.

        A well designed root cellar will plan ahead for these contingencies. I’ve always thought that a solar chimney on top of the exhaust port of a root cellar would be a great addition. On winter days, that chimney would heat up, and could be used to exhaust stale air from the cellar, drawing in fresh winter air, helping preserve food.

        It is even possible that a solar chimney could be made out of earthbags to provide thermal mass and painted black. That would allow solar heat to get stored inside the mass of the chimney during the daytime. At night when the air gets coldest, the damper gets opened to allow the coldest nighttime air to freely circulate through the cellar, naturally cooling the food. Essentially storing the winter cold to keep food fresh the next summer.

        • In most cases you don’t want to vent a rootcellar too much. I’m talking about places where winter temperatures are very cold outside. The ground temp is good. But the air temperature is too cold.

          • That’s interesting about the venting. In Colorado there was venting BUT, Colorado is different since it’s a dry cold versus a wet cold. Here in Washington state I now see the reasoning as to why you wouldn’t want venting. Thanks for preventing me from making a possible big mistake.

          • As I said in my comment, it depends on what you’re planning on storing.

            Some food crops keep better longer under the colder temperatures, while others need to stay cool, but above freezing.

            Having a venting system that can take advantage of winter temperature extremes for some storage bins in a cellar, while other items are kept at cool, but not at extreme temperatures makes sense.

            It wouldn’t be unreasonable to build a strawbale deep freeze inside a root cellar and run vent pipe inside and and exhaust out of it. At the same time, the rest of the root cellar could store things are more typical ground temperatures.

            Some root crops actually get a better texture, convert more starches to sugars, and retain more vitamins and complex nutrients if they actually get frozen. Other items don’t handle those same conditions very well.

            The trick is to be knowledgeable about what storage conditions are optimal for each item and build your storage systems adaptable enough to accommodate the various conditions.

          • Yes, I think many people will want to store things at different temperatures. There are a number of simple techniques for doing this. Consider buying a good book on rootcellaring or skimming rootcellaring books next time you go to the library or bookstore.

      • I first thought about the possibility of having it attached to the house and I suppose I could as long as I had 2 doors seperating the two. The outside was just to protect the bags but, the inside I wouldn’t worry so much about. My thought was it would remain colder with the bags exposed on the inside. Being careful to not puncture them. After my first post I thought maybe I should cover both sides with more concrete/mortar on the outside to protect it from water and a light coat of cement on the inside with a regular roof like I described before. I’m pretty sure it would stay cold enough and if done correctly maybe could hold canning.

        • Search this site for info on Kelly’s Hart’s cool pantry. A cool pantry is not as cold as a rootcellar and has lower humidity. It’s ideal for canning jars, grains and other bulk foods. This can be attached to your house with just one door. I built one on our house. Plans are available through the Owner Builder Journal in Australia. The construction of our cool pantry was the main project in my earthbag DVD that’s sold on Amazon. So there are two options. The walls don’t have to be plastered.

          • Yep…got it. Yeah..I was thinking that maybe the root cellar might be too cold for canning jars after giving it some thought.

        • One more thought to consider.

          If a root cellar is physically attached to your house, the dreaded Tax Assessor may consider that and appraise your property as having a larger house.

          This is a concern even in areas with few or no building codes. The tax man always seems to find you.

          If the root cellar is close to the house, but physically detached, the root cellar may be treated not much differently than any other storage structure, such as a lawn and garden shed. This would be significantly cheaper on the property taxes.

          Obviously these types of appraisal decisions will tend to vary widely in different areas, so your mileage may vary.

          The basic rule of thumb for building to minimize tax levy is to keep the living space as small as reasonably possible, and use other buildings for other tasks. Put storage in sheds, not in the house. Keep the house small and simple, because it will be appraised and taxed at the highest rate, while sheds and non-lived-in structures are appraised and taxed at a lesser rate.

          One possibility would be to position a typical above ground storage shed right next to the doorway to a root cellar such that the roof overhangs from the shed can also protect access to the root cellar, keeping it more easily accessible during winter and inclement weather. Just be cautious about proper drainage. Make sure nothing from the shed can leak into the cellar, even if something gets spilled by accident.

          You want to avoid having an accidental gasoline spill from something like a lawn mower in the shed contaminate the ground and the food inside the root cellar. I’m all in favor of superfoods, but I don’t recommend high octane potatoes. Not only would they taste bad, but can you imagine the nasty case of “gas” they’d give you?

          • That’s a good point about building the rootcellar separate from the house so as to minimize taxes.

          • I think they’re saying quonset huts are the most popular type of potato storage building. Is that you’re referring to?

          • If you’re talking to me which I’m not sure of…I was refering to his line about the nasty case of “gas” they’d give you…. They would in my opinion be a good storage building for large amounts of food. Pretty much like the pictures of the old grass covered storage buildings.

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