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Old 02-09-2011, 01:49 PM
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Default How to Question: Turn a Cistern into a Root Cellar



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My property has no basement or root cellar that is good for storing vegies long term. However, it does have an old, unused cistern. Since I already have well water with a hand pump, I was thinking about coverting the cistern to a root cellar and also having it do double-duty by using it as tornado / high wind shelter. Since there is no structure on the property that would be a good tornado / high wind shelter, I'm thinking this cistern may be the answer to that problem also. (And with predictions of earth changes causing winds in excess of !00 mph, I am thinking I need a shelter that can withstand high winds.)

I don't have a clue how a cistern could be converted into a root cellar / tornado shelter and have spent the last 3 hours searching the net for answers. I've basically come up with no useful info off the net so I thought I'd ask members on this board if they have any experience or know of any plans available to convert a cistern to a root cellar.

Any and all information would be much appreciated. Pros and cons of this idea would also be welcomed. Getting pointed in the right direction would be helpful, as well as suggestions on who to contact to do the work - type of contractors, etc.

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Old 02-09-2011, 02:40 PM
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wow, uuumm it would depend on alot, shape, construction, how deep it is, how damaged is it. I personally wouldnt want the opening on top, I would want a walk in with an enterance on the side...... it would really depend on alot of factors that I dont think anyone could tell you with out having a butt load more info than what you have provided. Maybe contact a concrete contractor come out and look at it, tell him what your thinking of and he should be about to give you a good idea, another option would be a guy who does septic vaults, they have that kind of experience with buried vaults, so they dont colapse... Good luck and let us know what you come up with
Old 02-09-2011, 04:06 PM
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Thank you for your reply pammygene. That was helpful in making me think some more.

My place is about 100 years old, so this is a very old cistern but I'm not really sure how old. It is buried in the ground and approx. 12' deep however I'm not sure how wide. Since it is full of crappy water I haven't ventured inside of it. The only access to the cistern is from the top with a concrete lid cover that is 2' x 2'.

I'm not fond of having the opening to it on the top either, but I don't know how it could be configured to have a side opening without excavating the dirt away on one side and then making a side hole in the cistern wall. Then I think I might have a problem with snow accumulation and rain water runing down the decline from ground level to the door opening. I also have concerns about ventilation if used as a storm shelter. I think some kind of ventilation system would need to be installed, plus aternative lighting.

I'm really looking for someone who has "been there and done that" who can give good advice on how to convert it. I'm also looking for "brainstorming ideas" from anyone who has any thoughts along this line. At this point I will consider any ideas no matter how "off the wall" they may be. I'm looking for some ingenuity and creativeness from anyone who cares to contribute ideas or know how.

The cistern is there in the ground just begging to be useful for something other than a hole in the ground.
Old 02-09-2011, 08:32 PM
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DO NOT TRY THIS! Cisterns are infamous as death traps. Air quality in cisterns is a sever problem. They are famous for asphyxiating maintenance workers. It is a combination of issues ranging from construction materials giving off minute quantities of gases, to dead air space due to design, to decaying vegetative matter gassing. They are great for storing water, but do not consider them an inhabitable space and do not attempt to clean one with out a forced air supply.
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Old 02-10-2011, 10:18 AM
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Originally Posted by schutzen View Post
DO NOT TRY THIS! Cisterns are infamous as death traps. Air quality in cisterns is a sever problem. They are famous for asphyxiating maintenance workers. It is a combination of issues ranging from construction materials giving off minute quantities of gases, to dead air space due to design, to decaying vegetative matter gassing. They are great for storing water, but do not consider them an inhabitable space and do not attempt to clean one with out a forced air supply.
Thank you schutzen for your reply - thank you! thank you! I had not thought about the possibility of asphyxiation from gases. I guess I'll take your advice and forget about converting to a root/storm shelter. I'll just look into having a professional clean out done and then use it for storing water for the garden.

However, that still leaves me with the need to have a storm shelter that can also be used as a root cellar.

Does anyone out there have any experience with below ground shelters? I do have one problem and that is my water table is near the surface - sometimes in the wet season it is only 5' below surface. So I would need something that would not let water seep into the shelter. I've done some net searches and come up with prefab concrete below ground shelters, as well as fiberglass ones. Then there is also the igloo type that can either be above ground or put below ground. I have a problem thinking about using the above ground type because of the risk of flying debri taking out the shelter in a tornado or high wind scenario. And since I want this shelter to also have the dual purpose as a root cellar it needs to stay at a cool even temp year round.

Ideas anyone?
Old 03-13-2012, 05:38 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by schutzen View Post
DO NOT TRY THIS! Cisterns are infamous as death traps. Air quality in cisterns is a sever problem. They are famous for asphyxiating maintenance workers. It is a combination of issues ranging from construction materials giving off minute quantities of gases, to dead air space due to design, to decaying vegetative matter gassing. They are great for storing water, but do not consider them an inhabitable space and do not attempt to clean one with out a forced air supply.

Thanks for this information. I too have an old cistern and was just thinking of a way to convert to a root cellar. I googled it and this thread popped up on top. Our cistern is dry though and more of a mound. What I was thinking of was lowering bushel baskets of potatoes into it, that way I don't have to go inside of it. Do you think there is any risk posed for this? Would it somehow render our wintered veggies unfit for consumption? There seems to be NO useful information on the web about cisterns...thus far. Thx again
Old 03-13-2012, 07:09 PM
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I don't know, but I would think it would work well as both a root cellar and as a storm cellar. Depends on where and how costructed. we had a cistern directly under out kitchen out on the farm.

When we converted to a direct pump system, we just drained the cistern and left it sit empty with a hole in the center that contained a sump pump. No gaseous accumulations at any point. We also knocked a hole in the side so we could walk in.

All a cistern is composed of is brick, mortar and hydraulic cement. once it is opened to the air and cleaned out it should be fine. Cut a door in the side, put an ventilator on the roof, stairs leading down the slope, and you have a fine storm shelter.
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Old 03-13-2012, 07:51 PM
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I turned mine into storage space. It has 18" thick concrete walls and an open top. It is the whole width of my basement X 9'. I took 60lb jackhammer and cut a doorway into it, took us ALL day, 3 guys taking turns on the hammer. That was some tough concrete! Been thinking about adding a roof to it but have not yet.
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Old 03-13-2012, 09:44 PM
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I'd rather just have the cistern!!
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Old 03-14-2012, 06:56 AM
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I'd rather just have the cistern!!
Nice thought, but when I found a dead cat in it I changed my mind.
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Old 03-14-2012, 07:52 AM
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Originally Posted by papajoscochise View Post
Nice thought, but when I found a dead cat in it I changed my mind.
I'm seriously thinking of adding this to my list of things to do this year. I haven't seen any dead animals but I know there is an old scooter thrown down there (probably decades ago) among several other things. This cistern is HUGE and located right out in front of the house. It reminds me of the mound septic systems only it has a 2 foot wide manhole projecting from the top. I like the jackhammer door idea. Since I already have some other ancient water reservoir to the back of the house I am not concerned with losing the cistern for this purpose. What I want is to stop having to pay massive $$$$ for potatoes, besides the less trips to the store for me the better...I hate shopping!
Old 03-14-2012, 07:58 AM
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Originally Posted by LakotaLee View Post
I'm seriously thinking of adding this to my list of things to do this year. I haven't seen any dead animals but I know there is an old scooter thrown down there (probably decades ago) among several other things. This cistern is HUGE and located right out in front of the house. It reminds me of the mound septic systems only it has a 2 foot wide manhole projecting from the top. I like the jackhammer door idea. Since I already have some other ancient water reservoir to the back of the house I am not concerned with losing the cistern for this purpose. What I want is to stop having to pay massive $$$$ for potatoes, besides the less trips to the store for me the better...I hate shopping!
Never a bad idea to have a root cellar. I have a similar room I use for storage. Grew about 300lbs of taters last year and they are STILL firm and tasty.

My house is old too, built around 1830.
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Old 03-14-2012, 08:03 AM
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I used to live on an old farm that had a cistern, from back in the days when water was pumped from the well by a windmill. Curiousity got the better of us, and we climbed down into the thing to see what there was to see... It was pretty dry and chock full of spiders, which we cleaned out with propane blowtorches.. We would go down into it and play acoustic guitars, which was pretty cool..

Obviously, I'm still alive...
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Old 03-14-2012, 08:12 AM
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Originally Posted by papajoscochise View Post
Never a bad idea to have a root cellar. I have a similar room I use for storage. Grew about 300lbs of taters last year and they are STILL firm and tasty.

My house is old too, built around 1830.
300 lbs? My word! How many plants was that and how much space did it require? What variety did you plant or do you prefer? I tried potatoes one year but I am concerned we need to make our soil more "loamy" if that is even a term. Tends to be a bit on the dense clay side. We compost, & have massive manure piles from all the livestock. Any tips on potato growing would be valued greatly.
Old 03-14-2012, 08:15 AM
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Originally Posted by tommypotatoes View Post
I used to live on an old farm that had a cistern, from back in the days when water was pumped from the well by a windmill. Curiousity got the better of us, and we climbed down into the thing to see what there was to see... It was pretty dry and chock full of spiders, which we cleaned out with propane blowtorches.. We would go down into it and play acoustic guitars, which was pretty cool..

Obviously, I'm still alive...
Got it! So far I'm going to need a jackhammer and a blow torch (me and the arachnid sort don't get along so well )
Old 03-14-2012, 08:46 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by papajoscochise View Post
I turned mine into storage space. It has 18" thick concrete walls and an open top. It is the whole width of my basement X 9'. I took 60lb jackhammer and cut a doorway into it, took us ALL day, 3 guys taking turns on the hammer. That was some tough concrete! Been thinking about adding a roof to it but have not yet.
I sure hope you are considering converting that to a NBC shelter. It would be a shame to not optimise such an asset.
Old 03-14-2012, 09:00 AM
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300 lbs? My word! How many plants was that and how much space did it require? What variety did you plant or do you prefer? I tried potatoes one year but I am concerned we need to make our soil more "loamy" if that is even a term. Tends to be a bit on the dense clay side. We compost, & have massive manure piles from all the livestock. Any tips on potato growing would be valued greatly.
It was 7 rows about 40' long. Kennebeck, Red Pontiac, Yukon Gold and a bunch of whites that were just left-over store taters. I have found that the actual seed taters will produce more than the ones I just saved from eating potatoes. I use WELL rotted horse manure for fert, but some say it causes blight.

My grandson helped me plant them all and then had a ball helping me dig them up, he's 5.

They like their water so keep that in mind.

And hilling them is very important, one year I didn't and my crop was crap!
Old 03-14-2012, 09:02 AM
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I sure hope you are considering converting that to a NBC shelter. It would be a shame to not optimise such an asset.
I did actually consider that but have to work on the access and egress points.
Old 03-14-2012, 09:06 AM
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heres a gread DIY storm shelter/rootcellar that can easily be made bigger

http://www.richardspelling.com/stormshelter/index.htm
Old 03-14-2012, 09:22 AM
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I've seen people throw junk down them to cover the space then cap with a slump of concrete. How you could do it to be stable would throw field stone or junk concrete down it the make a concrete floor at whatever depths you wanted. If you find a slump of concrete on a old cistern it most likely full of garbage and not properly backfill so not really "capped" dont tamper with them.
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