Keeping Food Cool without Electricity

One of the more serious problems that face us in the aftermath of any disaster is that of losing electricity. We use electric power for so much in life, that getting by without it is more than inconvenient; for some, it can be life-threatening. But if there is anything we can count on in the midst of a disaster, it’s the loss of electrical power. Fortunately, that’s usually for only a few hours or days at the most.

But what if it isn’t? What if we face a serious disaster that destroys the electric grid? There are a number of different ways that such a thing could happen. When and if it does, we’ll have to find other ways to do a lot of things we depend on electricity to do for us today.

One of the more important uses of electricity in the home is for refrigeration. The modern electric refrigerator is an incredibly convenient device, providing us with a quick, easy way to preserve just about any type of food, for either the short-term or the long-term. But without electricity, it’s nothing more than a big insulated box, which will keep our food cold for a day, at best.

Should that happen, we’ll have to go back to depending on methods our ancestors used a few generations or more ago. While not as convenient as electrical refrigeration, they did have ways of keeping food cool, so as to keep it from spoiling.

Going Underground

The first way that our ancestors used to keep food cool was to put it underground. Unless you happen to be near some volcanic activity or hot springs, it is always cooler underground. At least as far back as the Middle Ages, people who could kept their food cold by taking it underground, storing it in caves or a well shaft.

The deeper underground you go, the cooler it gets. I’ve been in underground caves which were down near freezing. But you really don’t have to go all that far underground to find it considerably cooler. Just a few feet can drop the temperature by as much as 40 degrees.

There are underground caves in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico called “cenotes.” Many of these have underground lakes in them. While they vary in depth, none of the ones I’ve seen are more than 50 feet deep, many or no more than 10 feet deep. Yet it will be 50 to 60 degrees down in those caves, while it is over 100 degrees on the surface.

The Root Cellar

The root cellar is nothing more than a man-made cave, dug into the ground to take advantage of this phenomenon. While a natural cave can be used as a root cellar, most have been dug by hand. They are called root cellars, because they are predominantly used for the storage of root vegetables, such as potatoes and carrots. But they can also be used for preserving just about any food that you would keep in a refrigerator.

A simple root cellar can be made by digging a hole in the ground and putting an old refrigerator in it, laying on its back, with the door just above ground level. This is best done in the shade, so that sunlight doesn’t hit it directly. But if you can’t do it in the shade, place something over it (hay or a mattress) to act as extra insulation.

Typically, root cellars have an internal temperature of about 55 degrees. While this isn’t as cold as a modern electric freezer keeps things, it is cold enough to help your food last considerably longer.

Evaporative Cooling

The process of evaporation provides cooling, that’s why our bodies sweat. In order for that sweat to evaporate off of our skin, it has to absorb a considerable amount of heat, which it absorbs from our bodies. This same principle can be used to keep food cool, or even to cool a room.

A simple evaporative cooler can be made by hanging a piece of wet cloth (burlap works great) in an open window. Air moving through the cloth will cause the water to evaporate, cooling both the cloth and the air moving through the fabric. If that fabric is used to cover a metal shelf, rather than hung in a window, it will cool the area inside the shelving unit, functioning as a sort of refrigerator.

The Zeer Pot

The Zeer Pot is a simple refrigerator, which uses this principle to keep food cool. Nobody seems to be sure of the origin of this device, but it is in use throughout large parts of Africa. Simple to make, they are most often used by vendors, selling produce.

To make a Zeer Pot, you need two unglazed (but fired) ceramic pots, one which will fit inside the other. The space between the two pots needs to be filled with clean sand (not containing dirt or clay). Ideally, the top edge of the inner pot should not protrude above the level of the outer one.

For the Zeer Pot to cool, water is poured into the sand between the two pots. This water then soaks through the ceramic (which is why it is important to use unglazed pots). When the water reaches the outer surface of the pot, it will start evaporating, absorbing heat from the pot to do so. This will cool the entire pot, as well as its contents. A wet cloth can be placed over the opening in the pot, to improve cooling.


The other ancient means of cooling is to use ice. In the wintertime, all you have to do is open the door and place food outdoors. Just make sure that it is in containers that animals can’t get into. During the pioneering days of our country, communities would build food cribs, which were open to the air, but covered by bars, to store food in during the wintertime.

But what about the rest of the year? Unless you live in Alaska, you’re not going to have ice available year-round. Our ancestors handled that by cutting ice from lakes and rivers in the wintertime, and storing it in warehouses, called ice houses, for use in the summertime. Anyone who has seen the opening scene of the Disney movie Frozen has seen this.

The best ice houses were underground; but many were built above ground as well. A thick layer of straw would be placed over the ice, to act as insulation and slow the melting process. But the biggest thing that slowed the melting was the huge mass of ice itself. While ice on the outer edges might melt, that which was in the middle would be kept nice and cold.

Blocks of ice were carried by the ice man to homes, for use in their ice boxes, the predecessor to the modern electric refrigerator. A ten pound block of ice could keep the insulated ice box cold for several days.

In a survival situation, it would be possible to use a cave or root cellar as an ice house, storing up ice for use in the warmer months. Your electric refrigerator, which is well-insulated, could then be used as an ice box to keep your food cool.