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Shipping Containers to Survival Bunkers

Editor’s Note – This is a guest post relating the possibilities of using shipping containers for shelters.  Many people are considering property and shelters for bugout locations (BOL) or weekend retreats.  This article can help answer important questions, provide ideas and spare you some painful mistakes as you get started.

Shipping containers have long been used for their native purpose, and that’s transporting goods from point A to point B, being unloaded and repacked, wash, rinse, repeat.  From the containers perspective, it’s a fairly pedestrian life style.  There’s no technology involved, no electronics, and no connection to any specific area.  As the trade imbalance has increased over the years, we’ve seen the volume of surplus used shipping containers in the United States increase; and while it’s possible to reposition empty containers and keep them in circulation, there are times when it’s more cost effective to sell the container into the secondary/retail market and deliver it to a far more noble purpose:  storage, office space, housing, or survival bunkers and storm shelters.  In this article, we’ll focus on providing general tips and ideas for converting a shipping container into a shelter or bunker.

Before you get started, you’ll want to have a good idea of where your container will be located, and how you envision the finished product, both inside and out.  Initially, most people rush into the project with the idea that they’ll buy a container, bury it 10’ underground and cut an escape hatch into one end, and a ventilation system in the other.  Simply put, this isn’t advised.  Assuming that you have your site selected, you’ll need to plan out if the container will be on a foundation, partially sunk into the ground, or fully sunk.  You’ll also need to decide on the type of container to buy, with length and condition being the primary criteria.  Finally, you’ll need to think through how the interior will be configured.

Selecting a Shipping Container

Shipping containers are similar to cars.  New, or one trip, containers are fairly standard in terms of specifications and condition; and used containers can vary greatly.

New, or “one trip”, containers all have fresh paint, high or low locking gear, no defects or damage to the container itself, and most are equipped with a lock box.  Older containers can vary greatly with regards to condition.  Typically, shipping lines and leasing companies retire a container when it reaches 12-15 years old.  Structurally, it may still be sound but it’s being retired because the maintenance costs to keep it certified for international shipping are too high.

Shipping containers are most commonly available in 20’ and 40’ lengths, with 20’ containers being 8’ wide by 8.5’ tall.  40’ containers are also 8’ wide, and can be either 8.5’ or 9.5’ tall (the latter being a high cube container).

First, you’ll need to find out what containers are available in your area.  In some areas, the decision between new and use containers may be made for you based on the available inventory.  A quick search in Google can provide you with local container dealers, or sites like eBay and ContainerAuction.com can give you early price indication and available inventory. The cost difference between new and used containers can vary as much as $1000 depending on condition; however that doesn’t mean that used containers are a better deal, it only means they’re less expensive to purchase.  Used containers may need a fresh coat of paint to act as a water proof sealant, not necessarily for cosmetic purposes.  They may also have dents, dings, and gouges that need to be repaired.  Depending on your skills, available time, and amount of repairs needed, it could make more sense to purchase a new container.

The Containers Exterior and Foundation

Do you plan to drop the container on a foundation on the ground, or bury it either completely or partially?  If you’re plans are to leave the container on the surface it’s well advised that you create some type of foundation to rest the container on.  There are three common types of foundation for shipping containers: wood beams, footings, and a concrete pad.  Wood footings can decay over time, and a concrete pad could be overkill (containers are designed to carry their weight in the corners and center beam), so the best solution in terms of cost and overall effectiveness is to build six concrete footings for the corners and side beams (read about building concrete footings).

If you plan on burying or sinking your container, be very careful with this as the side walls and tops of containers are not designed to carry constant weight or pressure, the sides and top are a shell to protect the items inside of the box.  Dropping a container in a hole and covering it with dirt may work for a little while, but the long term result is likely to be a cave in and having everything inside damaged or destroyed.  The internet is full of ideas on how to reinforce the sides of a buried container, from reinforced concrete walls to reinforcing the interior to support weight.  The idea which we’ve liked the best it using Gabion boxes around the exterior of the container.  Gabion boxes are the wire cages filled with rocks that you normally see along the highway as retaining walls or abutments, or in the early stages of an elaborate landscaping project.  Basically, think of a crab pot filled with stones.  If you’ve got the time to collect stones and fill the box (sounds like a great family weekend and “character building” opportunity!) it can save a lot of money when compare to concrete.  Once the sides are secure, you have a good structure surrounding the container any can either leave the top exposed or with a moderate layer of soil.

The Container Shelter Interior

The interior of the container can be built around your needs.  Of the container shelters that we’ve seen, most all of them have a food pantry, sleeping area, and dining/family space.

Pantries vary in size and range from a fenced off area on one end of the unit, to a framed out closet.  It’s advised to keep food and other supplies in a secure area that’s protected by a lock.  Should someone break into your shelter without your knowledge, your food and supplies are likely to be the first target.

The sleeping area can vary in size based on the number of people which you need to accommodate.  To preserve space, the best solutions we’ve seen are designed similar to a sleeper car in a train.  Fold up beds on the bottom bunk, and fixed bunks on the top.  The top bunk can also be used for storage if they’re not being used.

The dining/family space typically occupies the remaining space.  Given that you may be in the container shelter for a while, this is the area that will help to keep everyone balanced and reduce “cabin fever”.  Board games, reading material, couches/futons, and room to stretch out are the key functions of this area.

As with all components of the design, bathroom options can vary greatly.  The most basic that we’ve seen is similar to a port-a-potty with ventilation through the top of the unit; to full systems with septic tanks built under the container.  Depending on the number of people being housed, and the length of time you’re planning on being inside, the bathroom can vary with your budget and head count.

Items Not Addressed

While we’ve covered many ideas for building a container shelter in this article, there are three important considerations that we didn’t cover, and they are power, and ventilation.  Depending on your budget and planning, power can range from solar to an exterior generator.  There are also several options for ventilation ranging from simple fans with filters, to larger HVAC systems to control the internal climate.

Shipping Container Shelters and Bunkers: Putting it all together

Keeping your family and friends safe and secure in the event of a disaster is the one common denominator in the minds of all preppers.  Building a shelter out of a shipping container is a great way to provide the overall protection for both your family and supplies.  Incorporating some of the design tips that have been outlined in this article can provide you with a secure, discrete space that can contain both people and supplies.

# # #

ContainerAuction.com is a market place for buying shipping containers of all types, all around the world.  The trading platform provides discounted pricing on new and used containers, as well as regular industry news and information.

This article first appeared on Ed That Matters.

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Todd Sepulveda

I'm the owner/editor of Prepper Website, a DAILY preparedness aggregator that links to the best preparedness articles on the internet. I'm also a public school administrator and a pastor. My personal blog is Ed That Matters, where I write about preparedness and from time to time, education. Connect with me on one of my social media outlets below.

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2 comments to Shipping Containers to Survival Bunkers

  • Matthew

    I’m a licensed designer and builder in the State of Michigan.

    Recently, I had a client ask me to construct them a shipping container house. The first problem I saw with this construction type is our State’s 2009 Uniform Energy Code. We’re required to submit energy loss/gain calculations with our building plans for compliance: Ceilings and attics are to be insulated to R-38; Walls require R-17; Floors need to be R-30; Basement walls insulated to R-13; Slabs are R-10 (non-heated) or R-15 (heated). Not to mention the obvious, being that metal is a highly thermally conductive material so material separation and air leakage will be an issue.

    To conform to this code, it seems to me the initial affordability of containers is vastly outweighed by the amount of effort required to make them inhabitable.

    How are problems like this handled when using shipping containers? I have been able to find little help in my research.

    Thanks,

    Matt

    • Todd

      Matt,

      I can only speak for my dad’s build here in TX. We don’t have any restrictions out in the unpopulated country. Or at least, if we do, we are not aware. But we are not using containers as our house. It is out in the country. I’m sure that my Home Owner’s Assoc. would have a fit if I tried to do what my dad is doing out in the country here in the city. ;-)

      I think in your situation, are they wanting it because of costs, or because it is something rare and different?

      Peace,
      Todd

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