Episode-560- Shipping Container Construction – The Good, Bad & Ugly

One of the most popular areas of interest that I consider “beyond the basics” that the audience has asked me about over the years is building with and utilizing shipping containers.   Today a listener we will simply call Mike joins me from the mid western US.  Mike is currently working on a very large multi container project that is 100% under ground.  The project is part of his extensive preps to go off grid if necessary.

Join me today to discuss…

  • Why use the storage containers as a shelter or storage structure?
  • What are some common misconceptions about shipping containers?
  • How to source containers and the average cost per unit?
  • What are the different sizes, grades and options with containers?
  • What are the best attributes about using shipping containers for construction?
  • Can you simply bury the container in the ground?
  • What about a partial burial with the container roof simply “roofed over”?
  • Can you use a container as a basement under a shed or a portion of a home?
  • What kind of weight can a container support and where is it weakest?
  • How do you reinforce the container to handle the weight of dirt if you were to bury it fully?
  • How do you ensure airflow in and underground set up?
  • What about the concern that a buried container would eventually rust through?
  • Are there steps that can be taken to prevent it from rusting out?
  • How do you go about providing drainage?

Resources for Today’s Show

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29 Responses to Episode-560- Shipping Container Construction – The Good, Bad & Ugly

  1. Are you going to possibly post some pictures of the things he was talking about?

  2. Just an armchair theory here but would it be possible to bury it upside down on a footing and then put in a floor? I haven’t looked at these at all but the thought crossed my mind that if the floor is that strong……

  3. Modern Survival

    @Joseph,

    Mike is looking to keep his project confidential. That is why we stayed general with the information. He has put a ton of work and expense to keep this project concealed and off grid, hope you understand.

  4. Modern Survival

    @SteveD, problem there is you take all of the weakness that was only effecting the roof and apply it to the entire structure.

  5. I was thinking if they can stack them six high without the bottom one collapsing then those corners would be the load bearers as in the stack. They would transfer the weight to the footing?

  6. Can’t find any reference to it on the net so probably not possible.

  7. Jack I have some knowledge of this topic as well. For a rust inhibitor you can use coal tar epoxy on the walls/bottom. Sherwin Williams or any Paint brand should have it. Also, I would not use EPDM sheeting underground for the roof…It will break down and in Texas you will get water retension on the roof. There is a lip on these container roofs that naturally hold a little water. Instead use one or two layers of 6 mil or thicker high density polyethylene plastic sheet. It works for earthships and underground monolithic domes and it will work for a buried container. And it’s cheap.

  8. I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but how do these compare with mobile homes? I know that in my neck of the woods you can often find mobiles for free – all you have to do is tow them away. It would seem to me that mobiles are more habitable and more frugal.

    Guess I better listen to the podcast and find out :)

    J

  9. Sorry…I forgot to add that there are many containers showing up at the docks (I live in Houston) that are not Corten steel…they are cheap mild steel since the chinese know most likey it will be a one way trip for them. Therefor, the coal tar epoxy coating is absolutely necessary for burial. If a shipping container is ISO then it “should” be made out of corten.

  10. &SteveD
    I thought about burring it upside down as well since from what I heard the floor is very strong. Seems putting in a new floor on what was the roof would be a whole lot cheeper and easier than reinforcing the roof to support the load.

  11. Just thought I’d throw this in. Although they are located in Kansas, it may provide some ideas.

    http://www.chuckhenry.com/FRAMES/storage.htm

    We have done business with them for above ground storage on the farm and have nothing negative to say.

    Thanks,
    Dave

  12. What would be the best way to make these giant double doors accessible while still keeping it hidden? You obviously don’t want to be digging it up each time you need to use it.

  13. Was it just me or was the volume come and go.. I didn’t listen to the whole podcast cause I got tired of moving the volume up and down. But got a a lot of useful info out of what I did get.. Thanks

  14. Jack,

    Great show.

    I thought it worth mentioning that if you bury one, it would probably be a good idea to bury below the container a sandbag full of zinc connected to the container by a thick copper wire ( a use for those post 1982 pennies). ;)
    The zinc will act as a “sacrificial anode” (see wiki) and greatly help protect the container from corrosion.

  15. Great show Jack..

    Would like to share a couple of youtube videos with everyone about storage containers, might help jump start some good projects.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3EAJex1RVo
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KzWAj_gea7o
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aG13knBVVqY

  16. LiveFreeBrother

    I’d like to know how effective a container is as a defensive shelter if built to its strongest. The steel frame should be able to stop handguns and most rifle bullets, don’t you think Jack? I doubt the weak roof could protect you against a direct mortar strike or the new XM-25 grenade rifle.

    I’ll never be able to afford one of these containers but I sure would like to know the answer as a matter of interest.

  17. I am a geotechnical engineer from the state of Washington. Geotechnical engineering is a branch of civil engineering that concerns the design of earth made structures as well as all structured constructed on or below grade. Essentially we design foundations, damns, retaining walls, ect. Needless to say I found this podcast very interesting given that I spend a good portion of my life designing below grade structures. It was refreshing to hear that someone is doing these things and taking the time to design them appropriately. I truly appreciate the time of both Jack and the guest. However, there was one thing that I heard in this podcast that was very concerning to me. This was the idea of using a shredded tire media as a thin layer of backfill around the containers. My specialty over my career has been in the re-development of closed municipal landfill sites. When developing historic landfills we often utilize light weight fill to offset structural loads on the underlying compressible garbage. One of the light weight media that some people used in the past for this application is shredded tires. However, it is now widely accepted in the geotechnical community that placing shredded tires in a confined space is not advisable due to the tires propensity to self ignite when placed as fill in a confined space. Essentially what happens is the exposed steel belt in the tires oxidize over time and produce heat. When a layer of the tires are confined (in between the container and the soil in this case) this heat will build up until it reaches as level hot enough to ignite the rubber it self. There has been countless number of cases in which buried shredded tires have turned in to extremely hot subterranean fires. If shredded tires were placed around a buried shipping container, as described in this podcast, there is the distinct possibility that over the life to the structure these shredded tires could ignite. This could cause damage to the structure or even worse, death of someone in the structure. There are some precautions that can be taken to mitigate this potential but I would strongly suggest that a layer of 1 to 2 inch rounded rock be used instead of shredded tires.

  18. Modern Survival

    @Donald, would that still be the case if the rubber had all steel removed?

  19. No….If the steel belts are removed completely the remaining rubber is inert and poses no risk of catch fire without another ignition source. However, my experience in this area is that the producers of shredded tire media like to shed the tires down to 12 inch max pieces and do not remove the steel belting. I have talked to a few distributors that will shred to a lower size at an increased cost but I have never found anyone that will remove the steel belts all together. Additionally the smaller the tires are shredded the more surface area of steel that is exposed and hence the larger risk of fire. The removal of the belts constitutes a very labor intensive effort that most large scale producers will not want to undergo. However, I should state that when I am looking for shredded tires for some application I am generally looking to quantities larger that 1000 yards and at a cost per yard that is equivalent to that of conventional fill. This being said it is may be possible to find a small producer that will remove the steel but my gut feeling is that you will be spending much more per yard than for conventional rounded rock. In my area rounded rock can be delivered for around $20 to $25 per yard. I have no doubt that shredded tires with the steal removed will cost substantially more than this delivered. Given the cost along, I don’t see any engineering benefit of going with shredded tires over conventional rock. Now there are a lot of options for use of other light weight fills over the tops of the containers that could be beneficial if deeper embedment was desired. Hope this helps

  20. So what you are saying is that the steel acts as a catalyst.
    Then putting it next to a “steel container”,period, might not be a good idea??

    Here’s an idea I had to use the container as sort of a “garage”.
    If you had the 9′ tall container, the you might be able to use it to store your Bug Out RV/camper. You could keep it in there, protected, ready to hook it up or just pull out when your ready to go.
    If you reverse the process, you can pull into your hidden “Bat Cave” and park your vehicle inside it and just disappear from sight when you get to your Bug Out location.
    Just think about it and the possibilities are endless!

  21. My best suggestion for water proofing, rust protection, protection from bomb blasts, and structural integrity it to Rhino Line the whole thing inside and out.

  22. I am the Mike in Jack’s interview. I want to apologize for the poor audio quality on my end, apparently my house phone wasn’t up to the job. Hopefully it wasn’t too much of an annoyance to everyone.
    As much prep as you do for an interview like this, you always look back and listen to what you said and wish you had a do-over. I want to clarify a couple of things that I honestly figured someone would make a comment on. My load calculations are correct, I left out a couple of important details which made it sound like I was incorrect. The load per foot of earth over a 40′ container would be 32000 pounds. I am using 2 feet of dirt which makes the load 64000 pounds and I am adding in a 50% safety factor which is why I used the 96000 pound number. That has bugged me since I listened to the show and wanted to clarify things.
    I want to thank all of those who have made comments and suggestions so far in response to the show. My choice to use the EDPM material as my waterproofing comes from an engineer who does work for the USAF in construction on military bases. He has used it in green roof construction where he had to irrigate and drain the water from a roof structure as well as protect the building from water damage. Still, if anyone has any evidence that EDPM will break down is used in this way, I would like to see any documentation you can provide on that. We are still a couple months away from that part of my project and of course I want to use the best material for the job.
    I am very interested in Donald’s comments on the use of recycled rubber products. I will definitely touch base with the person who made this recommendation to me and pass on this information to him, it is clear he should clarify what he was recommending for me to use. Thanks
    Donald.
    I wish I could go into more details, I would start a thread in the forum on Jacks site, but my
    name that I registered under would give up my location. Maybe if Jack could do some of his magic and come up with a way to remedy this, I would be glad to share more information on this subject.

  23. I understand your concerns related to keeping you location private…..Therefore if Jack is willing, and more importantly has the time, he is more than welcome to privately pass on my email address to you if you have any questions related to the geotechnical aspect of your project. I would be more than happy to provide general “non-stamped” input if it is helpful to you. Good luck on you construction!
    I would also like to add that I am not of the position that shredded tires can not be used for this application. I just wanted to convey that if they are used there is a risk of combustion and that proper measures should be taken to minimize this risk if there use is deemed advantages to your endeavors. But as I stated….it is still my opinion that rounded rock would serve your purpose with less risk and a lower cost.

  24. Modern Survival

    @Mike, just set up a second forum account under a different handle. Call yourself mikethemetalguy or whatever. Technically this is a TOS violation on the forum but I can let the mod squad know to stand down on checking IPs for your second account. Then you can post away with geographic anonymity. Hell call yourself turkishprepper, LOL.

  25. Modern Survival

    Of course on the blog here you don’t need to log in and can post with any name you like. So instead you can just keep it going here, where it will help the most people over the years that new people will find this episode.

  26. First of all I would like to say that by posting this I am not making recommendations to anyone on the design of below grade structures. I don’t want anyone burring a container, have it collapse and come after me (it is a sad world we live in when I have to say this). I am just providing information on things that people might want to research. One thing that I think that people planning to explore buried structures such as this could benefit in researching is light weight fill applications. In an attempt to keep this as non technical as possible, standard soils can very in unit weight (the weight of one cubic foot of soil) from 100 pounds per cubic foot (pcf) to 150 pcf (more with a lot of rocks in the soil) depending on soil gradation, compaction level and moisture content. As the guest indicated, over a large area this results in some large forces on top of proposed structures. There are several types of non-conventional fill that can be acquired for varying costs and from various sources that can reduce the applied load on top of a structure due to a reduce unit weight of the material. Some of these material include shredded tires (as we talked about have there problems but weights between 22 and 33 pcf), glass cutlet (recycled glass weighing between 70 and 120 pcf), bottom ash (an ash byproduct from combustion related electrical generation weights between 45 and 75 pcf), expanded shale (natural material in some regions of the country weights between 40 to 60 pcf), and volcanic glass (weights between 45 and 60 pcf). There are also the specialty grouts and other products that are manufactured specifically to be light weight; elastizel (a proprietary lightweight grout that can be specified to weight between 20 and 120 pcf), expanded polystyrene (an stirophom product that can be manufactured at various weights as low as 17 pcf (has problems if it comes in contact with petroleum based products also called geofoam). In short there are a lot of different options for placing light weight fill over a structure and capping it with a thin layer of topsoil or equivalent that would result in less load than standard soil. Ultimately these weights are approximate and should be verified by testing on a project specific bases but they get the point across. I would strongly suggest that anyone planning to burry a structure that will be occupied at any time consult an engineer to make sure that their specific project is designed and constructed safely. Given the large loads that we are talking about failure to design a system properly could be catastrophic. As inferred by the guest’s attention to reinforcing in his interview, burring a structure like this is not something to be taken lightly! Countless basement structures have collapse and killed people due to small details that were overlooked by the occupant. In this case…what you don’t know can kill you.

  27. I had the same though as SteveD; I am also an armchair theorician in this case. I am not sure how flipping the container over will change the vertical strength since the side of the box is what is holding it up when you stack it; otherwise, the roof should collapse if the top or bottom of the container were actually doing any weight bearing. The connection between the side and the floor should keep the think standing Kind of like the free standing car ports you can buy(http://www.carportstation.com/Free-Standing-Carport.htm), However, maybe the connection between the floor and the side wall is not actually designed to hold such weight very well if flipped over. Is that the problem?

  28. This guy is in the middle of a large home construction project with these things. Progress documented here: http://www.glennonseacanhome.ca/index.html