How to Build an Ice House

Learn methods for building your own ice house, and how to cut and harvest ice to fill it.

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    Techniques for building ice houses vary depending on your part of the country.
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    First-frozen ice is best for harvesting, rather than ice that has thawed and refrozen.

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Since the early 1800's the ice house has been one of the self-sufficient, non-electric homestead's most valuable buildings. The structure has taken many shapes and forms over the years but all have been calculated to do the same thing: exclude heat and outside air while draining water from the slowly melting ice.

Ice houses are easy to build in a permafrost area: "just" dig a few feet into the continuously frozen ground. In the temperate zone where most of us live, however, it's a somewhat different story. . . although there's nothing complicated about the theory or construction of such a building.

The old-timers in New England sometimes stored their ice in a heavily walled stone structure set into the north side of a hill. Folks in other parts of the country—such as Virginia—more frequently favored a frame building within a building well-insulated with sawdust, wood shavings, hay, bark or (more recently) rock wool. Since the second type of house is probably easier for a duffer to build, we'll consider the frame design more closely.

You'll naturally want to determine how big to make your ice house before you start gathering the necessary materials for its construction . . . and size depends on how much ice you expect to use . . . which, in turn, hinges on the number in your family and their consumption habits. One source states that and average family should pack away between 500 and 700 cubic, feet (10 to 14 tons) of ice a year. That'll take an ice house with inside dimensions of 12 x 12 x 8 or 10 x 14 x 8. Outside dimensions should be at least two feet longer and wider than these figures and—if you keep cows—you'd better double the amount of ice right in front.

Once you've settled on a size for your building, plan to locate the structure near your main house in as shady a spot as possible. Under a tree is good, as is a site on the north side of a hill . . . or you can always build a trellis over the building later and train ivy or other vines to cover the latticework. If you try the latter method, keep the trellis at least a foot from. the building beneath (this creates a space for cool air to circulate).

Building Your Ice House

Your first actual construction step will be the pouring or setting of 6" to 12"-thick footings reaching below the frost line around the base of the proposed ice house. A concrete or, plank floor should then be installed to slant toward a drain in one corner of the building's inner chamber (ice melts faster when it stands in water). The drain—to keep cold air in and warm air out—should be of the "trapped" variety.

Stephen Aberle
5/17/2009 3:49:18 PM

I have read about using sawdust for ice house insulation. Has anyone built an icehouse or ice chest in your basement using styrofoam? That would interest me much more.

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