Where to Store Food When There is No Simple Answer, by Margy

Saturday, Oct 10, 2009

It’s been almost two years now since I became serious about preparing for TEOTWAWKI. In that time I’ve followed the instructions of the Lord upon the death of my husband to “shore up and seal up my house” but there was always one haunting question. That was, where would I have enough space to store adequate food for my family that I could control the temperature.

Living in a mild climate in the heart of America, we have long hot summers that sometimes kiss the thermometer in excess of 105? making outdoor storage of any kind almost impossible. I’ve always stored extra paper products and a few canned goods in the garage but due to the heat, I knew I couldn’t successfully store food there for a long period of time. Soil in our region consists of a high content of clay so digging a root cellar is not a fruitful enterprise.

Although I have a relatively large three bedroom home, I wasn’t willing to fill closets with survival food, plus I wanted it to be hidden from eyes that didn’t have a need to know. I worried about this at length, feeling that I had been instructed by the Lord to make preparations for my family of eight.

A friend of ours who is a construction person often does odd jobs around the house for me. He is someone I trust like a brother and whom I attend church with. We were standing in my garage one day as I expressed my dismay over the food storage situation when he pointed to an alcove in the garage and said, “You have a closet right there. All you have to do is wall it off.”

I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it previously, but the moment he said that it became very clear this would be “the” place. Within in a few days, I had my son in the garage with a measuring tape, pencil and paper and we figured the supplies I would need to make the closet come into fruition. He went to work and I went to Home Depot to arrange for a delivery of 2 x 4s, sheet rock, insulation, electrical boxes and wiring, light fixtures and screws and the complete list to make a well constructed, insulated closet with electrical outlets and ceiling fixtures where tool laden shelves once stood.

The process of moving all of the shelving and items stored on the shelves was exhausting, but I could see the benefit of this project and knew I would either get rid of what was stored there or find another place to put it. Luckily, most of the shelving was the heavy duty steel shelving on casters that we had bought at Sam’s a couple of years before. They were easily rolled across the garage and out of the way of the construction crew, their contents in tact.

The next weekend, my son and his friend came with tools in hand and began a long day of construction on a simple closet, fifteen feet long by five feet wide. Once their equipment was brought into the garage, the door went down and stayed there during the construction process. Although my neighbors are nice people, they are not on the same political thought process I am and I didn’t think they needed to know what was happening in the garage, nor did the city inspectors!

Two by fours were affixed to the concrete garage floor with a Ramset HD 22 single shot hammer device. Once the 2 x 4s were securely fastened to the floor where they would serve as the grounding base for the wall studs, the 2 x 4s for the studs followed and were stabilized by being attached to the ceiling. Next came the exterior sheet rock wall and insulation. I did hire an electrician to do the wiring of the closet as well as additional dawn to dusk lighting around the perimeter of the house.  In addition to the extra lighting in the ceiling of the closet, we added two outlets in the interior and one on the exterior wall of the storage closet so I would not lose the capacity to plug in extension cords for electrical outdoor tools. The closet door I selected was a metal exterior door already set with a lock and key arrangement.

We installed a silvery [Reflectix] insulation that was about 1/4" thick with bubbles sandwiched between the aluminum-looking [mylar] layers. We completely wrapped the walls of the storage closet with the insulation in hopes that it would solve any temperature problems. We  lined the room with it as tightly as if we were hanging wall paper, stapling it to the walls with an electric, heavy duty stapler. It looked good, clean and professional. My nine year old grandson stepped into the room and asked “Wow. What is this place for.” We dubbed it the “beam me up Scotty” room and have jokingly referred to it as that ever since. I put two thermometers in the room – one at each end –  and watched with dismay as the red line continued to hold at 90?. This was a problem that would only shorten the longevity of the stored food.

Once the closet was done my other son came to begin building shelves. My original plan was for wooden shelves but he wasn’t long into the project until he convinced me to buy metal shelving from Home Depot. We purchased three sets of Workforce Five Shelf Heavy Duty Steel Shelving Units that would hold up to 4,000 pounds. These free standing shelves were easily put together, very strong, and by using two units, I could make them tall enough to go from the floor to the nine foot ceiling. Each unit cost around $89 which was a little more than I had originally budgeted, but now that they are in I’m thrilled with them and very glad we went to this plan. The shelves are clean, smooth and without splinters and I don’t worry about weight loads plus the shelves are adjustable if I so desire.

My hot water tank is housed in a small closet inside the food storage room. I knew we had put the tank in almost immediately after we had moved into the house eleven years previously and it was a ten year tank. While I had not had any difficulty with the tank and found it still supplied me more than adequate hot water, I felt as though it would be prudent to have the tank replaced now, before the closet was full of food and shelving units. Also, I didn’t want to take a chance on the tank going out over a weekend or some other rushed time and I would be at the mercy of an unknown plumber to come fix it. Instead, I bought the tank and hired my construction friend to install it at his leisure, knowing full well I could trust him to be discreet about the contents of the closet.

Continuing to be concerned about the lack of control on the temperature inside the closet, my son and I climbed into the attic and put a roll of pink panther R-20 insulation in the area immediately above the food storage room and then a layer of pressed wood over that for flooring, thinking it would also work as additional insulation. Because of the layout of the roof line and the fact that the support beams for the ceiling of the garage ran crosswise instead of lengthwise, we weren’t able to get the insulation into the low lying areas under the eaves of the house. This worried me and I stuck as much of the blue polystyrene foam insulation back into the small crevices as possible.

As the weather began to get warmer, my concerns for the temperature of the closet room grew. Although my son had heavily insulated the new wall when he built it and I had a circulation fan going in the room at all times as well as the added insulation in the attic and on the exterior walls, the thermometer was showing an increasingly large red line. I knew enough about the longevity of  dried food to know this was not good and I would have to take evasive action.

My next venture was to add a stand alone room air conditioner. I did my research on line and bought one from a company in Austin, Texas. It looked like a great idea but looks weren’t enough! The information said it needed to stand near a window so it could be vented out like any other air conditioner. While I didn’t have a window in the room, I figured we could cut a hole in the wall of the water heater closet, run the venting tubing through that closet and up and out the vents in the attic.

My sister and I set about making this happen. In the early morning hours, before it got hot, she crawled into the attic with tools in hand and began cutting an opening through the ceiling of the hot water tank closet and pushing a very long length of flexible insulated dryer venting through the hole and then through the new hole we had cut in the wall of the closet. Pulling fifty feet of insulation isn’t an easy task, but we worked hard at the project and got it pulled through and affixed to the wall with metal brackets so it would be stable.

We followed the instructions on the stand alone air conditioner and attached the venting system to the flexible dryer vent and rejoiced when we turned on the unit and it dropped the temperature two degrees, almost immediately. We congratulated ourselves, went into the house and cleaned up and crashed in the family room. We were both very hot and exhausted but feeling good about our accomplishment as we drifted off to a well deserved nap.

A couple of hours later we went out to check our handiwork and were frustrated to find the room hotter than it had been before we began the project with the thermostat on the air conditioner showing 93?. We checked all points on the venting system to make sure nothing had come undone. I turned off the unit and set the fan back in the room; she went home. I thought about it over the weekend and tried to figure out what we could do to solve the problem. I had spent over three hundred dollars on the stand-alone unit that was only adding to the problem. Not only could I not afford that, it was maddening to think about.

After further research I came to the conclusion that the stand alone unit really is only a supplemental unit to be used in an area that already has some air conditioning but not enough. I’m sure it would work very well in that situation, but not in ours. On Monday, I called the company in Texas and told them I was returning the unit only to be answered by a Brian who wasn’t very nice about it and informed me that not only would I have to pay for the shipping back, which I expected, but I would now have to pay for the shipping to me as well since I wasn’t buying another product from them. That turned out to be about one hundred dollars down the drain. An expensive lesson in futility.

We were able to repackage all of the venting materials we used and return them to Home Depot for a refund, accompanied by a smile. At least they were nice about it which reinforces the virtues  of buying locally.

Several years before, I had added insulation to the attic of my home so I called that same company and had them come out to add more insulation, this time to the area above the storage closet in the garage as well as the original garage walls. To do so, they had to drill holes in the walls but I didn’t think that mattered - the idea was to keep the room cool enough to prolong the life of the food. It was an arduous task to remove all of the food, shelves and supporting items from the closet into another part of the garage, cover them with thick plastic to hide the contents from unwarranted eyes. Once the insulation project was done, I had to reverse the process and put everything back into the room.

Even with the added insulation, the room still wasn’t maintaining temperature below 90? on the hottest days. Although this was frustrating, I now knew I had to install a wall unit in the room. I decided the only acceptable thing I could do was to cut a hole in the new wall and put a small, one room, 120 VAC air conditioning unit in. I felt this was a gamble as well, but I now had several thousands of dollars worth of food in the closet and I didn’t want to gamble with losing it and not having food for my family.

Adding the 120 VAC unit was the smartest move of all. While they, too, are designed for windows and to be vented outside, we’ve been able to make this work. The condensation from the unit drains into a small plastic pan I placed on a shelf under the unit on the garage side of the wall. After a period of accumulation I pour that water into an empty recycled bottle, mark it “distilled” and set it aside for my iron. I’ve hung a small clip-on fan on the metal shelves, also on the garage side of the wall, next to the air conditioner. The fan blows across the unit and downward where the hot air is picked up by a larger fan and blown toward the garage door that I keep raised about two inches for circulation. 

All in all, the addition of the closet is amazing. I learned a lot of hard lessons along the way but knowing what I know now, I would have started with additional insulation as the second step in the entire process. The room is maintaining a temperature of 60 to 70? now, depending on how much I run the little air conditioner, which is normally shut off at night. I’m trusting by the end of September I won’t have to run it at all.

The closet has been constructed in such a way that I can completely disguise it by rolling steel shelves that we purchased at Sam’s several years ago in front of it. Those shelves are loaded with my husbands tools, chain saws, porta potty and anything else that is necessary for a normal life. In as little as five minutes, the garage can be made to look like a normal American messy garage where nothing could be found easily. Unless someone is looking for the closet with a metal detector, it would be very difficult to find.

The addition of the food storage room has cost me approximately $500 for building materials; $375 for additional insulation; $150 for wiring; $400 for shelving; $100 for air conditioning; $100 for shipping back the stand alone air conditioner, but the peace of mind is priceless.

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