Cool It….Build an Ice House

Ice house
Inside ice house

Over at Green Trust, they have been cutting ice and stocking up their friends’ ice house this month, reminding us of this age-old means of all-year-round true refrigeration.

Since the early 1800’s the icehouse has been one of the self-sufficient, non-electric homestead most valuable storage 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 running out water from the slowly melting ice.

Icehouses 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 icehouse before you start gathering the necessary building 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 take an icehouse 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).

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 icehouse. A concrete or, plank floor should then be installed to slant toward a drain cleaner in one corner of the buildings 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.

The outside walls of your big cold storage box can be standard 2 x 4 stud construction covered with board-and-batten or tongue-and-groove siding and a simple shed roof, slanted to the north, is all you need to top the building. Do be sure to frame out a door and ventilate the structure well at its peak under the eaves, however. So much for the house . . . now for the house within.

Build a rectangular framework of 2 x 4’s, 10 to 20 inches (or big enough for a man to walk through) in from each outside wall. Board up this inside box, put a ceiling on it and frame out a door to match the one in the outside wall. Pack the space between the inside and outside walls with sawdust, shavings, tanbark, hay or rock wool and stack a foot or two of insulation on top of the inside room (leaving enough space between the top of the insulation and the roof for air to circulate).

Make the door or doors (one big one may be too heavy and you might prefer to split it in two across the center) as thick as the space between the inner and outer walls and pack it or them with insulation. Add a suitable outside and inside latch and your icehouse is finished.

Install a few shelves (to hold food) along an inner wall, if you desire, and put a one to two-foot-thick layer of sawdust on the floor. Your building is ready for ice!

Some old-timers advise cutting ice off a lake or pond when the surface has frozen only about eight inches thick (because the thinner chunks are easier to handle). Others say to wait until the ice is two feet through. All seem to agree that first-frozen ice (rather than that which has been allowed to thaw and refreeze a number of times) is best . . . and the larger the cake, the slower it melts.

Pick a cold, dry, windy day for your ice cutting (to lessen the chances of your chunks melting and sticking together).

Scrape off the snow and plane any soft, porous ice away from the area of the lake’s surface that you plan to harvest. Mark the hard ice you intend to cut into blocks (two feet by two or three feet is a good size) with a series of grooves about three inches deep . . . and have at it.

The first block should be cut with a handsaw and pulled out or pushed under to get it out of the way. The rest of the chunks can be sheared off with a horse-drawn plow or crosscut saw. Once a long strip of ice has been cut loose, it can be crosssplit into blocks with an ice axe, chisel and crowbar.

Make a ramp or runway from the water to your wagon, truck or sled and pull the blocks right out of the water with tongs or a hook. When you’ve got a load, take it back to the icehouse and start filling the structure.

Put down one layer of ice at a time, pack each block in sawdust and make sure it doesn’t touch its neighbors. Hold the outside blocks eight to twelve inches from the walls and as each tier is finished fill in and around it with sawdust and cover each layer of ice with four to six inches of the ground wood. Repeat until the ice-sawdust is stacked to within a foot of the ceiling (and finished off, of course, with a layer of sawdust).

As you need ice, all you do is go in and get it . . . letting in as little of the warm outside air as possible and always remembering to leave what’s left covered with sawdust. The next winter, when you’re ready to refill the house, haul the old sawdust out to the compost heap or the garden and pack the new ice with fresh ground wood.

The above information came, in part, from HOUSEHOLD DISCOVERIES, by Sidney Morse (1914, The Success Co.), THE SEASONS OF AMERICA PAST, by Eric Sloane (Wilfred Funk, Inc., N.Y.), Mother Jones, 1970 and MECHANIX ILLUSTRATED, October, 1969.

4 Responses

  1. Instead of harvesting ice from a pond, which is time consuming and labor intensive, you could fill milk jugs with water and just leave them outside to freeze.

  2. Icehouses, of course, weren’t built the same way in all parts of the country. After seeing one that was typical of this area and getting some reliable descriptions from an old-timer, I think I have a pretty good picture of how they constructed the buildings around here.

    In this region, icehouses were built so that everything but the roof was underground. A cylindrical hole was dug in the earth, possibly 10 feet deep and 25 feet in diameter in the case of the structure I saw (unfortunately I didn’t measure . . . and I didn’t see the floor, so I don’t know whether it was earth or stone). This hole was walled up around the sides with field stone, Then a rather steep conical roof (with a door) was built over it, so that from the outside all one could see was this top part apparently sitting on the ground. I assume that there was a drain to take care of the melt . . . one could easily have been run out of the building I looked at, since it was located at the beginning of a slope.

    When ice-harvesting time came, one would put a layer of straw on the floor, then a layer of ice a few feet thick . . . and so on in alternating tiers until the “well” was full, or nearly so. Then the ice was covered with straw.

    Why the straw between the layers? Because under pressure ice tends to melt, and then freeze together if there is a slight heat transfer. The owners surely didn’t want the whole business to become one big slid iceberg.

    It immediately struck me that the builders missed a good thing when they failed to insulate the roof. I’ve heard the complaint that such icehouses seldom kept ice until the next winter . . . and since the ground is a fair insulator, I imagine that most of the heat conduction came through that simple pine-shingle covering.

    Mt. Sterling, Ky

  3. Your article on icehouses reminded me of the way we used to make ice up in Lake-of-the-Woods.

    First off, our Minnesota icehouse had its door several feet off the ground, so that you needed a ladder to get in. (Cold air flows down . . . entrances that reach all the way to the ground tend to let out all that good chill.) The building was doublewalled with sawdust as insulation, but I suppose hay, straw or rock wool would do as well.

    To make ice, we used to wait until January when it was good and cold (-20° Fahrenheit). Then we spread a sheet of polyethylene plastic in the bottom and up the sides of the building. Next, we just laid pipe or hose from the lake and pumped in about a foot of water. (Didn’t matter if there were a few small holes in the plastic . . . at 20 below the water froze before it could leak out.) When the ice was good and solid, we laid on another sheet of plastic and pumped in more water . . . and so on until we were within a foot of the building’s top. Finally, we covered the whole frozen mass with 12 inches of sawdust.

    Then, when we needed ice in the summer, we just shoveled aside the sawdust covering and scored the ice with a saw. A few quick blows with an axe and we had our block . . . after which we scooped the insulation back into place.

    The plastic kept the levels of ice from freezing together, and could be peeled off (and saved for reuse the next winter) when we were done with a layer.

    Some very important points to remember about icehouses:

    [1] Ice blocks freeze together even in hot weather. (Just try squeezing two ice cubes against each other and watch them join up.)
    [2] Rainwater ruins ice . . . make double sure your icehouse roof is waterproof or you could have a very hot summer.
    [3] Don’t build an icehouse in the sun! Nuff said.

    Keith Klein
    St. Paul, Minn.

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